Eat Craft

Soba kiri, or soba-giri bocho, a Soba cutting knife. 

There are many noodle restaurants near me in the East Village of Manhattan. What is different about Sobakoh is that the noodles are cut by hand. And you can watch them being cut by a master soba maker, Hiromitsu Takahashi.  Japanese food + handcraft = I’m there.

Sobakoh has been making hand cut soba, from organically grown sobakoh (buckwheat flour), since the mid 2000’s. Nozaki’s book on Japanese kitchen knives mentions soba was originaly a kind of fast food in Japan, beginning about 300 years ago. [1] Hand cut soba is called Teuchi-Soba to differentiate it from the machine cut variety.

A special purpose knife is used to cut the soba: a Soka Kiri. Takahashi’s knife, above, is a beautiful example. Note the straightforward contour of the scales as they transition to the blade and graceful curves on the blade. If you look at the two spots of light reflection towards the left of the blade, you can see the secondary bevel where it is sharpened.  The knife is not over finished, or excessively polished in one area or another, but is well integrated, especially with the functional, lightly varnished (?) handle. [2]  I’m becoming more and more a fan of wood handles with little or no finish on them: although they get a dirty, stained or develop a patina quickly, the feel of the uncoated wood provides unparalleled tactile feedback and comfort. Any surface coating changes this, to a degree.  Obviously, different woods feel quite different,  from silky smooth swiss pear wood to a almost rough feeling burl. The handle on this knife knife is similar to a bearded axe; an old form, supposedly dating from the 6th century. This handle position allows a high degree of control of this hefty knife which weighs about two pounds and has a blade length of about 12 inches, since the placement is directly behind the blade. The weight of the knife does most of the work: the soba master places it and slides it downward in a diagonal. Slicing in a diagonal, like a guillotine, lowers the effective cutting angle of the blade, giving a cleaner cut. A clean cut preserves more of the food’s visual integrity and umami.

But as I was inexpertly slurping my soba, occasionally with the noodles slapping up onto my glasses, I wondered if these hand cut soba noodles tasted better because they were hand cut, or if it were due to other factors:  the broth, the fresh buckwheat, the slightly irregular size, the knife used, the cutting board,  etc….  Or is it because I naturally value the work of the hand more than that of a machine.  Was I subscribing to a cultish adulation of  handwork?  What I respect in David Pye’s work is his refusal fetishize handwork. [3]  Pye has a craftsman’s take on the philosophy of handwork that lead him to emphasize the rational, aesthetic and practical advantages over machine production. But Pye also has a great respect for well designed machine craft.  Soetsu Yanagi, who is Pye’s more romantic Japanese craft/philosopher counterpart, has a more dichotomous view, linking machine work – science – the head, in opposition to hand work – religion – the heart. “Moreover, the nature of machine work is such that its products are standardized and thus monotonous and cold, ill-fitted to serve as man’s companions in his daily life.” [4]  Some of the heart, in this case, is reflected in the small variation of noodle width and thickness. Yanagi has an entire chapter on the beauty of irregularity.

Sobakoh – Soba Master

So to return to my question; why does handout soba taste ‘better’ than machine cut, other factors aside? I think it does, although I haven’t done a rigorous, side by side blind taste test.  Is it only the subtle irregularities in size of the noodles (sabi?) that identify them as handmade, and therefore are perceived as better than a machine made noodle?  These variations in size are extremely small. If you watch the video of Takahashi cutting the soba, he works in a highly methodical, almost machinelike manner, moving the wood cutting guide (komaita) a small amount with each precise cut.  His foot positions steady his entire body and notice the way he holds the knife: it is not his arm the guides it downward, but his shoulder and upper torso.  Even his surroundings emphasize his machine like nature. He enclosed in his small soba room, like a motor encased in a machine, on display.  He is the first thing you see from the street as you walk into the restaurant, so you know these noodles are handmade.

Or could it actually be that this physical action of his hand, done with a careful movement by a skilled master who has trained in the tradition of the soba craft, that somehow affects, almost inexplicably, their taste in a way that no machine can replicate? Is this the taste of craft?


[1] Nozaki, Hiromitsu. Japanese Kitchen Knives: Essential Techniques and Recipes (Tokyo, New York and London: Kodanasha, 2009), 131.  There is also a nice closeup showing hand and body position while cutting soba on page 130.

[2] Pye, David. The Nature and Art of Workmanship (Bethel, CT: Cambium Press, 1995), see Chapter 9.

[3] Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship,  23-29.

[4] Yanagi, Soetsu. The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty (Tokyo, New York and London: Kodansha International, 1978), 107.

[5] Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman, 108.

14 Replies to “Eat Craft”

  1. The dangers of romanticizing handwork have long been known. Douglas Cockerell wrote “I am myself a hand-binder and have the greatest possible regard for hand-work directed by the brain, but I have no respect whatever for hand-work merely because it is done by hand… [Thomas Hood’s poem ‘The Song of the Shirt’] should have killed the cant that is talked about ‘real hand-made articles.’ I am expecting some day to be offered a glass of water with the recommendation that it is real and-pumped.”

    But maybe food is different. Calvin Trillin attributed the superlative quality (he said) of Arthur Bryant’s Kansas City barbecued brisket to the momentary touch of Bryant’s counterman’s bare but encrusted thumb as he lifted the meat onto the plate; when the counterman tried to impress a food critic with his sophistication by using tongs instead of just slinging the brisket, the taste was mediocre and the critic went away unimpressed. Handwork, you see.

  2. That reminds me on this: Italian pasta taste better when pressed through bronze holes instead of nylon holes during manufacturing process. Is it perheps the rougher surface? Guten Appetit allerseits.

  3. If I was “in to” tattoos I would be up for getting “I am myself a hand-binder and have the greatest possible regard for hand-work directed by the brain, but I have no respect whatever for hand-work merely because it is done by hand…”
    But as I am in fact a Scottish lady bookbinder of a certain age I’ll give it a miss.

  4. Are there certain characteristics of of intelligent handwork?
    Multiple variations in form or surface details?
    Can Pye’s concept of workmanship-of-risk be recognized in a bookbinding?

  5. Cockerell seems to have been writing mostly about repetition work and large numbers, not jigging and the workmanship of risk. Half a page up the lead-in to my original quote is “In fact, wherever large numbers of any article are wanted exactly alike, the use of machinery for their production is indicated. It makes one weary even to think of binding by hand the hundreds of thousands of copies of a modern ‘best seller’.” About a page later he says “Printing at its best, although entirely mechanical as regards the actual reproduction, may reach a high level of beauty if well-designed type is well arranged, and there is no reason why machine-made binding should not reach an equally high plane if well-designed ornament and lettering is well used on pleasant material; but as even the best printing can never have the individual interest of fine writing, so the machine-made binding in no way compares in interest with a piece of individual hand-work.” (SOME NOTES ON BOOKBINDING, London: Oxford University Press, 1929, p. 6-7). He seems to have esteemed copy-specific differences produced intentionally and for a reason, not the more-or-less random differences of low regulation, and not the struggle to produce highly regulated objects by the workmanship of risk.

    I don’t know that Cockerell was entirely right to dismiss the value of repetition in hand-work. Long stretches of highly repetitive edition work provide admirable training for the muscles, much as singing scales trains the musician’s muscles; and this allows the binder to actively use his brain for planning, not for keeping track of where the tools are and what is happening to the materials. There is a middle ground of numbers, more than one book and less than tens of thousands, where it makes sense to work by hand without rethinking every copy. Also, I know several people who actively enjoy repetition work, with its rhythmic, graceful, relaxing occupation of the body while the mind works or relaxes; hand typesetting or making batch pastepapers or knitting a scarf can produce their own pleasure, at least when they don’t take up the entire day and all one’s energy. The opposition between “hand work” and “machine work” becomes slippery as you get close to it, as David Pye pointed out, and many of the differences imagined by the early Arts and Crafts leaders (Cockerell’s mentors, against whom he was blaspheming) were produced by simple ignorance of which objects were, in their day, made by hand and which were in fact the products of machinery. Weariness and boredom and monotony can be the result of handwork or machine work, of the workmanship of risk or the workmanship of certainty, of high regulation or free workmanship. It is rarely if ever possible to tell, by the examination of one object without context or experience, whether it was made by hand or machine; and does it matter? Surely the object is the important thing? Surely how it was made matters only if it shows in the completed object?

  6. How something ‘shows’ in an object can also be complex. Peter Galbert, a chair maker, has been adding UV dye to observe hide glue squeeze out:
    The results are startling; what appears to be a clean joint is actually covered in traces of hide glue. Although this doesn’t show on the bare wood, it is likely to affect surface treatments.

    Back in the 1980’s, when I was taking pottery classes in college, the (Japanese?) aesthetic of judging the quality of a fired pot by the inside, not by the exterior appearence.

    Sometimes when I am examining or working on a book, it can be hours before I notice a particular mistake, perhaps, that the original binder made or a subtle — to the point of deception — previous restoration. Likely no one else will spend this much time looking at these details, does it really show?

    And possibly what shows in a book is one substantial difference between book binders and book conservators: the former more concerned with the exterior appearance of a particular volume, the latter more with mechanical and physical elements that provide function and mobility?

    But, I beg to differ. I am a book binder, and as much as I have to be concerned with the exterior appearance of the book, as that is what the customer sees, the innermost workings are more important to me. I don’t care if the customer does not understand the book has brilliant mechanics working away in the spine and openings. For some reason, I make a lot of very big books. The K118 binding with the vellum spine is awesome. It is I think much more flexible than the springback. I’m talking about books over the size of 22″ tall and over three inches thick. With big books, everything shows.

  8. The spring back and K-118 are two different animals with different purposes. The spring back is a ledger binding meant to snap open and give support for entering data by hand. The K-118 is less utilitarian and more functionally aesthetic and nuanced. One is utility and one is elegantly tactile (unless you’re an accountant). Both can be appropriate for a large book, but I wouldn’t want to “peruse” a spring back for enjoyment. Maybe for novelty.

  9. With all that is said about the wonderfully made knife this man is using and how beautiful it’s shape, he doesn’t even use it as intended (not using the handle at all). So all the esthetics aside, it’s not how fancy the tool, but how it’s used that matters. If he were using a Samurai sword or cleaver, it would still be the hands that sharpened the tool and guided the tool, not the tool itself, that makes the difference. The binder using the humblest of tools can produce amazing results. Just see what is produced in third world countires with very little.. Let’s not glorify the tools too much…..

  10. After looking closely a the video again, he indeed uses the handle, but not as I thought it would be used, grabbing it with his whole fist. Having confessed I am human, I still stand by the rest I stated above about the use of tools.

  11. This sounds interesting, do you have any images or examples of third world bindings that were produced with humble tools?

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