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food

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Japan Journal

The Joys of Eating Soba

“Noodle dishes are very popular, as they make a delicious and filling simple meal. It’s all right to make slurping noises while eating them—the extra intake of oxygen is said to add to the taste.”
     —Berlitz-Japanese Phrase Book and Dictionary

“Haiku and soba match the spirit of Tokyo.”
     —Basho (1644-1694)

If there is a time of year when I long for the tastes and smells of my youth it’s around December, amidst the annual onslaught of holidays with my birthday plunged right in the middle. Like most Nikkei, I imagine, I developed an early taste for sashimi, futomaki, tempura, manju, and other delicacies. But. Just like my Japanese middle name, Masaji, I kept the pleasures of these feasts a secret from my school mates whose faces would turn sour at the thought of eating a raw fish.

I’ve always eaten healthy food, but it’s taken me until now to really appreciate the transformative power that food possesses. Other food has the power to transport me to dearly remembered places and times, too; but none so deep, comforting, and perplexing as Japanese food. This intimate connection is almost like a secret code that links me to a history, culture, and spirit to which I too belong. Japanese food has been an important way to understand my Nikkei heritage too.

Since my arrival here in Sendai, my diet has changed radically. The cost and availability of meat, cheese, and cream have virtually eliminated them from my diet, I feel much the better for it. I’m not even tempted by fast food joints like McDonald’s, KFC, or Pizza Hut, truly unfortunate culinary imports that have an insidious way of undermining indigenous cultural palates of people everywhere. Instead, whenever I need a quick, healthy, cheap meal I visit one of the several soba/udon stands. The one I frequent the most is three doors down from the Language Service Centre.

Mitsuko Akagi is a charming lady who usually works on Mondays and Fridays. Her brother-in-law, Fumio Kon, is the owner of the popular stand, which is open 24-hours a day. It was here that I really became initiated into the world of soba. Mrs. Akagi, who speaks remarkably good English (especially since it’s been since high school that she studied the language) has been my mentor and teacher.

When I first arrived in Sendai, I thought tempura soba was the only kind in the universe. Mrs. Akagi picked out my accent, now we speak English. She teaches me about soba and Sendai. It took me some time to gain enough confidence to order something else. Wakame soba was the next type I sampled. The more confident with katakana I became, the more confident I am about ordering other kinds of soba.

I like sansai, curry, and dancing mushroom soba. Some of the names are so poetic I order them for the simple pleasure of saying their names. Unfortunately, my favorite soba dish is not so clearly poetic; some would say, perhaps, it’s even a little repulsive. For me, natto soba (about 280 yen) had become something of a staple. I do not understand how anyone could find these tasty, fermented soy bean anything but delectable. Diehards swear by the health benefits. I like the taste. Natto comes in single serving, styrofoam containers. Use a spoon and stir the sticky, aromatic glob around in order to get all of the goodness out in one mass. Natto is versatile, too. It’s delicious in natto maki, mixed into eggs and made into an omelette, in tempura, or served between bread and nori as a sandwich! Simply writing this makes me salivate. A word of caution is perhaps in order, though. The strong cheese smell and the unusual consistency is not universal in its appeal. People seem to either love or hate natto. Everyone should try it at least once.

Ten zaru soba (Photo by jetalone from Wikipedia.com)

Tempura soba is favored by most customers in Marutomi. The round tempura gets a little soggy for my taste, which Mrs. Akagi kindly calls “a little unusual even for Japan.” Marutomi serves 20 kinds of soba and udon, curry and rice, or kakiage donburi. In a average day they serve 400 bowls of noodles and 200 onigiri with service that is unfailingly friendly and efficient. People’s taste seem to vary with seasons. Zaru soba, served chilled with a steaming broth is perfect winter fare. It beats a greasy Big Mac in any season.

Much is made of the way soba is supposed to be slurped. I confess that I can get a certain pleasure from slurping my noodles. If there are any tips I can pass along to the novice slurper they are: don’t feel self-conscious. This seems to make slurping unnatural. For those who wear glasses, however, do not get too overzealous with the slurping or you’ll have an embarrassing mess. (Those interested in learning more about soba eating etiquette are encouraged to see Tanpopo, a hilarious film about the love in a noodle shop. It’s a Japanese film directed by Itami Juzo)

Soba is made from buckwheat, a fast growing wonder food that’s been eaten in Japan for more than 1,200 years (udon is made from refined wheat). I recently picked up a book—The Book of Soba (Kodansha International) by James Udesky, the first Gaijin soba master. Like many Japanese art forms that appear deceptively simple, it took Mr. Udesky more than a decade of devoted study to master the art of making, preparing, and cooking soba.

The history of buckwheat is fascinating. Botanists believe it originated in China. “Buckwheat” was mentioned in Japanese historical documents in 722. By the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) buckwheat was widely available and eaten as a gruel, porridge, or dumpling, prior to being mixed with flour, allowing the creation of soba.

Soba became widely popular during the rise and development of Edo (1596-1614), modern-day Tokyo, under the new shogun, Ieyasu Tokunaga. It was considered a food for the working class before soba cuisine began to develop around 1789 when a more elevated soba esthetic emerged. In 1860, more than 3,700 soba shops were registered in Tokyo. Today, the number is estimated to be about 7,400.

Needless to say, I enjoy eating in Japan. I take great pleasure in almost everything I eat: fresh strawberry, manju from the stand across from work, sasa kamaboko and zunda mochi—two Sendai delicacies; sampling a fantastic variety of delicious sakes; visiting my favorite kaiten sushi (sushi on a conveyor belt) joint, eating at any number of ramen restaurants, izakayas. You don’t have to worry mom: I’m eating extremely well. But this New Year’s day I will miss the distinctly Nikkei meal of futomaki, teriyaki chicken, tempura, crab salad, and a few dishes from Fong’s.

I have no idea where I’ll be this New Year’s day. Wherever I am I’ll be sure to at least have my mochi with shoyu and sugar and a bottle of fine sake to wash it down. I’ll toast the passing of a year that has brought fantastic changes to my life and hope that 1996 will bring health, happiness, and prosperity to all of my friends, family, and loved ones.

Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu! Happy New Year!

Toshikoshi Soba (Year-End Soba), traditionally eaten in Japan on New Year's Eve (Photo by ぷいぷい from Wikipedia.com)

*This article was originally published in the Nikkei Voice in December-January, 1995-1996.

© 1995 Norm Ibuki

food Japan natto nikkei noodles soba

Sobre esta serie

A collection of Norm Ibuki's writings from 1995 to 2004 about his experiences while living in Sendai, Japan. Originally published in the Nikkei Voice (Toronto) newspaper.