Soba, a Japanese noodle made of buckwheat, became popular in Japan during the Edo Period (1603-1868) and remains popular to this day. Frequently consumed as a snack or fast food, it can also form a complete meal.
Buckwheat has been cultivated in Japan for centuries, although much of the buckwheat flour used these days is imported from other parts of Asia. It is a hardy crop with a short growing season, so it can be grown in colder climates, poorer soils and on mountainsides. That makes it particularly popular as a crop in Japan’s mountainous northern areas, like Tohoku.
The noodles can be served hot, in a fish and soy sauce-based broth, or cold, on a bamboo tray and then dipped into tsuyu, a similarly-based dipping sauce. Slurping noodles is not mandatory, but it is common and is not considered rude.
In addition to the noodles, the hot version might include vegetables, sansai (wild mountain vegetables) or tempura, while the cold one may come with a bit of wasabi, ground radish or chopped green onion to be added to the dipping sauce. Tenzaru soba (cold soba with tempura on the side) is a particular favorite. Purists will say that the cold version is best because the noodles retain their texture better, but it’s really up to the diner’s taste, isn’t it?
Many restaurants pride themselves on their fresh, hand-made noodles, and will even have their noodlemaker in a glass enclosure visible from the street so passers-by can watch him (it’s nearly always a man) rolling and re-rolling the dough to achieve just the right thickness, and finally hand cutting the noodles. It is mesmerizing entertainment and doubtless entices customers.
On a recent trip to Morioka, I learned a couple of new ways to eat soba at a traditional little restaurant called Chokurian. Both wanko soba and sake soba seem to me to be particularly social meals.
Wanko is a Tohoku dialect word for “little bowl” and wanko soba is soba served in elegant little bowls, with possible condiments of sashimi, nameko mushrooms, salmon roe, in addition to the other condiments mentioned above. Diners are served very small servings of soba in these little bowls and can have as many helpings as they like, eventually signaling they are sated by putting a lid on the last bowl. Needless to say, eating multiple helpings (even small ones) is the sort of thing that leads to competitions—who has eaten the most, or the least, or the fastest? If speed is a factor, the kitchen and the server can be kept particularly busy. The smile on this cook’s face tells me she’s not being over-worked on this day.
Sake soba is…you guessed it…soba served with sake. How does that work, you may ask. We asked the same question, and the proprietress of Chokurian, kindly explained it to us.
This is a cold soba dish, with the soba arranged on two stacked boxes containing bamboo trays with a catchment tray underneath them.
It is served with a small bottle of room temperature sake, a little “salad” of ground daikon radish and simmered nameko mushrooms, and a small plate of condiments for the tsuyu: chopped scallions, fish flakes, ground radish, and ground walnuts. This last item seemed unusual to me, but apparently it’s common in Tohoku. It added delicious depth to the sauce.
According to our hostess, the sake is to be poured over the noodles. It falls through the bamboo tray onto the noodles the next level down and eventually whatever’s left falls to the catchment tray where it waits until you’ve finished eating your noodles. Our hostess also suggested that we eat a bit of noodle before pouring the sake, in order to have a “before and after” experience in terms of how the sake affects the noodles. One could detect a slight difference in the flavor, with the sake-infused version having more depth.
Once you’ve eaten the noodles, you pour the sake from the catchment tray into what’s left of your tsuyu, add a bit of the hot water that’s been provided (water that noodles have been boiled in), and drink it.
Although one doesn’t really feel the effects of the sake, perhaps because there isn’t that much of it, or because it’s consumed integrated into the food, I have to admit that my fellow diners and I were certainly more jovial leaving the restaurant than we were coming in.
Who can say what it is that makes noodles such a popular dish? Certain noodles in various forms appear in the cuisines of many cultures. In the case of soba, there’s an interesting bit of history to keep in mind. In Edo, where people were just a little bit wealthier, the diet was largely based on white rice, exposing a nutritional deficiency—lack of B vitamins—resulting in high incidence of beri beri. It was observed that people who ate soba, which is high in B vitamins, were not as vulnerable to the disease, thus popularizing the dish.
I also recall a story my neighbor told me in my younger days. She had been on a dinner date and on the way home her date insisted on stopping for some soba. She was puzzled. “How can you want to eat soba when we’ve just had a big meal?” Her date responded matter-of-factly (and presumably between slurps): “Because it tastes so good!”