Soba so good. A Japanese love story.

Soba with herring at Nagata Ya, Arashiyama 

The start of a beautiful friendship 

Please pardon the corny pun in the headline, but I must admit that I was rather carried away when I wrote it. 

Carried away by my reasonably new found love for soba noodles that is.

Kitchen Garden, Bandra's cold soba salad

This is an affair that started with the cold soba noodles salad with miso dressing & boiled eggs that I tried one evening at Bandra’s Kitchen Garden by Suzette, more than a year back. We added some onion bits and mushroom to it and were both (K & me) blown away by the experience that followed. It has remained a favourite of ours since that evening and we keep going back to it. I love the flavours of the dish and the textural contrasts in it and the fact that it is so very delicious and yet guilt free.

I was not as kicked with the thelawala Chinese-like, hot soba noodles salad that I later once tried at the Bombay Salad Co, which is located in Bandra too. The noodles in it tasted rather viscous, oily and scary to me I am afraid: and the dish had a very unpleasant mouthfeel. The Kitchen Garden soba bowl is more expensive than the Bombay Salad one, but tastes way better. The two dishes  are very different of course. It is not fair to compare them, but I do know what my preference is for.

Bombay Salad Co, hot soba salad

In Soba country 

The next chapter of my soba love story was written when we went to Japan on a holiday earlier this month and where we had a few fresh soba encounters. 

It is from Mr Koichi Kobari, the second generation owner of the restaurant Honmura An, that I learnt that soba (buckwheat in Japanese) noodles was once the mainstay of the people of Tokyo. This, he explained, was because buckwheat doesn’t need much water to grow. There was hardly any rice grown around Tokyo in the past he told me unlike in the coastal belts such as Osaka, where rice was consumed as was udon (thick, wheat based noodles). 

With affluence and modernisation came availability and rice and udon slowly began to dominate the diet of modern Tokyo too it seems and soba lost its prominence.

Duck hot udon soup at Honmura An, Tokyo

Buckwheat (soba) has a lower GI than both rice and wheat. So, not only does it not tax the soil, but nor does it tax your body one could say! 
The story of the popularity of rice and udon in modern day Tokyo, over that of soba of the past, reminded me of the story of millets in India. Millets (jowar, bajra, ragi etc) too can be grown in arid regions & has less GI compared to rice and wheat. Millets are the traditional super foods of India but have been replaced by rice & wheat in many part of India today, just as soba seems to have been elbowed out a bit in Tokyo. 

Thankfully, we are slowly waking up to the wisdom of the past. In India, there has been a movement to bring back millets into our diet. And, at a restaurant called Nagata Ya in Hiroshima, where we had gone to try a dish called the Okonomiyaki, I learnt that many in the new generation of Japan today are choosing soba over the udon which is used traditionally in Hiroshima’s layered version of this dish.

‘For health reasons,’ I asked with a smile. ‘Yes,’ replied the young manager in the restaurant with a wry smile which seemed to say, ‘whatever’. He didn’t seem to approve of the trend. 

To him I reckon, this would be the equivalent of asking for a chicken or vegetarian biryani instead of a mutton one to the khansama in a biryani place in Hyderabad or Lucknow.

You will make the chefs at Nagata Ya smile if you ask for udon over soba
in your okonomiyaki

Unlike millets in India though, soba is still widely consumed in Tokyo,

In fact, though we had the udon there, Honmura An is actually one of the places in Tokyo that specialises in soba noodles. It is located in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills district. We went there thanks to a recommendation by the ever dependable Yukari Sakamoto, my friend and author of the book Food Sake Tokyo, and we really enjoyed our meal there which also starred sliced Miyazaki wagyu, chicken meatballs and kakuni pork. 

The restaurant was started 45 years back by Mr Kobari’s father who is now no more. Kobariwho earlier ran a restaurant under the same name in the US, returned to take over the restaurant after his father passed away. He has blended the Japanese culinary traditions that his father swore by with a more vivacious western style of service that he was exposed to when he was in the US, to ensure that the family business has seamlessly moved with the times. The rest of the staff is not as conversant in English as he is so i would suggest conferring with him on what to order if you go to the restaurant. The menu is in English of course. We spoke to him on the way out. If not, I would have ordered the soba.

Mr Koichi Kobari, second generation owner of Honmaru An 

There is a reason why I chose to have the udon in Honmura that night and not a soba. This was because I was a bit underwhelmed by my previous soba experience in the trip. That was at a tempura place called Tendon Tenya, a popular chain in Tokyo. Etiquette and table manners came in the way of my enjoying as it turned out.

I later realised that the way to eat it soba is to use ones chopsticks to  dip the noodles into a soy based thin dipping sauce and then slurp it up, literally, and with sound effects. 

I, on the other hand, tried to twirl my way through the slippery noodles with my fork and that too with a lot of effort and then took a dainty nibble of the noodles that I managed to fork up to my mouth with all the grace of a trailer truck navigating hairpin bends. 

That doesn’t work though I am afraid. Everything has a meaning in Japan. Even chopsticks!

Flummoxed by my first soba experience in Tokyo. Tempura Tendon Tenyo

Honmura An offers both hot and cold soba, though Mr Kobari told me that cold is what is traditionally preferred. This is when I met him on the way out and chatted with him. The wait staff was not that conversant English and could not answer much. 

This possibly explains why I didn’t like the one at Bombay Salad Co that much. I guess that was a dish that was truly, er, lost in translation.

Soba slurpers at Wiwao

The bowl runneth over 

I found a solution to my soba technique ineptness in the cured herring with soba that I had at a restaurant called Wiwao at Arashiyama in Kyoto. 

The dish is called Hiyashi Nishin. It consists of cold soba noodles, served in a bowl, immersed in a soya broth and topped with a herring which was cured/ cooked in a sweet soy sauce. 

Hiyashi Nishin, Wiwao, Arashiama

The menu card at Wiwao said that the restaurant is particular about sourcing local and season ingredients from around Kyoto and even gave names of the suppliers where their ginger & spring onions comes from.  The buckwheat noodles, chosen  meticulously  as the menu card proudly claimed, was of great quality as one could make out from the texture. The fish was very juicy and was beautifully flavoured and felt comforting and calming in a way. The flavours presented in the bowl were clean and poetic. This was sort of stuff that has made chefs around the world fall in love with Japanese food I guess.

I opted for a fork and didn’t really slurp the noodles which made me a bit of a bull in a soba shop I guess but the rame bowl like format meant that I could enjoy the dish properly. 

This soba set and a side of a mackerel cost us 1,550 yen with ice tea on the house.

Man, did I love the soba at Wiwao or not?!

This dish was one of the highlights of my Japanese food pilgrimage and has remained unforgettable.

Coming home to soba 

The cold soba bowl that I made at home in Mumbai yesterday

Memories of my soba dalliances in Japan came alive yesterday when  I made myself a cold soba bowl back home in Bandra in Mumbai.  

I added finely chopped vegetables (carrot, capsicum & bitter gourd) & nuts (almonds, cashews & walnuts), which  I tossed in a wok for a minute along with some soya sauce, honey,  crushed back pepper and salt.  I then emptied the pan and added a little bit of water to it and boiled it to get a sauce seasoned by the flavours that remained in the pan which I had not washed after moving the vegetables out. I chilled this broth in the fridge. In retrospect I realised that I should make more of the broth next time as the dish is meant to be a bit soupy.

I took out the soba noodles which I had earlier boiled, drained the water and kept in the fridge. I had bought this from a departmental store in Tokyo. 

I put the noodles in a bowl. Topped it with the vegetables and the nuts which were at room temperature by then and then added the sauce. 

I used my fork to eat it. My house, my rules.

It was soooo satisfying. And tasty too!

PS: What’s with the hashtag #LivingWithDiabetes

As you might know, I have recently been diagnosed as being prediabetic and experimenting with low GI ingredients such as soba has been my way of taking this on positively. Do check out this video that I have shot in collaboration with Abbott to know more about this journey that I have embarked upon. 

Do check out this article that I have written for the DailyO too. It is about how our Japan food journey fitted in seamlessly with my new food philosophy. No wonder, I call this a ‘love affair.’

If the soba noodles story interested you then so might this article that I wrote for NDTV Food on the Japanese curry.