The Subtle Art of Soba
By the time I reach the hamlet of Uedo, isolated on the horn-shaped Noto Peninsula northwest of Tokyo in central Japan, it is getting dark. This is Ura Nihon, Japan's "back of beyond"—an area so remote that life here still has an old-fashioned, rural feel. A narrow, bumpy road leads from the village towards tree-covered hills; wet grasses brush the side of the car. At last, the road curves to a stop before a low, tile-roofed wooden building, with soft light gleaming through the pale hemp noren curtain at the doorway.
It takes real dedication to reach Sakamoto Ryokan—a ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn—but, then, this is a place built on dedication. Owner-chef Sakamoto Shinichirô pours devotion into every detail of his inn, once a rustic mineral bath visited by the farmers and artisans of Noto. And it shows: It is here that I found the best food I've eaten in 20 years' experience of Japan.
Each dish I have been served at the inn embodies the integrity of Sakamoto's culinary philosophy. He approaches every ingredient with great respect and care, preferring what is harvested close at hand, in its proper season; to this end, he nurtures close relationships with the best local producers.
When I think of Sakamoto's cooking, I remember dishes like his Noto beef, sprinkled with sea salt (dried in a traditional kiln in nearby Nie), then washed with sake and soy sauce and grilled to rare perfection; or his meltingly tender daikon, straight from the inn's kitchen garden, long-simmered with the succulent cheeks and collar of wild buri (yellowtail), until it turns translucent and amber. Unlike many Japanese chefs, who value novelty and rarity above all, Sakamoto is passionate about cooking that is atarimae na—"ordinary" or "a matter of course"—as opposed to kodawari na—"fastidious".
During my two extended stays at Sakamoto's inn (which he runs with the help of his wife, Mihoko, and his mother, Fusako), each successive meal he prepared progressed towards an ultimate simplicity, even austerity. My final lunch on my first visit was reduced to the absolute purity that characterizes his cooking at its most refined: a soup made of nothing but well water, salt, and the head and bones of sea bream; sashimi; and newly harvested rice. But the dish most emblematic of this master's kitchen—and emblematic of the elemental purity of traditional Japanese cuisine—is soba.
Sakamoto's soba—the word means both "buckwheat" and "buckwheat noodles"—resembles nothing that most Americans, and even many Japanese, know by that name. Once a product of poverty, this most basic of dishes—noodles made from newly harvested, freshly milled buckwheat, hand-kneaded with a bit of wheat flour, cut, cooked briefly in boiling water, and served with a simple dipping sauce—has become a luxury. For Sakamoto, soba is a paradigm of food that is assari shita, or "simple"—a quality the Japanese identify as characteristically their own, something they begin to crave as they grow older, after years of lusting after creamy French sauces and Kentucky Fried Chicken. "I think of soba as sashimi," Sakamoto says.
Like so many other essentials of civilization—tea, silk—buckwheat cultivation is thought to have originated in China over 2,000 years ago. Excavations from sites in Japan dating back to at least 300 B.C. have turned up buckwheat pollen, and in the lean year of A.D. 722, Empress Genshô decreed that the grain be grown to stave off famine. (Soba still served this purpose as recently as World War II: With most rice sent to the troops, many farmers sustained themselves on buckwheat.) In the early 1600s, sobakiri, or noodles, became popular as a cheap, quick meal among laborers constructing Edo Castle and the city, now known as Tokyo, that grew up around it.
It wasn't until the late 18th century that this peasant food began to be served with sake in more elegant specialty shops. In the modern-day descendants of these places, at once rustic and refined, connoisseurs now concentrate on the purity of unadorned cold zaru soba, so named for the zaru, or bamboo strainer, on which it is served—and, in a gesture that conserves the essence of the grain, they finish by sipping the hot, nutrient-rich water (sobayu) in which the noodles were cooked.
Because soba is the only starch in the Japanese diet that is traditionally consumed with sake—serving sake with rice is taboo, and it is not usually served with wheat noodles, either—soba shops pride themselves on their selections of the rice wine. (Sakamoto prefers Kubota, a light, somewhat dry and aromatic sake from Niigata.)
What makes good soba? The seed of common buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), soba does not belong to the same family as rice, wheat, and oats, but to the weedy Polygonaceae family—whose members include sorrel and dock. It has the good grace to thrive in poor, dry soil that won't support other grains—particularly in mountainous areas in the east and north of Honshu, where there is a significant difference between
daytime and nighttime temperatures. Ironically, if the soil is too rich, the result is only taller, lusher plants, not more or better grain.