The Subtle Art of Soba

Delicate buckwheat noodles exemplify the purity of traditional Japanese food and symbolize a great chef's passion for perfection.

Christopher Hirsheimer

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 Shinichiro 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 Gensho 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.

In order to produce high yields of large, impressive looking buckwheat, producers on vast farms like those in the regions of Hokkaido and Nagano use new, hybrid varieties of the grain. But Sakamoto seeks out common buckwheat, popularly called mukashi soba, "old-fashioned buckwheat", whose small, brown grains may not be commercially attractive, but retain the fragrance, flavor, and glutinous quality he prizes. Like green tea or olive oil, buckwheat grain is easily damaged by high temperatures, light, and moisture. Some producers (including probably all those in North America) not only harvest and thresh their grain mechanically, thus losing some of the ripest grain, but also subject it to an artificial drying process that further impairs its flavor.

Early one morning on my most recent stay at Sakamoto Ryokan, Seto Kunikatsu, a lacquerware artist from nearby Wajima, offers to drive me to some local buckwheat farms, sheltered from the white-capped Sea of Japan by hills cut into hundreds of handkerchief-size, terraced rice paddies. Many regions cultivate two buckwheat harvests, one in spring and one in fall, but on the Noto Peninsula there is only autumn soba, which has the sweetest, longest-lasting flavor. The industrial revolution has been gradual here: Farmers tend to use only small combines and threshing machines to ease their labor. But Sakamoto's search for high-quality ingredients encourages more traditional practices, creating a market for small quantities of better, though labor-intensive, grain.

"We've heard that Sakamoto's soba is especially delicious," says Ana Tsugi, who is helping her husband, Chozo, thresh their buckwheat by hand, in a field near the hamlet of Ôno. His gentle face furrowed with the effort, he grasps two dry bundles of buckwheat and beats them against the side of an upended, weathered wooden mortar. The grains patter onto a tarpaulin at his feet.

The Anas' work is little more than subsistence farming—enough rice to eat, a few vegetables, some soybeans from which they make miso. They planted soba on a tiny plot—about 10 by 30 feet—after gathering their summer pumpkins. A typhoon in late September flattened nearly everything, but the soba survived. This is the first year they will have enough to sell. Their entire crop—about four gallons dry measure—will go to Sakamoto.

Next we visit Tabinuki Asano, whose farm is just a few kilometers from the inn, through hills dotted with the silvery plumes of pampas grass. She and her husband have harvested, threshed, and dried their buckwheat, and now Asano kneels on the floor to laboriously sieve and resieve the grain, removing any leaves and unripe kernels. It is the Tabinukis' fully mature grain—small, dark brown, with three gently convex sides—that is ready to be made into the season's first feast of new soba. Sakamoto has invited them to the inn that night to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

At the inn, there is still much hard work to be done before dinner. Sakamoto's mother, Fusako, who is in her seventies, takes charge of the day's milling, which is done a couple of times a week in a large shed near the inn. "I'm impatient," she concedes, as she cleans and polishes the grain. "My son would spend twice as much time on this part." Then she pours the soba into the grinder. Only soba makers who mill their own flour, like the Sakamotos, use the ipponbiki (single grind) method: Whole grain is ground, sifted, ground, sifted, and ground, gradually removing as much of the hull as possible, and combining almost all of the resulting flours. After about two hours, her work has produced a pile of coarse husks to fertilize the kitchen garden; a tasteless dusting flour called uchiko; siftings to feed the inn's chickens; and a modest heap of silky, pale brown flour for the noodles.

In the kitchen, his face set in concentration, Sakamoto prepares the noodles on a thick wooden cutting board. He breaks eggs gathered from his soba-fed hens into a measuring cup and adds cold water, then sifts buckwheat flour and hard wheat flour into a bowl in a four-to-one ratio, mixing them thoroughly with his fingers, in the traditional way. Gradually adding the liquid, he pulls and rubs the dough into a ball, then turns it out on the board. With tremendous energy and focus, he kneads, rolls, and cuts it, the slow chonk-chonk of his knife as rhythmic as the sound of a hand loom. This is more than technique. As he works, laying the noodles gently in floured boxes, I realize that, like the Zen approach to menial tasks, Sakamoto's cooking is a form of meditation.

To celebrate the season's first soba, the Tabinukis arrive that evening at the inn from their farm and wait shyly with me in the dining room, its shoji screens and gleaming dark lacquer as simple and deliberate as Sakamoto's food. In the kitchen, Fusako boils the noodles for less than a minute, just two servings at a time—all the inn's pot will hold. The soba arrives on the table glistening on round zaru, topped with a dab of freshly grated wasabi on a delicate Japanese maple leaf. If not devoured instantly, the flavor fades—so we eat in relays. The noodles are perfect: lustrous and resilient, with the fresh, nutty flavor and green fragrance of fresh buckwheat, and a slightly grainy feel on the tongue.

After the first course, the feast continues. Slices of rich, unctuous mackerel marinated in rice vinegar are followed by saury pike sprinkled with Nie sea salt and grilled on skewers stuck in the ashes of the big square hearth set in the floor. Then comes yosedofu, a custardy bean curd made of nothing but local soybeans (a rarity in an age when nearly all the soybeans eaten in Japan are imported from the United States) and fresh seawater, spiked with grated ginger. We finish the meal with newly harvested white Noto rice.

On my last day at the inn, we have one of those pure and elemental meals at which Sakamoto excels. The centerpiece of the meal is gojiru, a traditional Noto soup made of fresh soybeans, smashed and ground in a stoneware mortar, then whipped furiously until they become a souffle-like foam. This is heated with delicate, silky shimeji mushrooms and spooned into oversize lacquer bowls.

After everyone else has gone to bed, Sakamoto and I talk late into the night, poking at the whitening embers in the hearth. Sakamoto describes his ideal lacquer bowl—"a bowl I could use for 10 or 20 years, and it would still be strong and beautiful." Then he adds, "That's the kind of food I want to make."

He tells me of the monthly celebrations held at nearby Pure Land Buddhist temples, in honor of their patron saint, Shinran. After the service, the congregation is responsible for providing a feast. This food is very basic—root vegetables, bean curd, rice. The point of the meal is "to receive it with gratitude," according to Sakamoto. This, I think, is exactly the feeling he inspires in his guests.

Reflecting on the near-perfect inn he has created, Sakamoto acknowledges that he has almost reached his goal. "What should I do?" he asks, sounding genuinely uncertain. "Set a higher goal?"