Imagine this: you’re five years old, visiting a new country and meeting distant relatives who speak little to no English. One evening, they invite you to their modest house outside Copenhagen for dinner. On the table are several small bowls of a mysterious, glistening substance in jewel tones of jet black, blood red, and rusty orange. Each bowl is accompanied by a tiny spoon, which you cautiously use to scoop up a sample of this mysterious substance. Suddenly, a shower of tiny bubbles explodes across your tongue in unison, and rush of sharp salinity overwhelms your palate. It is a peculiarly pleasurable experience – not necessarily delicious, but so novel that you reach for another tiny spoonful. And another. And yet another.
For the past few weeks, I’ve had an uncharacteristically low appetite. Some part of this is no doubt due to Japan’s notorious natsubate (summer fatigue), but I suspect it’s also because I know my time in Japan will soon come to an end. I’ve been here nearly two years now, a short time by most people’s standards, though it feels like an eternity. It has been an eternity, in some ways, considering all I’ve seen, learned, and discovered. Friendships have been made, while others have sadly faded. I’ve changed, too, in ways that may be difficult to comprehend for some of my friends and family back home. Some might wonder why I can’t accept a compliment without immediately waving it off, and others may find my habit of constantly nodding and bowing in conversation bit peculiar. To be sure, these mannerisms will fade with time, but there will be a rough period while I transition to life back in the States.
That’s still a few months away though. For now, I’m doing my best to soak up the remaining Japanese summer, and continuing to cook and eat this cuisine I have grown to love so much. In fact, summer is still very much with us here, much to my delight. Tomatoes, green beans, eggplants, sweet and hot peppers, edamame, cucumbers, peaches, melons, and plums are still in abundance, though some welcome newcomers — Asian pears, figs, baby kabocha squash, and tiny sweet potatoes — have also begun to appear at the market.
Somehow, nearly a month has come and gone since my last post. I realize I’ve been remiss in regaling you with tales of Japan’s culinary delights, but I hope you understand, given the circumstances. After the earthquake, when thousands were subsisting on instant noodles and rice balls, writing about food seemed inappropriate, even impossible. For a few days, I subsisted on simple meals – simmered chicken and kabocha squash, egg salad on toast, rice with pickles – but even these healthy, comforting dishes were difficult to enjoy. Amid the shock and stress, my appetite and will to cook (much less photograph and write about food) simply disappeared.
Thankfully, over the past several weeks my capacity to enjoy the small pleasures of daily life – a picnic with friends, the first whiff of early spring’s bracing breath, a satin blue sky against tufts of sakura – has returned, albeit in fits and starts. When I returned to Japan almost two weeks ago, I found myself craving one thing: soba, particularly Shinshū soba, a rustic variety from Nagano prefecture. Whenever I’m feeling under the weather, both physically and mentally, nothing revives me more than soba, preferably accompanied by plenty of sprightly scallions and sansai (mountain vegetables). It’s nourishment embodied, as sustaining as chicken noodle soup but, to my peculiarly un-American taste buds, infinitely tastier.
Although rice is unarguably the mainstay of the Japanese diet, noodles are just as important to the cuisine, with many people consuming them as often as rice. This is especially true during the summer, when the notoriously humid and stifling weather makes even eating seem like a chore (or so I’ve heard. We’re not quite there yet, but it’s coming…) Indeed, the thought of a steaming hot bowl noodles (or rice) in the middle of July would kill even the heartiest eater’s appetite. Luckily, the Japanese have devised a number of delicious (and healthy) ways to consume noodles when the weather’s warm. These dishes are quick to prepare, requiring little time behind the stove, and they also take almost no effort to eat, a great boon when the dog days of summer are upon us.
The basis of all these dishes is some form of chilled noodle, usually dipped in or lightly dressed with a dashi and soy-based sauce. Many of you have probably heard of zaru soba, but the others may be unfamiliar. Below, a quick run-through of four common Japanese summer noodle dishes.