Nagano prefecture is known throughout Japan for its buckwheat, which finds its way into much of the region’s cuisine, from the famed Shinshū soba (more on which here, here, and here) to soba manju (sweet red bean paste wrapped in a thin buckwheat skin) and soba cha, a mellow, caffeine-free tea made from buckwheat kernels. The buckwheat harvest, which takes place in the late fall after October’s rice harvest, is hard and laborious work. Preparing the buckwheat for cooking is no easier: after harvesting, the buckwheat grains are threshed and sorted. Traditionally, stone mills are used to grind the grains into flour. Freshly milled buckwheat flour has the most delicate flavor, and so soba made immediately after the fall harvest is held in high regard.
Readers, I’ve missed you so! Summer has officially passed, and so far all I’ve managed to write about is frozen sweets. Rest assured, my love of vegetables has not waned in the slightest, but I’ve found myself short on time to cook them in new and interesting ways. This recipe, however, is an exception. The inspiration for this dish came by way of a small restaurant in Matsumoto called Dengaku Kiso-ya. Housed in a traditional wooden building just a few paces from the Metoba river, the shop specializes in a simple dish known as dengaku (田楽). At its most basic, dengaku is tōfu or vegetables (usually eggplant) slathered in a sweet miso sauce and broiled until crisp-edged and caramelized.
By now, those of you who know me well (or who read this blog regularly) probably realize that I have a big crush on soba. While some foreigners who live in Japan become obsessed with ramen, ramen, and yet more ramen, I fell hard for soba. Not just any soba, but Shinshū soba (信州そば), which hails from mountainous Nagano prefecture in central Japan. (“Shinshū” refers to Shinano province, Nagano’s former name.) Why soba? It’s not a crowd pleaser like ramen, curry, or other Japanese favorites, perhaps due to its perception as “health food” in the west. While traditionally prepared soba noodles are indeed very healthy (high in protein and fiber, nearly devoid of animal products, and almost always accompanied by some sort of vegetable), this is not why they appeal to me. Rather, I am drawn to the painstaking process and ritual that surrounds their creation, their minimalist presentation, their hand-hewn texture and earthy flavor, and of course the sheer fun of slurping them up.
Ohisashiburi desu ne. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? It feels good to be back, though in some sense I’m not really back but rather away. Pieces of this post were written some time ago, but as usual I let them languish in some dusty corner of my computer for weeks. Then in October I left Japan and embarked on a month-long trip through Germany, Croatia, Slovenia, and now, France. (Next: Iceland.) Rest assured, though: I expect to resume a more normal posting schedule once I return to the States at the end of this month. Until then, here are some snapshots and musings from a very memorable meal.
Picture, for a moment, your favorite neighborhood bar. Not a fancy place, just the kind of establishment you might drop by after work for a beer and a few bites. Now, imagine that it’s run by a tough as nails sushi chef, her semi-professional bowler husband, and their awesome punk rock daughter. It’s an unusual place, especially given that female sushi chefs are a rarity in Japan. But what keeps me coming back is not the novelty but the warmth of the Fujisawa family and their insanely satisfying and comforting food. Moreover, the shop has been around for thirty years, as noted on the noren above (おかげさまで三十数年 – “thank you for thirty years”). They must be doing something right, no?
When you think of Japan, what are the first things that come to mind? Politeness, sushi, Tokyo, temples, cleanliness, Mt. Fuji — yes, all accurate. But what about delicious street food, throngs of revelers, and costumed people singing and dancing in the streets for hours? Not your image of Japan? Let me explain…
It’s true that life in Japan is quite contained, both physically (in offices, trains, and tiny apartments) and psychologically (in a fairly rigid set of customs and hierarchies). In my experience, most raucousness occurs in the guise of office parties or gatherings at karaoke bars and smoky izakayas.
However, this all changes when the weather warms. Summer in Japan is the season of matsuri, or festivals. These can take many forms, from elaborate processions of portable shrines to gorgeous fireworks displays and taiko drumming performances. Sometimes, mountainsides are set on fire, as in Kyoto’s famous Gozan no Okuribi, and boats are hauled over long distances by festival participants, as in Suwa’s amazing O-fune (boat) matsuri. Japanese festivals are lively, ebullient, and often awe-inspiring events. As it happens, they’re also great places to eat.
Steven and I dropped in at Chez Momo this weekend for a bite of breakfast. We don’t do this often, but we should. After all, six hundred yen is a small price to pay for scones this fluffy, coffee this rich. And then, of course, there’s the jam.