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.
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.
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.
Every year, I dread the onset of winter’s brief days and deep, dark nights. Yet every year I remember that this season brings its own small pleasures: snowball fights; friendships strengthened over hot tea and homemade bread; standing in silence among sun-dappled snowy pines, drinking in the cold, fresh air. Winter gives us time to be alone with our thoughts, to make good on our promises, to seek out small adventures in the seemingly endless days until spring.
In a recent fit of restlessness, solitude beckoned in the form of a trans-alpine journey. One bitterly cold morning in January, I awoke in the dark, dressed in my warmest layers, gulped some green tea, and hopped on a bus toward the mountains. The only things weighing me down were a small backpack and a camera. My destination: Shirakawa-go (白川郷), whose name literally means “white river village.”
I’m not even sure where to begin with this post, because I feel like there’s so much I want to tell you, fellow Shichimians. Suffice it to say that the summer was an absolute whirlwind of work, travel, exploration, and plenty of good eats. I can’t hope to write about all of it in detail, but what follows should give you a good idea of what I’ve been up to and what I’ve been thinking about as my favorite season comes to a close.
Why hello again! Apologies for the silence ‘round here, but a combination of too much traveling, which in turn triggered a nasty flu, has left me without much time or energy to devote to blogging lately. However, I thought I should at least post some photos of the wonderful spring produce available in Japan at this time of year. What follows is a broad, though by no means exhaustive, selection of the sansai available around Matsumoto right now (for more on sansai, see this post from early March).
Although I’m currently back in New York for a brief visit, I’ve been thinking a lot about spring in Japan, particularly what new foods will be available in the markets once I return in April. Even in February, when it was most definitely still winter, it was clear that people’s minds were already turning toward spring. Stores around Matsumoto began introducing sakura (cherry blossom)-flavored goods: a little street stand that sells taiyaki (fish-shaped pancakes surrounding sweet red bean paste) featured a sakura and mochi-filled version, and the local Starbucks was advertising a sakura frappuccino!
Then, in early March, we had a full week of sunny weather, with temperatures reaching 15°C (~60°F) some days – perfect biking weather. As I pedaled around town, I noticed that the mountains had taken on a reddish tinge, due to the appearance of buds on deciduous trees. Many of the local rice paddies had turned a verdant, brilliant green, and some plum blossoms had even begun to peek out.