Buckwheat Oyaki (そばおやき)

Nozawana oyaki

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.

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Shinshū Soba

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.

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A Return, and Kusabue Soba

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.

So, after battling jet lag at work for a few days, I hopped on the shinkansen and made my way to Ueda, where I met Steven for lunch at one of his favorite soba shops, Kusabue (草笛).

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A few photos of fall

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It’s been nearly a month since my last post. Truthfully, there hasn’t been much time for contemplation or writing. I’ve been rather busy at work in preparation for an upcoming (i.e.: leaving tomorrow!) trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. Cooking has also taken a backseat, hence the lack of recipe posts lately. Most nights, I resort to simple stir-fries, pastas, and rice bowls. Though delicious, they’re not very blog-worthy. (Nor very photogenic. The fluorescent lighting in my apartment certainly doesn’t help matters.)

But enough excuses. I’m here to write!

Despite the silence, I have been eating well lately. The cooler weather has thankfully brought back my appetite for ramen as well as Korean food. I enjoyed an excellent, extremely garlicky meal of the latter with my friend Saori in Shinokubo (Tokyo’s Koreatown). Matusmoto also has its fair share of Korean shops and eateries, one of which Steven and I tried on a particularly chilly, wet day in October. Two words: soondubu jjigae. With clams. Amazing.

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