…is Japan’s soul food. Full of history and tradition, these simple but satisfying buckwheat noodles are loved by Japanese people of all ages. Soba is an important part of the Japanese diet, making frequent appearances as classic kamo nanban lunches, warm nameko soba dinners, quick morisoba eats on a train station platform, and even take-out zarusoba packs at convenience stores. Many holidays and celebrations embrace soba as a part of the festivities, and New Years Eve is not complete without a bowl or two of toshikoshi soba to bring in the new year. Soba is rich in amino acids and antioxidants, only one of many reasons for its popularity in Japan. Although I grew up eating soba like most Japanese people, I have to admit that as a child I always preferred udon noodles. It’s only recently that I’ve started to really appreciate the craft, tradition and flavors of soba.
To get a glimpse into the world of soba, I recently took a soba making class with soba master Akila Inouye and soba teacher Sonoko Sakai through their website called mazumizu. Learning about the complexities of soba making and taking on the challenge of trying to make these delicate noodles from scratch gave me a whole new perspective on this food. The bowl of duck and eggplant soba that I had at Sonoko’s house at the end of the class was one of the most delicious and enjoyable bowls of noodles that I have ever tasted. I was ecstatic to hear that they were sharing their passion and their craft with the people of Los Angeles in a 1-week pop-up restaurant event at the Breadbar.
Akila Inouye, the Founder and Master Chef of Tsukiji Soba Academy in Tokyo, Japan, has been teaching soba making for more than 15 years, and has trained many soba artisans who have gone on to open their own restaurants. Sonoko Sakai is a bilingual and bicultural cookbook author and food writer who learned her craft from Akila. Together they brought over 8 suitcases full of ‘shin soba’, the first crop of this year’s Kitawase buckwheat flour from Gunma prefecture in Japan. Organically grown stone-milled buckwheat flour was made into two types of soba for the event, the typical Edo (Tokyo) style Nihachi soba, which uses a blend of 80% buckwheat flour and 20% wheat flour, and Kikouchi, which uses 100% buckwheat flour. Sonoko and Akila, with the help of soba student volunteers, have been working extremely hard to make this rare and special dining event possible, staying up till 4 am with prep work, and making fresh soba all day.
Considering that it was their first pop-up experience and first restaurant venture, I was nervous for them when I saw the long and comprehensive soba menu. Pop-ups often consist of limited menus, offering maybe 10 items at the most, but Akila and Sonoko boldly opened their Soba Pop event with a 16 item menu with different types of dipping sauces and 2 desserts. Perhaps a little too ambitious, but they really wanted to take this opportunity to show Angelenos how wonderful, delicious and diverse soba can be, and they managed to pull it off beautifully.
Sonoko brought out most of the dishes to the table, including an amuse bouche of farmers market vegetables with puffed soba. Purple potatoes, fingerling potatoes and Japanese pumpking kabocha were prepared simply as an amani, slowly cooked with just a small amount of sugar and salt to retain the natural sweetness, flavors and vibrant colors of the vegetables.
No part of the soba making process goes to waste, as seen in the bowl of soba chips. The uneven ends of the folded soba sheets that are left over after cutting were quickly deep fried and salted to make crunchy aromatic chips that made for a great otsumami snack while drinking beer.
Roasted nori seaweed made by a shinise long-standing historical establishment in Japan, that has been making nori for over 300 years, was brought to the US by Akila and Sonoko as part of their 8 suitcase caravan. These pleasantly crisp seaweed wedges, full of ocean aromas and deep flavors, were served with freshly grated wasabi.
I loved the asazuke summer pickles made with Japanese cucumber, turnips and radishes, and the carrots that were pickled in miso. Green yuzu rinds added a sensational level of aroma and freshness to these crisp and refreshing pickles that made me want to reach for a warm bowl of white rice.
Braised donko shiitake mushrooms, carrots, kinusaya snow peas and konnyaku were served as a traditional nishime dish, simmered in soy sauce, mirin, dashi, sugar and sake, and served on age tofu slices. It was such a pleasant surprise to be able to enjoy simple Japanese comfort food at this event. These are the every day dishes that nourish families in every household in Japan.
Cold artisanal tofu, or hiyayakko, was handmade that morning for the event and served with a heap of sliced green onions, bonito flakes, ginger and soy sauce. The soft silky texture and creamy rich soy flavors of this freshly made kinugoshi tofu is something that I wish everybody could experience- it’s completely different from store bought tofu.
Rounding out the appetizer menu were marinated soft boiled eggs, ajitsuke tamago, served in a cold soy-bonito broth, and melt-in-your-mouth Kurobuto pork belly kakuni with carrots and kinusaya peas. For a soba pop-up event, they really went above and beyond in preparing an extensive non-soba menu full of traditional Japanese soul food. Everything was cooked perfectly, preserving the exact flavors of how our mothers and grandmothers used to make them.
We started our soba dinner with the most basic way to eat soba, mori soba, where the Nihachi soba is served on a bamboo basket with cold soy-bonito tsuyu dipping sauce along with grated daikon, scallions and wasabi for garnish. This is the perfect soba dish to enjoy on those hot summer nights with a cold glass of beer. I love the simplicity of mori soba where you can really taste the soba flavors in its most pure state and experience the koshi texture and nodogoshi of how the slippery noodles glide down your throat.
Hanamaki soba was served in a bowl hiyagake style where cold soy-bonito broth was poured over the Nihachi soba and topped with a generous heap of aromatic cut nori seaweed. Wasabi and scallions were served on the side, but we really didn’t need those extra garnishes, as this bowl of soba was perfect on its own. The broth was a katsuo dashi base made with bonito flakes, koikuchi shoyu dark soy sauce, mirin and zarame sugar to give it a round gentle flavor.
In a tribute to the bountiful and scrumptious local Southern Californian vegetables , Akila and Sonoko created a cold vegetable soba dish for their menu, full of fresh Farmers Market vegetables like Japanese cucumbers, asparagus, Japanese pumpkin, heirloom tomatoes, scallions and shiso leaves. Soba granules were sprinkled on top for added texture, homemade pickled new ginger for a little flavor kick and a dollop of toasted saikyo miso for depth and aroma.
One of my favorite sobas of the evening was the cold duck soba for the wonderful caramelized shigure-style ginger duck that I would love to eat everyday on rice, bread, pasta or even salads. Cold tsuyu broth was poured over Nihachi soba and topped with deep fried eggplant, soft boiled egg, scallions, fried tofu, crunchy soba granules, shiso ribbons and chopped asatsuki chives. Full of flavors, colors, textures and so many toppings, this bowl of soba was simply amazing and delectable.
What’s a pop-up event without some unusual and new interpretations on classic dishes? Chicken and eggs are usually served over a bowl of rice as one of Japan’s most quintessential comfort foods, the oyako-don, which literally translates to ‘parent and child donburi’ in a playful twist of ‘which came first?’ Seasoned jidori chicken, soft boiled eggs, asparagus and scallions were served over soba in a hot broth for a comforting bowl of Oyako soba.
Toro toro pork soba with braised pork belly, nameko mushrooms, scallions, wax beans, yellow bean sprouts and mitsuba delivered what it said it would- toro toro pork that melted in my mouth. In the same way that ‘pow’, ‘bam’ and ‘zip’ indicate onomatopoeic expressions of sounds, ‘toro toro’ is a phenomimetic Japanese word to describe how something easily melts like liquid.
In the same way, ‘kari kari’ describes the high pitched crunch and crackle of an object, in this case the crispy gobo fried burdock chips and dried shrimp that were generously topped over a meaty tempura onion ring, deep fried Japanese kabocha pumpkin, and yuzu over Nihachi soba and hot bonito broth.
My favorite soba dish of the evening was the Kikouchi soba, the only soba made from 100% buckwheat flour (all of the others were made with Nihachi soba, an 8:2 blend of buckwheat and wheat flour). Gluten-free kikouchi soba is made with pure buckwheat flour and water only with no binder, making for a delicate and unstable soba that really tests the skills of the maker. Done right, Kikouchi has an intense nutty fragrance and rustic flavor that is unlike anything that you’ve ever tasted before. Due to the extreme difficulty in making Kikouchi, the Soba Pop event at the Breadbar was limited to 10 servings per day. The Kikouchi was indeed intense and full-bodied, going especially well with the ground walnut mori-tsuyu dipping sauce that augmented the nuttiness of the soba flavors.
We finished our extravagant soba pageant with 2 desserts, a plum wine umeshu jelly with blueberries, white currants, Okinawan brown syrup and crunchy soba granules. I brought a large bottle of Choya umeshu for the soba event, as it was BYOB, and this umeshu jelly tasted even better than that. The other dessert was a Dattan soba jelly with blueberries, Okinawan kuromitsu brown syrup and soba granules. Coupled with the soba granules, this savory jelly was like a vast field of beautiful golden wheat farms exploding in my mouth and perfuming my nares.
There are many ‘pop-up’ restaurants and events springing up in all parts of LA, introducing everything from street food to molecular gastronomy based cuisine to fine dining. Soba Pop is an entirely different experience- it truly is a limited-time engagement that cannot be replicated, as Akila and Sonoko use the fresh new shin-soba crop of buckwheat flour from Japan that is only available now. You can’t get delicious Kikouchi and Nihachi soba using shin-soba outside of Japan, and it’s a rare treat to be able to experience these delicate artisanal noodles at our local Breadbar. Soba Pop is only open until Saturday August 28th, so hurry and come experience the wonderful aromas and flavors of real soba from Japan, made by a real Japanese soba artisan.
Log on to Akila and Sonoko’s Mazumizu website to register for their upcoming soba making classes
8718 West 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048
310 205 0124
Random trivia: Did you know that Dattan soba, also called bitter buckwheat, is a super food or sorts, containing 100 times more Rutin than buckwheat flour? It is also believed that Dattan soba contains an element that suppresses the production of melanin, the cause of age-defining freckles, sun spots and skin splotches.