Kikouchi soba workshop

Soba noodles are a daily staple in the Japanese diet, eaten at all times of the day and night, hot and cold.  Convenience stores stock dried instant soba noodles, and supermarkets sell machine made versions, but there is nothing that will ever come close to artisanal soba made by experienced hands.  It takes years of apprenticeship and many more of professional experience to master the art of soba making.  When one is in the presence of a crafted plate of handmade soba, demonstrating a light delicate flavor, with refined texture and a sweet buckwheat aroma, it renders the diner incapable of doing anything other than fervently slurping away.

Wanting to learn more about this Japanese soul food that I grew up on, last year I took a soba making class with Akila Inouye, Master Chef and Founder of the Tsukiji Soba Academy and Sonoko Sakai, Japanese cookbook author and food writer.  A beginning introduction class teaching the classic Nihachi soba barely grazed the surface of this Japanese tradition.  With only 2 ingredients- flour and water- soba making proved to be much more difficult than I had imagined, and a testimony to soba artisans who for many years have practiced precision, technique and finesse.  Shortly after I took the class through their mazumizu website, I got to taste a variety of soba preparations at their week long soba pop-up restaurant last summer.  It was here that I got inspired to take another class with them to learn Kikouchi soba making, made with 100% buckwheat flour using shin-soba, the first crop of buckwheat from Kitawase in Japan’s Gunma prefecture.

Mazumizu, the name of their website, means ‘first, water (and everything else will follow)’, reflecting the principle of simplicity and fluidity in soba making.  As usual, classes were conducted at Sonoko’s beautiful home in Los Angeles, and for my second round of soba classes I recruited my buddy Chef Ludo Lefebvre to join along with me.

Master artisan Akila went through a step by step demonstration on how to make these delicate gluten-free buckwheat noodles, while describing the history and culture of soba.  Unlike the classic Nihachi soba which uses an 8:2 ratio of buckwheat to wheat flour, 100% buckwheat Kikouchi soba is more fragile and difficult to make.  After sifting the flour using a special Japanese fine sieve, add a carefully measured portion of water, about 40% of the total weight of flour.  Minor adjustments must be made depending on the humidity and temperature of that day, which comes with experience.

Once water is added to the sifted flour, use your hands to gently yet swiftly mix it up in a rotating motion.  Once the mixture is moist yet crumbly, gather it all to one side and gently compress it into a solid oblong roll.  Then repeat the process of folding and kneading using the heel of your palms as you lean forward into the bowl with feet shoulder width apart to apply gentle yet firm and slow pressure.  After reaching the desired texture, shape the dough into a ball and using your palm, flatten the ball into a disc.

Using a rolling pin, flatten the dough in diagonal directions until the dough is evenly 1.5 mm thick and rectangular shaped.  Fold the dough in four, sprinkling a generous amount of uchiko flour for dusting in between to prevent sticking.

If you can get to this stage without making holes in the thinly rolled out dough, the real challenge comes in the cutting.  Using a special soba kiri cleaver that has a long and perfectly straight and even edge, cut the soba in even 1.3mm widths in a relaxed posture.

Rhythmic clicks of the knife hitting the cutting board, if done right, sound like horses galloping in the distance, and only experience can yield perfectly even thin long strands of buckwheat soba.

The grand finale of dusting off freshly cut bunches of soba gives a huge sense of accomplishment and peace…

…and the delicate strands of soba are laid to rest in a lacquer box until it is time to boil and serve.

After the demonstration, it came time for the students to get their hands dirty, and it wasn’t until then that everybody realized that Akila only made it look easy.  Given the small class size, every student got one-on-one attention and guidance from both Akila and Sonoko.  We measured, we mixed, we kneaded, we molded, we pressed, we rolled and cut, cut, cut.

Chef Ludo was a natural, and only required guidance when it came time for cutting.  Cutting soba with the soba cleaver is a completely different skill requiring different body muscles and pressure distribution, but he got used to it fairly quickly and within minutes presented a beautiful sample of thick hearty inaka-style (country style) soba.

Second time around was a little easier for me, but getting every strand of soba to be exactly the same width is nearly impossible.

No part of the soba making process goes to waste, and as we finished up our soba workshop, Akila emerged from the kitchen with a batch of freshly fried soba chips.  The uneven ends of folded soba sheets that are left over after cutting were deep fried and salted to make crunchy aromatic chips that made for a great otsumami snack.

Sonoko made kabocha amani, slowly cooked Japanese pumpkin with just a small amount of sugar and salt to retain the natural sweetness, flavors and vibrant colors of the vegetables.

For lunch, the soba teachers also boiled a batch of Kikouchi soba that they made, served with homemade bonito based dipping sauce, chopped scallions and wasabi.  The delicate pure buckwheat flour noodles had a faint nutty fragrance and a wholesome rustic flavor with just the right amount of elasticity and chewiness, or koshi.

Freshly grated wasabi from Japan was mild and flavorful.

As we enjoyed a light, nutritious and delicious Kikouchi soba lunch together under the warm Los Angeles sun in Sonoko’s courtyard, we all chatted about the little blunders that we made during our soba making, and how we’re going to enjoy our homemade soba for dinner that evening.  A little swig of cold sake from a small distillery in Japan helped the conversation roll along on this lazy Sunday morning where we learned the beauty and allure of a delicious centuries old culinary tradition.

Mazumizu

Keep checking back with the mazumizu website for upcoming soba events and classes by Akila Inouye and Sonoko Sakai.

***March 15,2011 soba event: Akila Inouye and Sonoko Sakai will be doing a soba demonstration in conjunction with Chef Jonathan Sundstrom from Lark restaurant in Seattle at Surfas Cafe LA.  They will be showing classic and modern interpretations of soba for local chefs.  The event is FREE for all chefs and people in the food and beverage industry, but space is limited!  Click HERE for a link to the event. 

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12 sensational dishes of 2010

The food and beverage industry in Los Angeles saw its share of culinary trends in 2010, from pop-up restaurants, a return to good butchery, local sourcing of food (locavorism), Asian comfort food, a celebration of bacon, mezcal cocktails, house-made charcuterie, head-to-head competition on TV shows, good old fried chicken, snout to tail diningwholesome pies in lieu of cupcakes, celebrity chefs opening up shop in tinseltown, and food and restaurant wars.  It was a busy but fruitful year for me, navigating through these food trends and traveling around the world in search of delicious nibbles.

Through it all, there were 12 dishes that left a strong impression on both my palate and my heart.  I had many delicious dishes this year, but these 12 dishes that I selected had something else that made it truly special.  Food is an expression of a chef’s love and an extension of a chef’s soul.  When a chef cooks from the heart with genuine care and intention, that essence comes through in his or her food, and speaks directly to the diner.  Through personal interactions with these special chefs, I was able to taste, smell and see the beauty of their creations with a higher level of respect and understanding.  Behind each dish was a talented chef with a radiant smile that I will never forget.

Deep fried fugu- Chef Kenzo Sato, Shigeyoshi (Tokyo, Japan)

Despite its 2 Michelin star status, there is no pretentiousness or attitude at this humble 39-year old restaurant in Tokyo.  I have been coming here every year for the last 6 years, of course looking forward to the meticulously prepared food, but more eager to see Chef Kenzo Sato’s lovely smile.  His warm hearty laugh and funny stories are the finishing spices to each delicate dish that is prepared in front of me in the open kitchen.  There is a special comfort and security in coming here, for he knows my likes and dislikes, and prepares a sensational omakase meal according to my palate.  I never have to order or remind him of what I want- it is already understood, and the highlight of each experience comes in my favorite dish at Shigeyoshi, the deep fried puffer fish dish, which he saves for me.  It goes without saying that it requires a special license and tremendous skill in preparing the poisonous puffer fish, but it takes special love and thought to prepare this simple but comforting dish of fugu.  The best pieces are from the head, with thick wedges of white tender meat juxtaposed against gelatinous jiggles of fat fugu lips.  Chef Sato smiles as he watches me attack this dish, waiting to resume conversation until I am done licking my fingers clean.

Sea urchin tostada with pismo clams- Sabina Bandera Gonzalez, La Guerrerense (Ensenada, Mexico)

To this day, that life-changing satisfying bite into the crunchy tostada generously topped with sea urchin, heaps of freshly shucked pismo clams, avocado and home-made ‘Chilito Exotico’ salsa, haunts me.  My body craves it, my mind obsesses about it, my dreams are dominated by it.  Matriarch Sabina Gonzalez, who has been operating out of a small food cart on the street corner of Ensenada in Baja Mexico for more than 30 years, creates each tostada to order, smothering it with fresh offerings from the local Baja waters and topping it with motherly love.  It’s a family affair, and her daughter comes down from San Diego on the weekends to shuck clams and oysters as the master cocktailer.  Each bite releases a splash of ocean breeze inside my mouth before the distinct savory spices of the pineapple salsa kicks in.  This is pure Baja, and it doesn’t get any better than this tostada, followed by a big hug, both from Sabina.

Octopus carpaccio with nopales- Chef Javier Plascencia, Cebicheria Erizo (Tijuana, Mexico)

Photo of Javier Plascencia courtesy of Barbara Hansen, of Table Conversation

It wasn’t just the fun geometric shapes or the vibrant color palettes in this octopus carpaccio that won my heart, but the innovative concept of compressing octopus legs into round sausages and slicing them thin to reveal wheel-like cross sections that impressed me in the cebiche themed restaurant of accomplished Tijuana chef Javier Plascencia.  The gelatin coating around the octopus legs acted as a natural food glue to keep the circles together.  The tender octopus slices in ponzu sauce were given a unique Baja twist with the contrast of buttery avocados and crunchy, slimy nopales.  A refined and beautiful dish with unforgettable textures and delicious flavors is sure to be an industry secret, I thought, but I was struck by Chef Javier Plascencia’s openness about sharing his secrets.  ‘Shoot me an email and I’ll send you my recipe’, he told me, ‘and let me know when you come down to Tijuana, I’ll make sure to be there for you’.  Really?  The amazing thing about this incredibly handsome and kind chef is that he actually means every word that he says.  And with 7 amazing restaurants under his belt and a highly successful run at Test Kitchen where his fig leaf wrapped short rib dish was deemed one of the best dishes of the year by Jonathan Gold, he still maintains the same level of approachability and humility.

Chocolate, cassis, vanilla and passion fruit macarons- Thomas Haas, Thomas Haas Patisserie (Vancouver, Canada)

As a fourth generation German Konditormeister, or Master Pastry Chef, Thomas Haas was genetically destined to become a sensation in the pastry world, and his talent is evident in every tasty morsel of chocolate ganache and chewy caramel.  At his namesake patisserie in Vancouver, he creates a peaceful haven of sweets where one can enjoy a warm cup of herbal tea with sandwiches, tarts, cakes and chocolates while shopping for hot chocolates and cookies.  I went in for his famous chocolates, but was swept off my feet by the perfection of his macarons, especially the passion fruit macaron.  A perfect crunchy outer shell that gives way to a soft moist merengue, leading right into the flavorful center filling- the textures and flavors were spot on in these delicate little bundles of joy.  Despite being a world-renowned patissier and busy restaurateur, Thomas Haas was behind the counter, packaging chocolates to order, working the cash register, giving advice to customers and even cleaning tables.  I had met him the night before at a restaurant in Vancouver, and he welcomed me with a bright smile to his patisserie, bringing over these wonderful macarons with a pot of tea to my table.  With such a hands-on approach to running his patisserie, I knew that he personally made these macarons by hand, which made them taste even better.

Scrambled eggs with black truffle- Chef Haru Kishi, my house (Los Angeles)

How do you honor an aromatic, majestic piece of black truffle?  Leave it to talented Chef Haru Kishi, formerly at the Gordon Ramsay restaurant in West Hollywood, and now executive chef of Chaya Brasserie.  Perfectly cooked scrambled eggs, patiently prepared at low temperatures, made fluffier with soft boiled egg whites passed through a fine sieve, spooned over a bed of asparagus and bacon, and garnished with dramatic shavings of black truffle that release its pungent aromas with each passing across the sharp blade of a truffle slicer.  The delicate crunch of asparagus, the smokiness of bacon, the soft pillowy texture of warm fluffy eggs, the final strong hit of truffle essence that spreads inside my mouth and permeates up into my nares- a decadent, rich and unforgettable experience worthy of a final meal.  Life is perfect at that moment, and nothing else matters. Everything that this talented chef makes is amazing, and I have personally seen the tremendous amount of thought that he puts into his work.  As a close friend, it makes me happy to see him blossom through his various struggles and finally come into his element at Chaya Brasserie, a most fitting location for his Japanese and French background.

Venison tenderloin tartare, macadamia nuts, beet chips, wasabi cream, lavender- Chef Marcel Vigneron, Venison dinner ( Los Angeles)

Marcel Vigneron has become a household name since he became famous on Top Chef season 2, and currently on Top Chef All-Stars.  Although he has gained a reputation as the Top Chef villain, in real life he is quite the opposite.  Personable, thoughtful, kind and extremely fun to hang out with, he is one of the most hard working chefs in Los Angeles.  He’s obviously talented and gifted with charisma, but behind the scenes he puts in just as much thought and hours into each beautiful and innovative creation.  One such plate that I still think back to is the venison tenderloin tartare with macadamia nuts, capers, pickled cipollini onions, beet root brunoise and walnut oil.  The venison was prepared perfectly with a fine balance of acidity and flavor.  Scooped onto a crispy red beet chip with a smear of wasabi cream and a hint of lavender aroma wafting from the board, this delectable dish transported me to venison heaven at a private dinner party at Terroni restaurant.  Spending the entire day with the chef, from shopping at the farmers market to prepping in his kitchen, I was able to see an inspiration evolve into an idea, an idea into a sketch, and a sketch finally culminate in the most breathtaking dish.

Kikouchi soba- Soba artisans Akila Inouye and Sonoko Sakai, Soba Pop at the Breadbar (Los Angeles)

Buckwheat flour and water- there are only 2 simple ingredients in making Kikouchi soba, making it that much more of a complex dish.  Soba master Akila Inouye and soba artisan Sonoko Sakai have been working hard all year to spread the culture of soba in Los Angeles.  Many trips to Japan, many suitcases of freshly milled Japanese buckwheat flour, many soba classes in Sonoko’s house and many long hours of preparation for their pop-up soba event at the Breadbar, all in the name of wanting Angelenos to understand the culture of Japanese soba.  Soba is Japan’s soul food, full of tradition and sacred history.  Thanks to these dedicated soba artisans, I was able to have a taste of home and a moment of peace as I dipped these delicate buckwheat noodles into their homemade bonito broth and happily slurped away.

Potato mousseline, poached egg, chorizo crumble- Chef Ludovic Lefebvre, LudoBites 5.0 (Los Angeles)

Chef Ludo needs no introduction- he took command of the Los Angeles culinary scene with his sensational and popular pop-up events, LudoBites 4.0, 5.0 and 6.0 in 2010.  Every dish was whimsical, colorful, flavorful and creative, delighting diners with his ever changing menu ideas.  There were many favorites, but the stand-out dish for me was the silky potato mousseline over a perfectly poached egg, bursting with warm yellow yolk that melted right into the fatty chorizo crumble.  Every bite made me want more and more.  I wanted to share this wonderful dish with my friends, but I also didn’t want to share this wonderful dish with my friends.  What was I to do?  Order another round, of course, which I did at every visit to LudoBites 5.0, my favorite of the 3 this year.  Ludo’s talent and success got much deserved praise from critics on both coasts, but there were always people who wanted to criticize, scrutinize, dissect and rip him apart.  People love to hate this handsome charismatic chef, but what they don’t know is that behind each artistic and poetic dish was a lot of blood, sweat and tears- literally.  Despite a debilitating medical condition that would normally deem a person completely disabled and incapable of working, Ludo fought hard through each day of LudoBites to cook for his dedicated fans.  He gritted his teeth to endure relentless pain and gave his best smile for at least 20 photos a night, but I could see the pain in his eyes. Dedication and hard work never meant more to me than at LudoBites this year, and for that, hats off to this amazing chef.

Quinoa crème brûlée, purple corn- Chef Ricardo Zarate, Mo-Chica (Los Angeles)

Mo-Chica and its star chef Ricardo Zarate are now on Los Angeles’ Best of list, and in the next few months we will be seeing the opening of Mo-Chica’s new downtown location and Zarate’s new anticuchos restaurant Picca, but he almost never made it this far.  In the first year of business, Mo-Chica nearly went under.  People didn’t think to try this new restaurant that was serving lamb shanks and arroz con pollo for close to $10 a plate, when adjacent taco stands in the Mercado la Paloma food court were offering $3 plates.  Zarate had a vision, and he didn’t want to compromise on quality or preparation.  He knew that some day, people would understand his food and how good it was.  Almost a year went by, and he was paying out of his own pocket to sustain the business.  Finally, food critics caught wind of this amazing Peruvian chef, and just like that, the news spread like wild fire and Zarate was well on his way to recognition.  His food is fantastic, each bursting with vibrant flavors, with a delicate sensitivity that reflects his training in Japanese cuisine.  The regular menu is solid, but every last Thursday of the month he offers a 6 course tasting menu for $30, possibly the best deal in the country.  I have had grilled octopus with cilantro pesto on a bed of aji mashed potato, mackerel tempura on seabass ceviche, and braised short ribs to satisfy even the most stern critic, all memorable and stellar.  However, it was a quinoa and purple corn crème brûlée on one such tasting dinner that made me gasp with delight.  Not too sweet, perfectly creamy, with a beautiful deep purple hue, and most of all a surprisingly delicious way to enjoy quinoa. ‘I was supposed to use kiwicha, but I didn’t have any, so I substituted quinoa at the last minute.  I hope it’s still good?’, the ever so humble, honest and kind chef told me.  Even such accidents, under Zarate’s spell, become a delicious miracle.

Cabrit, goat meat fricassee- Chef TiGeorges, Test Kitchen (Los Angeles)

In the wake of the devastating earthquake that shook Haiti in January, no dish tasted more soulful than the goat meat fricassee that Haitian chef Georges LaGuerre, affectionately known as TiGeorges, cooked for his Test Kitchen dinner.  TiGeorges himself lost his restaurant to a fire while working hard to raise earthquake relief funds, and this Test Kitchen dinner was the first time that he was able to cook for Angelenos again.  Goat meat was baked with key lime, boiled in vinegar, then grilled over a fire and served with a sauce of key lime juice, olive oil and habanero chiles.  The long process of cooking the meat resulted in an incredibly tender juicy plate of meat that fell effortlessly off the bones.  Haiti is a beautiful country that has endured years of foreign occupation, slavery, poverty, corruption and now one of the worst natural disasters that the modern world has ever encountered.  This cabrit dish represented Haitian pride, strength and soul, just like its talented chef TiGeorges.

Winter grain porridge- Chef Dominique Crenn, Atelier Crenn preview Test Kitchen dinner (Los Angeles)

Michelin starred and Iron Chef conquering female chef Dominique Crenn, who is opening her own restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco next month, graced us with her presence and her sensational talent at the Test Kitchen in Los Angeles for one special evening this month.  After having eaten at more than 12 Test Kitchen dinners this year, I can honestly say that her dinner was the single most impressive and delicious dinner of them all, displaying graceful beauty and culinary elegance.  As a speaker at the TEDx Bay Area Women event earlier this month, she shared her vision of using food as a medium for honoring nature as our ultimate nurturer, and her pledge for caring for our food sources by ‘returning to the soul’.  Indeed, every dish at her 5 course Test Kitchen dinner was a poetic tribute to mother earth and her plentiful bounties that sustain our lives, and was worthy of taking the top 5 places for my best 12 dishes of the year, but one stood out above the rest.  The winter grain porridge, a new type of dessert, that evoked a garden on a sloping hillside with its soft bed of red Peruvian quinoa cooked in chamomile tea, poached quince braised with Tahitian vanilla, hazelnut milk, nougatine, and micro chamomile and hibiscus flowers that sprouted from the soft earth, strewn between orange and green leaves that all together illustrated a portrait of nature.  The textures were soft, light, chewy and crunchy, and I felt like I was digging my spoon right into the earth.  It made me feel happy to be alive.

Seared toro, ankimo, caviar- Chef Hiroyuki Urasawa, Urasawa (Los Angeles)

Stepping through the entrance of Urasawa for the second time, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief, for I knew that I could just relax, sit back and get the best food and the most stellar service of my life.  Beer poured in a ceramic beer mug was at the perfect temperature, the cypress countertop sanded down every day with 3 types of sandpaper was soft and supple, and when I took my camera out of my bag, Chef Hiro summoned his server to lay a white cloth napkin on the counter upon which to place my camera.  It was like being back home in Japan, where attention to detail and meticulous service was the standard.  Here, in this Beverly Hills haven, I had many amazing dishes, one of which was a seared toro wrapped around monkfish liver and myoga ginger, neatly tied in the center with a strip of Kyoto turnip and topped with a heap of caviar.  Little yellow flecks of yuzu rind added a refreshing aroma to the ponzu sauce, all perfectly presented on a golden ceramic pedestal.  Chef Hiro is a true professional who exemplifies the Japanese culture of precision and obsession.  What people don’t know is that despite Urasawa’s reputation, Chef Hiro doesn’t make much money from his business.  He pays an enormous amount of rent, to honor the same space that his teacher, Chef Masayoshi Takayama of Masa, has given him, and he spends most of his money in preparing the best quality ingredients for his meals.  He lives in a rental apartment in downtown LA, and doesn’t even own a computer.  Oblivious to the fact that Urasawa has been on numerous blogs, he thought about it for a second, and then asked, ‘so…these blogs…it’s like, free advertising?’  Indeed, Chef Hiro, indeed.

Thank you to all of these wonderful chefs for making 2010 a special year for me, and bringing beauty and meaning to my life.  Their dedication and hard work to their craft is admirable, and is reflected in their food.  May 2011 be an equally delicious year for all!

Soba Pop at Breadbar on 3rd street

蕎麦  SOBA

…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.

Mazumizu website

Log on to Akila and Sonoko’s Mazumizu website to register for their upcoming soba making classes

Breadbar

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.

Soba making class in Los Angeles

まず、。。。

First, water

everything else will follow.

Soba is a type of buckwheat noodle that is popular in Japan, and enjoyed both on a daily basis and for special occasions.  On New Years Eve Japanese people eat toshikoshi soba, which translates to ‘passing or crossing the year’, and is a longstanding cultural tradition since the Edo period to bring in good fortune, luck and longevity.  When people move into a new residence, they serve hikkoshi soba to their new neighbors in a social and friendly gesture to introduce themselves.  Soba noodles are frequently consumed in warm dashi broths with toppings which range from deep fried tofu, nameko mushrooms and shrimp tempura to dried herring and duck meat.  Cold noodles may be topped with gooey grated tororo yam, grated daikon radish, natto fermented soybeans or deep fried tempura bits, but soba purists will generally opt for a simple zarusoba plate of chilled soba noodles with a tsuyu dipping sauce made of kaeshi and dashi to enjoy the noodles in its simplicity and purity.

Soba is an integral part of life in Japan, from fast food standing-only soba stalls on train platforms that are frequented by salarymen in transit and zaru soba bento boxes sold in 7-11 convenience stores for office ladies in a hurry, to store-bought dried soba that is present in every household pantry.  Soba at first glance may seem like cheap food of convenience from an outsider, but artisanal soba is a deep and complex art that few are able to understand and master.  It takes years of apprenticeship and many more of real life experience to become a soba master, and it’s easy to tell when you’re having good quality soba that is made by an artisan.  Fresh soba has a light and delicate flavor with just the right amount of koshi, which is a Japanese word for the elasticity and slightly chewy consistency that noodles are supposed to have, and a slippery yet refreshing nodogoshi, which is a word to describe the pleasant way that food passes down your throat.  Soba is made only from buckwheat flour and water (and wheat flour for a combination soba), and nothing else, so it’s all in the skill of experienced hands to mix, knead, roll and cut these simple ingredients into good delicious noodles.

I recently took a soba making class with Akila Inouye, Master Chef and Founder of the Tsukiji Soba Academy and Sonoko Sakai, Japanese cookbook author and food writer, through an opportunity that I found on their website called mazumizu.  Mazumizu in Japanese means ‘first, water (and everything else will follow)’, which is the Zen principle of simplicity and natural flow in soba making.  They offer many different soba classes like the Easy Handmade Soba for Beginners for $85 and the Gluten free Kikouchi handmade soba class for $95, but I opted for the Basic Handmade Soba class for $125 that included a soba lunch.  The class was held at Sonoko’s lovely house in Santa Monica, and all supplies and ingredients were provided. 

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.  He conducted soba classes in Los Angeles last fall when he did a US soba tour from New York to the west coast, but by the time that I found out about this, classes were all sold out.  I was ecstatic that he returned to LA for the whole month of June to hold all types of classes.  He even brought different kinds of Japanese knives ordered and made especially for him, of which I was able to purchase one very special one.

Sonoko Sakai is a Japanese writer and film producer who is bicultural and bilingual.  She enrolled at the Tsukiji Soba Academy in Tokyo under the tutelage of Akila, and became a certified soba maker.  Her passion for soba making drove her to convert her home into a soba teaching studio and to spread the culture of soba to Angelenos.  What used to be the dining room is now a bright sunlit studio with 2 large wooden tables whose surfaces are perfect for rolling the soba.  A cabinet holds an assortment of beautiful Japanese ceramics in which to enjoy the soba and side dishes, and a side table is stocked with rolling pins, lacquer bowls, measuring cups and flour brushes.  With our aprons on and bandannas tied around our heads, our enthusiastic class of 5 was ready to knead and roll.

Master artisan Akila demonstrated the entire process step by step as we all watched in awe.  He prepared a 10 serving size of soba using 80% organic stone-milled Japanese buckwheat flour and 20% all purpose wheat flour in an 8:2 ratio of Nihachi soba which is the classic Tokyo style.  After he sifted the flour using a special fine sieve from Saitama prefecture, he started to explain the importance of water in soba making.

Water is the only other ingredient in soba, and how much you add is the key element in the entire process.  The amount of water to be added is not a finite proportion or weight, but largely depends on the flour quality and the humidity and temperature of the day.  Too much water and the dough will never form; too little water and the dough will fall apart.  The adjustment of water, unfortunately, is something that can only come from years of experience and professional intuition.  Once water is added to the sifted flour, use your hands to gently yet swiftly mix it up in a rotating motion.

Once the mixture is moist yet crumbly, gather it all to one side and gently compress it into a solid oblong roll.  Then repeat the process of fold and knead using the heel of your palms as you lean forward into the bowl with feet shoulder width apart.

Gradually, the dough will come together and feel sticky.  After adding just a touch of water, use your thumbs to knead with determination until it becomes soft, smooth and bouncy like a baby’s bottom.  Shape and mold into a large Hershey’s kiss before flattening the top into a thick disc shape.

Sprinkle a bit of uchiko (like cornstarch) on the table and lay your flattened dough on top.  Use a rolling pin in smooth swift motions going in all directions to flatten the dough.  Flatten into a rectangular shape, sprinkling bits of uchiko as you go along to prevent sticking.  The goal is to roll the dough into an even 1.5mm thickness.  Master Akila made it seem so easy and effortless, and little did we know how difficult this was going to be when it was our turn.

Fold the dough in 4 layers using generous amounts of uchiko in between each layer to prevent the noodles from sticking to each other.

Using a special soba kiri cleaver that has a long and perfectly straight and even edge, cut the soba in even widths in a relaxed posture.

Needless to say, our jaws dropped and we all fell silent when we watched Akila cut the soba with ease and grace.  We were all petrified at having to do this ourselves.

After the demonstration, it was our turn to try it all out, and we started from the very first step of weighing the flour and figuring out how much water to use.  We sifted, poured, mixed, gathered, kneaded, massaged, shaped, flattened, rolled, sprinkled and folded, all under the watchful eye and gentle direction of Akila and Sonoko.  When it came time to cut, we all struggled, some more than others.  It was an awkward task that none of us have ever experienced, and we inevitably ended up with uneven strands of soba.  These are the times when every person’s personality comes through- one woman had thick linguini sized soba, but she laughed it off and said that more volume meant more flavor.  Another was visibly frustrated and asked Akila to do the cutting.  The male student finished early with soba of various shapes and thicknesses, but didn’t seem to care about the imperfections at all.  I took a deep breath and tried to channel the powers of my Japanese ancestors, taking my time to get each strand as perfect as possible with utmost intensity and concentration.  Akila had to remind me several times to loosen my shoulders and relax.  What can I say, doctors are perfectionists by trade.  Although my soba wasn’t perfect by any standards, for a first timer, I thought I did pretty good:

After an intense but fun soba making session, we sat down for a wonderful lunch in Sonoko’s kitchen.  While we were making soba, Sonoko was busy in the kitchen making dashi broth with bonito flakes and preparing the dipping sauce.  Rattatouille of zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant and onions were cooked by a simple process of steaming with only a pinch of salt for seasoning- it was rich in flavor and absolutely delicious.

Soba (made and cut by our teachers, of course) was served in a cold tsuyu sauce with duck tsukudani simmered in soy sauce and ginger, Tokyo negi scallions, deep fried eggplant suage, sliced myoga ginger and mitsuba leaves.  I thought that the soba at Otafuku in Gardena was the best soba that I could get in Los Angeles- I was wrong.  This handmade bowl of soba by artisan Akila Inouye was not only the best soba that I’ve had in LA, but by far one of the best that I’ve ever had in my life, rivaling my favorite joint in Tokyo called Souhonke Sarashina Horii in Azabu-Juban.

To be able to learn how to make real Japanese soba is one thing, but to learn from a true artisan in the comfort of the teacher’s beautiful home and kitchen is such a treat.  I will never forget how that special bowl of soba with eggplant and duck meat tasted, for it’s attached with an unforgettable memory of my first experience with creating this traditional Japanese comfort food with my very own hands.  The following day I boiled some of my handmade soba for a simple zarusoba lunch at home.  Due to the unevenness of the noodles, it wasn’t first class, but knowing that I made it completely from scratch, it tasted delicious and comforting.  I regret not having enough time to take more of Akila and Sonoko’s classes, such as the seafood dinner party and summer entertaining classes which include sake tastings, but I’ll always have fond memories of this one magical sunny morning when their passion for soba touched and changed my life.

Mazumizu

www.mazumizu.com

Soba making and cooking classes

Soba master Akila Inouye is back in Los Angeles for more soba making classes.  This time around they are offering a class where you can mill your own soba and literally make everything from scratch.  Log on to www.mazumizu.com to register for these classes at the end of August- for one week only, so register now before they sell out!

Soba master Akila Inouye and Sonoko Sakai will also be doing a pop-up soba event using Shin-soba from Japan at the Breadbar for 1 week only at the end of August!

Random trivia:  Soba noodles contain antioxidants like rutin and quercetin, and essential nutrients and amino acids like choline, thiamine and riboflavin.  A lot of these nutrients and vitamins are lost to the water when boiling the soba, so there’s a tradition in Japan of drinking the left over water, or sobayu, at the end of the meal.