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.

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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.