Soba, the Dish that Demands Technique to Eat
The third dish that I want to look into is Soba. Soba is a very original dish which can be categorized as Washoku, Japanese cuisine. It is also famous for the very original way of eating, which always surprises visitors from outside Japan.
In Italy spaghetti should be eaten twirling around a fork and the adults should not use a spoon as a supplementary tool. On the other hand, in Japan, Soba should be eaten by slurping with big noise. Don’t be scared. Even though you cannot or don’t want to, no one around you will never be discouraged. To tell you the truth, I’m the one who cannot slurp noodles…
Soba was also one of the most popular fast food in Edo period as well as Sushi and Tempura, which people ate at stalls.
Look at the picture and you will find ‘二’ and ‘八’. They are both numbers written in Kanji (Chinese characters). ‘二’ means 2 and ‘八’ means 8. What do these two numbers signify, by the way? They say there are two possible meanings;
– the blending ratio of the flour for Soba; 2 buckwheat flour to 8 wheat flour,
– the price of a bowl of soba was 16 mon (Japanese mon (currency). 2 x 8 = 16. It is an easy arithmetic!
This two/eight soba (ni hachi soba) became popular from mid Edo period but people started to eat Soba noodles in the early Edo period around 1664 although buckwheat had been already eaten since ancient Jomon period. The official record remains which tells that in 723 and 839 the cultivation of buckwheat was encouraged by the government because it was easier than other grains and even in the area where was very cold or had little rainfall. Before 1664, it is very amazing, Soba was not noodles but something like a dough or dumpling called Sobagaki.
In west Japan, noodles made with wheat flour called Udon is more popular than Soba from the past. In other words, in east Japan the cultivation of wheat flower was difficult because greater part of the surfaces was covered with a thick layer of loam of volcanic origi with volcanic ashes from surrounding volcanoes, Mounts Asama, Haruna, and Akagi to the north and Mounts Hakone and Fuji to the south.
You will notice, if you go outside of Tokyo in mountain side, that there are many Soba restaurants. I mean there is pretty nothing other than Soba restaurants. So, in mountain side in east Japan you can starve if you are allergic to Soba. (Half joking.) This will be an evidence that the Japanese like Soba so much and also that Soba cultivation is popular also where other cultivation is difficult.
All the family members of mine, especially grannies, loved Soba and they took me to Soba restaurant for lunch when we went to Senso-ji temple. They were pretty stubborn and never changed a place. Their choice was always Owariya in Asakusa.
We ate the same thing every time we visited, Tempura Soba. This custome was never changed in their life time. Tempura Soba is Soba with Tempura. (What a terrible explanation!) A bowl of Soba in a hot soy sauce based broth with prawn Tempura on top.
Actually, I wrote about Tempura in the previous article, “Tempora, Tempurar, or Tempura?” Go back to the previous page and compare the photo of Tempura with this.
Did you get the difference?
The difference is the batter. That for Soba is far thicker. The thickness of the batter depends on one’s taste and there is no right/wrong nor better/worse. Of course, even it is thick it has to be crispy and the batter which is not crispy can definitely be categorized as ‘bad’, according to my great grandfather. I remember in my house, when I was a kid, when we cooked Tempura at home and my mother made a mistake and the batter got thicker than it should have been, grandfather called it ‘Tempura of Soba restaurant’!
This is not a bad joke. He really loved Tempura Soba although he loved also Tempura with lighter batter. The thick batter goes well with the soy sauce based broth so much. Since it goes so well that there are also Tanuki Soba, only with the batter part without prawns.
Tanuki means a raccoon in Japanese. Then why this prawn-less Tempura Soba is called Tanuki?? Tanuki raccoon was believed to be an animal which played tricks on people in our folklore as well as fox (Kitsune). (If you want to know more about Kitsune please refer to my past article ‘The origin of Yurukyara? Part I‘ They say that it is called Tanuki because Tanuki plays a trick on a your Tempura Soba and lets only the batter left for you!
My grandfather loved Tempura Soba and he had his own way of eating it. One of the two prawns he used to eat it soon before it absorbed the broth when it was still crispy. The other prawn he used to sink it under Soba noodles and eat it at the end as a final conclusion of his Tempura Soba. But one day while he was eating Tempura Soba there was a big earthquake, which and he had to leave it before he ate the latter prawn. Since then he changed his way and his obsession to the last prawn remained in our family precepts, ‘Eat both prawns as soon as possible!’ (I was told this in the episode how he survived 1923 Great Kantō earthquake…)
SHOP INFORMATION OF OWARIYA
Address: 1-7-1 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo
On Kaminarimon street, very close to the Exit No.3 of Tokyo Metro Asakusa station.
No need of reservation (although sometimes there are many people waiting in front of the restaurant.)
Opening hours: 11:30-20:30
Closed on Fridays
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In the last article I wrote about Japanese traditi