As revelations go, it was an unlikely spot in which to have one: a small suburban railway station in Toyonaka, near Osaka, Japan, at around noon on an uneventful Monday.
Retired people, mothers with children, and a couple of students moved around. Waiting on a train back to the city, and hungry for lunch, we dropped into a small café in the station’s basement.
This was how, and where, I experienced a food epiphany. It came by way of one of the most basic comestibles I’d eaten, served in a very simple fashion.
It was mori soba, a buckwheat flour noodle. It was also cold.
I’d had cold noodles before (more than once, I’m guessing, as a bleary ‘morning after the night before’ leftover in my college days) but I’d never had them like this.
The soba (above) was served not as it cooled, or at room temperature, but instead chilled. It was accompanied with tsuyu dipping sauce on the side, a cold liquid mixture of the fish broth dashi, soy sauce and mirin (a type of rice wine – at home my wife substitutes this with ginger).
(I later found out that soba purists believe in eating the noodles without recourse to any tsuyu, a style known as hadaka – or ‘naked’ – soba. In fact it’s hard to think of food more naked than a cold, ungarnished buckwheat noodle.)
The protocol, I learned, was to dip a small amount of the soba into the tsuyu and then slurp down the dripping mixture – as noisily as you like. Then repeat until full.
And so I dipped and slurped my way to a clean plate, and half of my wife’s afterwards. It was so good I almost ignored the vegetable tempura on the side.
And so I underwent my mini-epiphany. There was something about soba.
The fact that I’d fallen for this wet gray-brown noodle – amid all the foods I encountered in Japan – made it even more interesting.
Coming from chilly northwest Europe the idea of eating cold noodles had never appealed to me beforehand. The noodles I was familiar with for always served steaming hot, as close to mouth burn territory as possible.
They were also a vehicle for whatever meat, fish or vegetables that they were served with.
All this directly contrasts with mori soba, whose only garnish was a little seasonal spring onion.
So why was mori soba so good? Why have I eaten it (or a chilled variant thereof, like soba salad) a couple of times a week since?
The answer: it’s rare to come across a carbohydrate that’s actually refreshing (even a lemon-laden linguine, a favourite home Italian dish, can’t quite pull it off). But mori soba is.
It’s a combination of the chilly serving temperature, the texture of the soba, the tang of the mirin and the umami of the dashi.
It was also interesting to expose my sometimes-too-conservative palate to a dish that I’d never tasted before.
Having had my new favourite noodles a half dozen times since I don’t think I’ll go back to the searing, steaming variety anytime soon.
Until, maybe, I try hot soba.