Tag Archives: Japanese food

Soba, so good, so…why not hot?

Please sir, can I have some mori soba? Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Please sir, can I have some mori soba? Pic: Clare Kleinedler

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).

Eating soba. Pic: Adolfo Farsari

Eating soba.
Pic: Adolfo Farsari

(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.

Soba salad.

Soba salad.

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.

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In praise of okonomiyaki

A load of crepes. They tasted good, once a year. Pic: French Recipes

A load of crepes. Pancakes tasted good, once a year.
Pic: French Recipes

‘Cabbage pancake.’

Two words, like ‘low-fat sausage’ and ‘mid-strength Guinness’, that are enough to send most Irishmen running away in mortal fear – to the arms of their mammy or the local chip shop.

For years I counted myself among them.

I am part of a generation that was raised on cabbage one way – boiled. In salted water, if you were lucky.

It was green and floppy and it was served with bacon. It filled you up and then you went back outside for another three hours of football.

Pancakes?

There were something we had once a year, crepe-style, on Shrove Tuesday. They tasted better than cabbage and bacon but they were such a rarity on our plate back then that we forgot they even existed for most of the year.

Until that one February mealtime when we ate ourselves in a batter stupor.

But cabbage and pancake on one plate? At the same time?

Suggesting that in mid-1980s Ireland would have landed you some odd looks – and an instruction to finish the rest of those turnips (but that’s a post for another day).

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Fast forward to 2010 and I’m standing on Great Russell Street in London. After three hours wandering around the British Museum I’m hungry.

Luckily my then-girlfriend-now-wife has sent me a recommendation – a cafe called Abeno on nearby Museum Street.

Okonomiyakia at Abeno, London.

Okonomiyaki at Abeno, London.

And so followed my first experience with cabbage pancakes. Or, as the Japanese call the dish, okonomiyaki.

It turned out to be be more hands-on that I expected. My table was a hot plate (or teppan), I was handed two spatula and presented with the mixed raw ingredients: cabbage, bacon, pork, in a flour and water batter.

After a few minutes of pretending to know what I was doing I had something approaching okonomiyaki.

Using the tonkatsu sauce to cover a multitude of culinary sins I sized up, and quickly inhaled my first cabbage pancake.

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Four years on I’ve eaten some incredible Japanese food, from the sushi served at my wife’s favourite spot in LA to sashimi overlooking the Pacific at Big Sur to, best of all, my mother-in-law’s New Year’s Day feast.

Until last week, I never returned to okonomiyaki though.

That changed when Clare, having come across an easy recipe for tonkatsu sauce, decided to put a spare head of cabbage to use.

She shredded and mixed it with beetroot, courgette and prosciutto, producing a savoury pancake she topped with Japanese mayo and her homemade tonkatsu sauce.

The result was the incredible comfort food – tangy, moreish, salty, substantial. And not unhealthy either.

It was the answer to my hunger pangs, the Sunday blues, the question ‘what’s your death row meal?’ and, possibly, my dreams.

In fact it left only one question.

What would the six year old cabbage-eating me have made of it?

Clare's okonomiyaki. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Clare’s okonomiyaki.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

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