Friday, October 16, 2009

The Supreme Soba

My dad is obsessed with noodles.   Whenever we ask him where he wants to go for dinner, he almost inevitably replies "won ton mein", or something like that.   It doesn't matter how hot it is outside, he'd still want a bowl of noodles.   He likes the Vietnamese version of won ton mein the best.  But he likes saimin, he likes udon, he likes soba, he likes wat mein, he just likes noodles in general.   So for his birthday one year, I decided to try to hunt down the best, hand made, fresh noodles on the island.  This is highly appropriate, because Chinese believe you should always have noodles on your birthday, as long noodles are a symbol of long life.  Noodles are as important to a birthday, as a birthday cake.   After some research, my quest of course took me to Jimbo's for their udon, but since he frequents the place all the time, I wanted to find someplace new.   So rather than udon, I decided to focus upon buckwheat soba.

Just like udon, I'm usually not particularly fond of buckwheat soba.   Just like udon, the reason is because I usually don't have the really good, fresh, handmade soba.   Just like udon, common everyday soba which is dried and reconstituted just doesn't have a very good texture.   Normally when you see buckwheat soba, it is that thin (but not too thin) very straight square noodle.   It's usually a shade of lavendar, grey, or brown, but sometimes it's a minty green if they try to add some green tea to the mix.   Usually, it is a pretty stiff noodle, and when you bite it, the wheat flavor is kind of harsh almost like eating something made from cardboard.  Every time I've had it, I've never been very impressed.     This is especially so, since true soba is meant to stand on its own without the benefit of any good sauce, or soup, or other ingredients.   Cold soba, or zaru soba, is eaten straight, with just a quick dip of shoyu type condiment to give a little kick.  There is no meat, no other vegetables, no nothing.   Usually, the soba I've eaten just isn't up to this type of intense scrutiny.  To me the best thing about soba was the fact that my sobakawa pillow is stuffed with the discarded husks of the buckwheat, and actually offers some pretty good neck support.

So the first place we went to was Matsugen in Waikiki.   This is supposed to be an upscale soba place with a reputation for their master soba makers.  Just walking in to the place you know that this is serious soba, because they've imported all of their buckwheat straight from Japan.  Right in the entryway, there is an automatic mill that grinds the raw wheat into flour, slowly throughout the day for visitors to watch as they wait for a table.    If you're lucky, you get to sit right around the glass shielded table that the soba master makes the soba at.   So like sitting at a sushi bar, you can watch the master chef as he meticulously flattens the dough and cuts the soba.   The problem with Matsugen is the price you pay for the spectacle.   Add to that the fact that it is located in Waikiki, and primarily marketed towards Japanese tourists, and well the soba is just a little too pricey to be enjoyed.    I remember eating it and thinking, well this is good, certainly not like that purple cardboard flour noodle that I'm accustomed to eating, but is it really that great to warrant the price tag?  Is it really that spectactular and unique?  I was kind of reluctant, but I just didn't enjoy it enough to understand what all the fuss was about with soba.

The next year, I decided to try again, and this time I took my dad to a small hole in the wall, right near the corner of Punahou and S. King, next door to Baskin Robins.   Right off the bat, we're at a more local place, not in Waikiki, with a small parking lot, making it much more accessible to kama'aina.  The prices were also not nearly as steep, and they seemed to serve much larger portions for the price.   No, there was no spectacle of watching the soba master exercise his craft, but you know from the moment you walk through the sliding wooden slatted door, and they greet you with the traditional "irasshaimasse", that it is an authentic Japanese experience.   The place is modern looking and clean, not what you'd expect from a such a small shop.  All around the walls they've got pamphlets explaining soba to newbies, and explaining all the spectacular health benefits of soba.   I really tried not to pay too much attention to those though, because they take you dangerously into my sister's territory.   Frankly, I don't care how antioxidant rich soba is, I want something that is hand crafted, rich with tradition and history, and tastes like something truly special.   And the soba there, really did fit that bill.   The place?    Restaurant Inaba.

Buckwheat Soba at Restaurant Inaba
After eating the soba at Restaurant Inaba, I finally understood what was so special about soba.   Just looking at it, it doesn't look like that purple tentacle monster you normally get.   This soba is a natural cream color (the color of the buckwheat flour), speckled with dark freckles throughout the noodle.    The texture is completely not what you're expecting.   It's dense.  Very dense.   The density of the noodle gives it this fantastic chewiness.   But unlike bad soba, there is none of the brittleness and stiffness.  It doesn't break apart into small segments in your mouth.  Instead, there is a masterful uniformity and consistency throughout the noodle.  This noodle is to other noodles, what St. Germain's bread is to other breads.   In this noodle, you can taste that pursuit of perfectionism that is the mark of true Japanese cuisine.   This noodle doesn't need any sauce to adorn it.  It doesn't need to be bathed in any soup.  It hardly even needs that dip in the cold shoyu sauce, although the slightly salty coldness really brings out the buckwheat flavor and shocks your tastes buds awake.   It truly is something special.

Ten Zaru Soba at Restaurant Inaba
After your meal, they bring out this box with the sobayu, or the water they boiled the soba noodles in.   For the uninitiated, they have little signs telling you that you're supposed to pour the water into the remainder of the dipping sauce to make a nice little broth to top off your meal.  Now my wife didn't like this so much.   She thought, "that's the equivalent of drinking the flour water I boiled my won tons in," and she's right.   But what she's not appreciating here, is that we're at a restaurant where the buckwheat itself is the highlight of the meal.  This is no ordinary flour.  The flour itself is the main entree.   So even the flour water is supposed to be tasty and highly nutritous.   When you drink it, you know you're not just drinking an ordinary clear, shoyu-based broth.  The texture of the liquid has a slightly different mouth feel.   It's almost got a silkiness, a smoothness to it in your mouth.   My friend once told me that when you drink Evian side by side with regular water, you could taste a slightly creamy texture to it that's absent from the regular water.  I don't know if it's really there (or just imagined) in the Evian, but it's definitely true of the sobayu.

If you've ever watched the Rurouni Kenshin anime, there is a character called Saito Hajime.  He is based on a real historical samurai who was a member of the Shinsengumi (the elite shogunate police).    In the anime, he's got a particular fondness for plain soba noodles.  This earns him some derision from less deadly, more macho characters.   But after sampling the soba from Restaurant Inaba, I can see how this totally fits his character.   Here is this deadly sharp, supremely focused samurai, who has whittled away all other distractions to finely hone his masterful skill with the blade.   What else would befit him, but a soba that is so refined, so masterfully crafted, so perfect in consistency, that it needs nothing else to adorn it.  The pursuit of perfection shines in both.


  1. What's wrong with wandering into my territory? There's no harm in knowing the health benefits of the food that you eat. In fact, if there IS some health benefit to it, then you should take pride in the fact that you're eating it. Just by being more aware of what you are putting into your own body, helps you take pride in yourself. it also gives you more appreciation and respect for the food you're eating.

  2. How bout naeng myun for when it's hot?