So there we were -- Ted, his sister Jill, my cousin Martin and me -- huddled in the kitchen in my friend Rika's house, in the small village of Mihama on the west coast of Japan, in the middle of winter, drinking sake to stay warm, and learning how to make soba.
It was our second visit to Japan, February 1997, windy and snowing, cold beyond cold. We had come to Mihama after a couple of weeks of traveling in Vietnam, where it was hot beyond hot, and our bodies were having adjustment issues. Rika's house sits right on the beach; except for the kitchen, the rooms are heated only by space heaters, so even without the promise of a cooking lesson, we'd still have gravitated towards the only room that had both heat and food.
According to the traditions of the village, which is home to 50 families, property passes from oldest son to oldest son, and so Rika's husband, Ichiro, came to own the house, a fishing boat, and the fields that supply his family with rice and vegetables. Ichiro teaches at an agricultural high school, where students learn about all aspects of the growing cycle, including cooking, and he is quite a good cook, too.
Soba are thin, spaghetti-like noodles made of buckwheat flour which, because it doesn't bind well, is often combined with wheat flour. According to Japanese agricultural regulations, soba must contain at least 30 percent buckwheat; the higher the buckwheat content, the better the noodles, and the nuttier the flavor.
Starting with the buckwheat flour, water, and a small amount of white flour, Ichiro taught us to mix and knead and roll the dough, and then to cut the noodles by hand. While the noodles air-dried for a few minutes, Rika mixed a traditional dipping sauce, a combination of dashi, mirin, and soy. (She also showed us some storebought sauce she had in the fridge; though they revere the traditional, busy moms in rural Japan also embrace convenience foods.)
Traditionally eaten to celebrate the new year, and delicious all year round, soba (which is almost always sold in dried form) comes in all price ranges, correlating directly to the amount of buckwheat in the noodles. The ones in my pantry at the moment are fairly inexpensive; buckwheat is the second ingredient listed, after enriched wheat flour. This brand also includes yam flour, which enhances the taste as well as the binding ability. If you're eating gluten-free, look for 100% buckwheat noodles; they do exist, but they are quite delicate, and expensive.
At Rika's house, we ate our soba at room temperature; we were too impatient to wait to taste the fruits of our labor. We wrangled the slippery noodles with chopsticks, dipped them in the sauce, and slurped -- which, fortunately, is considered polite, as it was our only option!
Ten years later, if I close my eyes, I can recall the taste of that soba, made in a dear friend's kitchen so far away.
Asparagus-cashew stir fry
I love recipes with a pedigree. This one came to our Wednesday Lunch cooking group from Marcia, who got it from her friend Roseanne, who adapted it from a cookbook. Serves 4 as a main dish; can be doubled.
For the sauce:
3 Tbsp reduced-sodium soy sauce
2 Tbsp cornstarch or arrowroot
1-1/2 cups water or vegetable stock
1 Tbsp minced ginger root
1 tsp sesame oil
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes, or more to taste
Dash of white pepper
2 Tbsp canola or safflower oil
1 lb fresh asparagus, woody parts of stems removed, tender part cut into 3-inch lengths (about 3 cups)
4 scallions, chopped
1 small sweet red pepper, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup cashews, dry-roasted and unsalted
1 lb soba noodles, prepared according to package directions
In a small bowl, combine soy sauce and cornstarch. Stir in remaining sauce ingredients; set aside.
In a wok or large skillet, heat oil. Stir-fry asparagus, scallions, pepper, and garlic until vegetables are crisp-tender. Stir sauce mixture; pour it over the vegetables and stir until it is thickened and bubbly. Fold in cashews. Reduce heat, cover, and cook for 1 minute, until cashews are heated through.
Serve over soba noodles.
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