If you think about it, the idea of noodles is a pretty strange one. Out of the myriad of ways to raise grains from the ground and digest them into our bodies, pounding them into flour, molding them into dough, slicing them into fine strips and then boiling them is a pretty elaborate and time consuming way to go about it. Last year I worked for several months in a rural soba noodle restaurant where this mystery was played out every day in the work routine. Our two main dishes consisted of soba noodles and soba-gaki, little buckwheat dumpling balls the size of an egg served in a variety of sauces. The noodles took the bulk of our preparation time, twenty servings carefully crafted in about forty minutes just before opening. That included a long and heavy kneading of buckwheat flour and near boiling water, flattening out the dough to a half centimeter thickness, folding over and then cutting it into thin and even strips with a square knife, the blade as wide as the cover of a dictionary. The soba-gaki was made to order, portions of soba flour thrown into hot water and stirred furiously until thickening up, scooped out of the pot, patted into little balls and dropped into little bowls of hot water. Start to finish two or three minutes.
Many of our customers had grown up with soba-gaki as a poor substitute for rice, buckwheat being cheaper, easier to grow, and rice being a rare and precious commodity at the end of the war. Like ordering a bowl of oatmeal in a bistro. But when the same buckwheat flour had been carefully kneaded, folded and cut into long thin strips it became a delicacy, something to shell out a few yen for. The fact is that something about the long squiggly shape and slightly firm texture of noodles is incredibly appealing to the human animal, even though I can’t think of a single equivalent food that our evolutionary proto-types slurped on in quite the same way.
While they have been around for millennia, noodles became quick, cheap eating only in the past fifty or sixty years with the advent of inexpensive public eateries and dried supermarket pasta. While there are plenty of Italian places in the states where you can order a plate of pasta, it mostly seems to stay in the home, a quick meal whipped up in a few spare minutes. Boil water, cook a fistful of pasta for a few minutes, pour on a can of sauce, you’re ready to go. The same logic has extended to ramen noodles, which are even more basic than pasta: just boil water.
Anyone who has seen the old 80’s “noodle-western” Tampopo will know that proper hand made ramen can be pretty serious business in Japan. Admittedly, the movie was a satire of the Japanese obsession with food minutiae, but the scary thing is how little it exaggerates. Hastily boiled roadside ramen is not uncommon, but just as common are the neighborhood places that have been perfecting their secret broth recipes for generations, carefully using the same pots to nurture out rich flavors impossible to duplicate. A photographer friend of mine once had to choke down two or three bowls of the stuff a day while visiting dozens of different venues around Tokyo for a ramen guide book. But swimming in his muddled gastronomic memory were two or three places that had cultured perfect alchemies of pork, veggies and soy sauce. The place he took me to was hidden a few minutes walk from the glittery shopping district of Shibuya on a quiet side street. A wiry young man stood behind the counter while a weathery looking old lady took our orders. They joined a few regulars to gawk at the TV news program about a series of elephants that escaped from a Chinese zoo and ran amok through a city. According to my friend the founder had died a year and a half ago, leaving the place to his son, and while initially there had been a drop in quality, within a few months the characteristic broth had returned. When the bowls came out, the broth was unusually clear and light, carefully simmered out of chicken and vegetables, a change from the heavy pork broth of standard ramen. Swimming inside were thick slices of Chinese cabbage, specially seasoned slivers of shiitake mushrooms and a tangle of ramen noodles. The whole thing was ecstatic, and worthy of a movie unto itself.
Ramen is a relative latecomer to Japanese cuisine, originally harking from China and only became widespread after the war as a quick belly filler downed in a few hasty minutes between trains. While the broth is usually made on site the noodles are usually bought pre-made, half cooked in crinkly plastic packages. A much more recent Chinese import are the flying toshomen.
While cooking ramen noodles could not be more simple, making toshomen is a tricky and dramatic skill usually performed in open kitchens for the customers to gawk. When an order comes in the noodles are literally shaved off in foot long strands from a large log of dough held in one hand. The other hand holds a broad curved knife that sends the strands of raw dough flying directly into the boiling pot. The end result is a bowl of long thick noodles with a distinctive chewy texture. The sauces and broths seem to vary, but I really enjoy the mara, a meaty broth layered with a ladleful of hot chili oil and topped off with a few snips of fresh herbs and string beans. It packs a kick; I once had a bowl of the stuff that knocked me out of a mild fever. As far as I know there are only a handful of places that actually serve toshomen in Japan. One of them happens to be a ten second walk from my front door.
The maitre d of the place seems like a nice sort of guy, but every time I see him he looks like he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown, pacing up and down our street in his loose button shirt and apron, frantically smoking a cigarette by the vending machine. The few times I have stopped in the place always seems to be running smoothly and doing a brisk business: Chinese waitresses rushing up and down the stairs, three or four cooks moving briskly in the open kitchen, the maitre d greeting customers and settling checks with his frayed smile. I’ve only been in two or three times, but we nod to each other every day as I scurry around and he stays at his post, holding the whole place together with nerves and cigarettes.
I’ll finish this off with a noodle I know a little bit more about; soba. The humble buckwheat noodle has somehow beat out its wheat based cousins udon (too thick and goofy), kishimen (too chewy) and somen (to thin and scrawny) to become the iconic Japanese noodle. When hearing that I prefer soba to udon (I get this question more often than you would expect), I am often met with appreciate nods from older Japanese who all agree soba expresses the true heart of Japan. I am still not exactly sure why that is, but properly done it is a pretty great fucking noodle. The elegant dipping sauce is gently coaxed from long strips of kombu seaweed and various combinations of dried fish, then stirred with dark soy sauce and sweet mirin rice wine. Like the best Japanese food the flavor is direct, simple, and exquisite.
A proper soba restaurant will discreetly have the characters te-uchi, “hand made” tucked into their sign. Most hand made soba places have a special area just for the noodle making with open glass panels to show off the process from start to finish. At the place I worked at we estimated sales and prepped the noodles before opening, but occasionally an unexpected rush would send us through the whole kneading, rolling, folding and cutting again. Little kids and their parents would wander away from their tables to gawk at us as we sweated and grunted over the tough barky dough. To think that after two thousand years the process of molding base grains into fine strands still surprises our senses. Like eating a great poem over and over again, curls and tangles resolving themselves in our gummy grinding mouths.