The Soba War
Visualize if you will, a spry young man in his work kimono, made of an easy to clean light fabric, walking down the dirt-paved roads of the old capital Kyōto to the clickety-clackety of hundreds of Japanese sandal-wearing passers-by as they go about their daily business. He smiles and nods to his acquaintances while the deciduous trees rain orange and red fires of leaves all around. With a wave of the hand, a quick konnichiwa to his neighbors, and a right turn past the entrance curtains our man enters his shop. A small storefront with a tiny garden pond to the left and a backroom for kneading, mixing and baking makes up the modest shop, all separated by the thinnest of rice-paper shoji sliding doors, yet somehow keeping the cool autumn breeze from disturbing the still sun-dappled air of the fine-milled flours and powdered sugars floating like benevolent ancestral ghosts around the confectionery. The year is 1465 in Nakagyo-ward, just south of the grounds of the Emperor’s palace, and you have entered Honke Owariya, which although new, has quickly become one of the favored shops of the imperial family. Sadly the Ōnin War, which will begin in just two short years and will last ten, destroys most of the city, scatters the population, and renders the emperor powerless: not exactly auspicious timing.
Maybe our man hides out until after the war, all the while perfecting his deliciously sweet an (餡) paste, the emperor’s favorite mochi (餅) and the traditional jellies of tokoro ten (ところ天). Maybe an influential member of the emperor’s cortege comes calling telling you His Highness really loves simple fare, like Soba and should you decide to take advantage of the large natural water table upon which the city lies (thanks to its beneficial situation in the Yamashiro basin of the Tanba Highlands) to extend your talented hand into making the best dashi soup stock around, your legacy might still be around in the year 2000. Thankfully that or something like that is exactly what happened, which is why we still have Honke Owariya, arguably the oldest restaurant in Kyōto- which would likely make it the oldest in Japan- 544 years later.
When you are invited by the family to stay at the restaurant itself, and they casually drop that it was established in 1465, your mind begins to go numb. These kinds of numbers don’t mean anything to Americans. 544 years of uninterrupted service means that they had already been serving soba for more than 300 years by the time the thirteen British colonies got off their lazy arses and decided to unify into the U.S.A. The soup I was slurping was older than my own country’s constitution, and much more delicious, which made me wonder, 1) just exactly who are these soba-mongers? and 2) what’s the difference between their product and the stuff you buy at the store?
That first talented young patisserie chef who came from Nagoya along with some members of the imperial family, worked hard to turn the shop from strictly sweets to the soba du jour. Generally considered an everyman’s dish, fit for laymen as well as for a king- the initial proprietor Denzaemon (でんざえもん)- as has been named every master behind the Owariya (尾張屋) symbol- has passed down the recipe alongside the name from father to son since the end of the Muromachi and into the Edo period, until today. While the building itself has changed over that time, the shop has been located on the same soil- despite war, fire, and other misfortunes which prevailed upon a Japan still searching for its national identity during the violence of the 15-19th centuries- since 1465. Only open for lunch, the current establishment- a multi-leveled wooden building which can seat over 50 guests comfortably, and located down a sleepy side-street near the Karasuma-Oike subway station- has been in use since the early part of last century, the 1920s or 30s. Barring another civil war, a massive fire, an earthquake of great magnitude, a genealogical dry spell or any other potential disaster already having occurred in the storied history of Kyōto (Mothra’s Revenge perhaps?), the current incarnation could be around for another five hundred years.
Honke Owariya – Best Soba in Kyōto
But what exactly is soba? According to Owariya, soba “are thin grey noodles made from sobako, or buckwheat flour.” Depending on which area of Japan you live, they range in percentages of purity from 100% juu-wari inaka-soba (Nagano) to mixtures containing various wild mountain yams, green tea and even mugwort. It ranges from the traditional kaiseki-esque 500 + year-old stuff of Owariya (who do an excellent sobazushi by the way) all the way to small shacks serving bowls of the stuff as fast, cheap food for businessmen who don’t have five minutes to sit. Despite sounding a bit mundane, soba has become by far my favorite Japanese food, so much so that I still slurp up the thick dark buckwheaty goodness of sansai-soba (country veggie) at the standing fast food noodle joint in Matsumoto whenever I head back that way. How, you ask, is it so highly favored among the blue bloods, the proletariat and, of course, foreigners like myself? Despite the ancient mama-san trying to hurry you up to free space for the next customer in line, the important thing is to go slow. In order to be able to appreciate the finer subtleties amidst a symphony of salaryman slurps, you have got to eat it often and eat a lot of it. Which shouldn’t prove a problem, as according to a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition eating buckwheat, has been linked to protection against atherosclerosis, ischemic stroke, diabetes, insulin resistance, obesity, and premature death. Another benefit would be eating the 100% juu-wari soba for people with wheat allergies (it’s a fruit seed, which does not contain protein glutens). Ok, enough with the history and the health benefits, we get it already, so what, it’s good for you and allergy freaks can eat it too…can we see what’s all the fuss at Owariya?
Duck is as seasonal as it gets in the old capital. At Owariya talk around the green tea cooler has it that the cook hunts the birds himself. True or not, this dish, Kamo Seiro (warm soba noodles with warm roasted duck in warm tsuyu dipping sauce), a close relative to Kamo Nanban (warm soba noodles with leeks), another Kyōto autumn / winter favorite, is masterful. Something about the autumn air and the changing colors makes people, especially Japanese people, and even more especially Kyōtoans, long for a taste of the season, and not being especially close to any seaside the people of the Imperial City generally agree: what does that better than roast duck? The crispy skin is like the falling leaves crunched underfoot as you walk in the chill dusk evening toward your lady friend’s house, the centimeter thick layer of beautifully textured fat redolent of the bearskin rug before the hearth of the roaring fire which throws flame light on the open bottle of vintage old world Pinot noir said lady friend is holding, and finally past the skin and beneath the fat comes the tender flesh, reminiscent of the autumnal elements, of the mingling of fire and air, and as you bite down and union is achieved, you taste the fine seiro fish stock now with a hint of oaky barbecue added as ballast and realizing that this meal too, perfectly balanced as it is by the light buckwheat noodles awash in their own sobayu, like others, will pass, you slow down. Taking your time now, you look out the window and watch the people passing and the wind blowing the leaves to that far off sea. Things inevitably change, but thankfully some things do not.