From Berry to Bowl: The Education of a Soba Artisan
During the Edo Period, soba (buckwheat) noodles became a common food among ordinary people in the city. The soba restaurant remains a common feature of the urban foodscape of contemporary Tokyo. Now fast food soba shops are common in train stations, and the soba business is increasingly controlled by chain restaurants. Independently owned soba restaurants are closing faster than they are opening, with the difficulties of sustaining family businesses across generations being one of the main reasons and the cost of specialized equipment for making soba being another. In Nishiogi, independent soba shops are still common, however. One place that is famous, despite only being open for lunch, is Nishiogi Kurama Soba. It lies at the corner a popular drinking street with open-air bars and restaurants appealing to young urban flaneurs and the busy neighborhood thoroughfare of Shinmei Street. The owner is the 71-year-old Suita Masami, a full-on berry to bowl soba artisan.
Suita’s father moved to Tokyo from Aomori and ran a liquor store on the property (half of which is now the Dante Coffee Shop run by Suita’s brother). From the time he was a boy, Suita helped around the store, but he didn’t see it as his own mission to “sell things manufactured by someone else.” He wanted to produce something himself.
In 1984 he met a friend in the soba restaurant business who told him this was interesting work. So at age 36t, he decided to switch fields. From the beginning, he had the determined attitude of the culinary artisan. “To make good soba, you need good buckwheat flour, but it is really difficult to secure a steady supply that is just the amount that you can sell.”
At that time, he got to know Kunihiro Takahashi, who opened a soba restaurant “Okina” in Nagasaka-Cho, Yamanashi Prefecture (now Hokuto City) At that time, Takahashi was also fastidious about the ingredients for soba. “Mr. Takahashi traveled all over to observe the color of buckwheat berries, taste, aroma, amount of water, etc. For a while, he grew his own buckwheat noodles in Nagano Prefecture. He realized it would be difficult to continue this while running his restaurant, so he began buying his own buckwheat berries and making the flour himself."
Suita became a follower of Takashi, and on the days when his own shop was closed, he would travel to Nagasaka to help out there. It is through this experience that he learned the joy of making things from scratch, Suita said.
When he started his business, the soba noodles were made by machine. But in order to realize the ideals of producing delicious soba that he was observing in Nagasaka, he transitioned to a model of “hand-made soba from home-milled flour.” In Nov. 1994 he installed a soba flour mill on the second floor of his shop.
As Suita guided us through the upstairs room where the soba is made and the soba flour is ground, he explained the steps in the process: stone removal (removing the pebbles and sand from the soba berries), polishing (polishing the buckwheat surface, scraping the sharp triangular points of the berries to remove the hull, mud and dirt), grain alignment (according to the size of the buckwheat berries ), peeling (peeling off the seed coat [amakawa, lit. “sweet skin”] from the buckwheat kernel), pulverizing the kernels, and sifting the flour. All the soba flour is prepared in the shop, and the soba flour needed that day is prepared that day. “That way customers can always enjoy freshly made soba,” Suita proudly said.
Suita has continued making soba flour and handmade noodles based on his Nagasaka experience. Now he has two young employees helping him and the process hasn’t changed.
Suita now can control the process of making soba from the unprocessed berries to the noodles in the bowl (or the bamboo zaru for cold soba). Still, he needs to find the soba berries that will produce the right flavor. We asked him how he found the right one.
“I tried various kinds of buckwheat and came across Hitachi Aki soba in Ibaraki Prefecture. The flavor is strong and the texture is good.”
Mr. Suita met a full-time farmer in Chikusei City, Ibaraki Prefecture, who was growing Ibaraki Hitachi Aki Soba. Convinced that the flavor of soba is created in the field, the farmer produces only organically farmed buckwheat. Suita contracts directly with this farmer to purchase his buckwheat.
Kurama's famous soba noodle dishes are “hako mori soba” (full-box noodles) and “amakawa soba.” We asked about "amakawa soba" because we had never heard of it anywhere else. “To make it,” he said, “I take the seed coat (amakawa) of the buckwheat berry that is removed during processing the flour and add it back to the buckwheat flour later. The texture will be chewier."
He explained that the seed coat (amakawa) is removed when making buckwheat flour. He stores it in a box and utilizes it for the “amakawa soba” (sometimes called “rustic soba” or “whole grain soba”). However, because the amount of amakawa he produces from his own flour milling is not enough, he also has asked former apprentices who have become independent to give him the amakawa that they no longer need.
It takes only two minutes to boil these hand-rolled soba noodles. Machine-made noodles are hard, Suita explained, but the hand-made ones are moist and soft, so the umami comes out quickly in hot water.
Soba noodles are served either warm with broth in a bowl or cold on a zaru (slotted bamboo mat). Unlike some shops, he makes two different varieties of dashi (soup stock) with which the noodles are served: one in which the warm noodles are served and another as a dipping sauce for the cold noodles. He also varies the soy sauce he uses in each. “I use soy sauce from Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture for the cold noodles,” he said. “It goes well with cold noodles. I use Higeta soy sauce for the warm ones.” The seasonings other than soy sauce are mirin (rice wine) and refined sugar.
Kurama Soba is now usually packed with customers, but for the first decade or so this was not the case. The secret, Suita discovered, was appealing to the female customer. “Women are the target,” he said. “It's important that women are convinced. If women are satisfied, men will come."
The balance does vary considerably, of course, but it does seem that women are the slight majority of customers, which makes sense given that this is not a neighborhood with many offices. Housewives are often the main customers at lunch in neighborhood restaurants. Still, many customers can be observed drinking sake with their soba, even during the lunchtime hours with the shop is open. “You also see older women in here drinking,” Suita said. “ Soba is easy to eat, so many people drink it with sake. There are many people from around the neighborhood here, but there also are people who come from far away by train.”
For Suita, sticking to his principles as a soba craftsman seems to be paying off. Currently, this is a thriving shop that serves roughly 50 covers on weekdays and about 100 on weekends, all at lunchtime, since the business is not open in the evening.
Recently there have been several new soba shops opened up by younger entrepreneurs on the street leading to Kurama from the station. We asked if they have had any impact on his business. “No,” he replied, “On the contrary, the business from older customers has increased.”
As Suita noted, many of the neighboring shops concentrate on a nighttime business serving young people rushing to Nishiogi for drinks after work, whereas his noon and early afternoon lunchtime service attract a more settled clientele focused on artisanal quality soba. The prevalence of older customers (including those gourmets who travel from other neighborhoods) may be related to a higher price point per serving, and a fastidiousness for his final product which distinguishes his shop even from the other excellent soba shops in the neighborhood.
Suita is also continuing the Japanese “noren wake” tradition of training apprentices who, with the master’s permission open a shop with the same name as that of their master. It seems that the young people who work at Suita-san mostly are people who want to set up soba shops themselves. Several of the workers who have trained at Suita now have independent stores, including “Niiza Kurama”, “Aomori Kurama” and “Izu Kurama.” Nonetheless, it seems that a lot of capital is required to open a soba restaurant, and this is an obstacle for many. “Because you need special tools and tableware to make a soba restaurant, it costs money,” Suita said. “It is difficult for young people to go out on their own right away.”
Still, he provides a place for training people who want to have their own shop with their own handmade buckwheat noodles. The passion for soba clearly is not exhausted in Tokyo, and a soba noodle-making class is also held in the neighboring Ogikubo. This is a half-year course with a capacity of twenty people. It seems to be a popular course that is always “waiting list only.”
Suita is now 71 years old, but he is still energetically trying to improve his manufacturing process. Two years ago he purchased new equipment for buckwheat sorting, hulling and milling. The buckwheat sorter sorts the buckwheat berries by size. The buckwheat dehulling machine removes the husks from the buckwheat berries and collects the rounded husks (leaving the buckwheat berries in their original form, with the buckwheat husks removed cleanly from the berries). The milling machine sifts the milled flour through a sieve. “I still have something to do,” Suita said proudly. “Manufacturing things is fun.”
We often don’t think of the process of making “artisanal food” as involving “manufacturing,” but behind each bowl of “hand-made soba” is a complex process that involves both agile handwork and the precise use of modern machinery. With a steady focus on taste and customer service and on developing precise techniques for processing his own noodles, Suita is a chef, food engineer, and culinary artisan. (James Farrer Nov. 10, 2019)
(interview by James Farrer and Fumiko Kimura June 4, 2019; transcription and Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; copyright by James Farrer, all rights reserved)