A visit to Akira Kobayashi's soba restaurant in Seki City, Gifu Prefecture, turned into an unforgettable experience as he demonstrated the art of making soba and served delicious tempura. The article describes the unique flavors and techniques used by the soba master, along with a glimpse into the process of making soba noodles and the inviting atmosphere of his traditional restaurant.
I love soba, but I never actually made it myself. That changed at 7am one morning last week, incredibly, in a shed behind the house of Akira Kobayashi, a soba master in Seki City, Gifu Prefecture. We had stopped at his shop the day before. I figured it was just an ordinary soba joint where we could grab a quick lunch. It soon became apparent there was nothing ordinary about his place. It was a small, elegant restaurant with a half dozen seats along a dining counter, open kitchen on the other side, and a couple more tables. As we waited for our soba and tempura, my friend Yuko noticed an issue of Dansyu, a leading food magazine, sitting on the counter. She opened it find his place rated one of the "top 25" soba restaurants in the country. Hmm, here in Seki?
We watched the master boil our soba is cauldron of water, plunge into an icy bath, and serve it to us. Unforgettable. Our tempura followed soon after. Ditto, unforgettable. I'm not sure how to describe why the soba was so good; it just tasted like this is what this food is about, period. The tempura was all beautiful vegetables -- green beans, pepper, kabocha, squash, eggplant, shiitake, cherry tomato, and shiso leaf. The natural flavor of these ingredients, grown by local farmers, was just amazing. The master's tempura technique was equally astonishing -- so light and delicate, with the batter adding another heavenly sensibility to the veggies, but never overwhelming them. Everything was deep fried in pure, raw sesame oil in a traditional copper tempura pot. We ate our tempura with a little salt, that's all. The master was a friendly man and started talking to us, curious to know why we were in Seki. When we told him how much we loved his food, he invited me into his kitchen to watch him make tempura. As we got ready to leave, still swooning over our spectacular lunch, the master asked us if we wanted to meet him in the morning to see him make soba. But, of course.
The next morning we met at his work shed behind his house, where he grinds whole buckwheat into soba flour, and conjures the flour into noodles. We watched as he mixed the soba flour with water in a special bowl, which he said was the most important part of soba-making. As he pulled the ingredients together to form a dough, the flour released an incredible nutty fragrance that reminded me of peanuts and almonds. He kneaded the dough and shaped it into a cone. He then shifted it to a large table and stretched it with long rolling poles to transform it into 1/2 inch-thick sheet. As he rolled out the dough, he repeated the mantra, "strong but gentle, speedy but slow" to describe the process. We watched him cut the sheet into perfectly even strands.
After he finished he turned to me. "Do you want to try?" As he took off his apron to hand to me, I attempted to beg off. The idea of me making soba, an art that takes years to master, was rather preposterous. But the master gently insisted, and in the end, I'm glad he did. Feeling how the soba flour comes together in the bowl, how to roll the dough out (with "cat hands" on the poles), how to cut the sheets with the heavy knife, helped me understand, theoretically at least, the magical transformation from flour to food. Once I finished cutting -- I have to admit my soba looked more like fettuccine than soba -- the master invited us into his lovely home to taste it for breakfast. My soba was... unforgettable. I'm kidding. It was too thick and too chewy, among many other problems, but the soba flour I used was so fresh it tasted fine. Actually it was unforgettable, but in a different way. Here are some pictures. (Kobayashi Soba-ya in Seki: (0575) 22-2526).