My next assignment was soba, the humble Japanese noodle. To guide me I enlisted Tadashi Ono, the chef at Matsuri and the co-author, with Harris Salat, of Japanese Hot Pots. We met at Soba-ya, one of the city’s best inexpensive soba restaurants. The jam of Japanese students confirmed its authenticity, though the laminated photo charts and generic blond-wood tables didn’t do much for me.
Soba, Tadashi explained, was basically poor people’s food, usually made with just buckwheat and water. “It takes focus and energy to make something great with just two ingredients,” Tadashi said. “That’s why, in Japan, restaurants work for years to perfect one dish.”
I had what everyone else in the restaurant seemed to be having, the soba soup topped with shrimp tempura. I closed my eyes and pulled the noodles out of the broth, trying with each slurpy strand to appreciate the flavor of the buckwheat, since I was told that tasting the ingredient is what defines the perfect soba. I grasped its nutty earthiness, but I didn’t quite get what the fuss was about.