Soba, For Whatever Ails You

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When I’m feeling down, I turn to Japanese food to make me feel better. I grew up eating bowls of chunky miso stew, thick with carrots and potato. The mere smell of rice is comforting to me. But the biggest reason I turn to Japanese food when I need to feel soothed, is because Japan is the place where I was most mothered.

Here I must apologize to my own mom—it’s not as if she didn’t mother me. She stroked my head when I was upset and dried my tears and attended my school plays and taught me how to drive a car. She was also a busy working single mother, and not terribly domestic to begin with. My mother is extraordinary in many ways, but cooking and cleaning are not her strong suit. She’d be the first to say so.

When I moved to Japan, however, I gained a Japanese mother, which is a rank unto itself. I had just graduated from college and, for the first four months I was in Japan, I stayed with family friends in a small town in the high mountains. The mother of the family, Kaoru-san, told me I would be her American daughter.

Kaoru-san’s days were devoted to her family. She cooked their favorite dishes, shopped for after-school treats that might make them smile, and she ran the house—cleaning and doing the laundry for all family members. She even drew the bath for them each night.

And now she wanted to do all these things for me, too.

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What was my favorite food, she wanted to know. Where was my dirty laundry? How did I like my bath? As the oldest daughter in a single parent family, who had been doing her own laundry, cooking, and cleaning for many years, this was amazing to me.

It was also a little hard to take. I’d never come this close to being waited on and it made me feel uncomfortable. In the end we compromised. I helped her cook and I did my own laundry, but she did draw my bath each night. She put pine needles into the water to perfume it, or sometimes dried orange rinds, each sewn into a small mesh bag.

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There is a whole other discussion we could have about what Kaoru-san might have done with her life had the choices and options been available to her—she is one of the most curious, funny, kind, and open-minded people I have ever met. In the time and place she was born, however, this is what you did. You married and had children and cared for your family. And you did it well.

The first time I became sick in Japan, Kaoru-san carried up a tray to my bedroom laden with dishes and cups and bowls. There were options—soup, as well as rice porridge. There was a yuzu syrup to sooth my throat, and pickles for digestion. There was a steaming mug of shoga-oyu, a mixture of lemon and honey and freshly grated ginger that was the perfect thing for a sore throat and aching head. She kept coming back throughout the day with more options, anything that might make me feel better.

It was some serious mothering.

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Even when I got my own job and apartment in Japan, whenever I got sick Kaoru-san showed up on my doorstep with numerous containers of food. There were always options—anything that might make me feel better.

I never told Kaoru-san I was sick—I didn’t want her to go out of her way for me. This is Japan, however, and everyone is connected. If I called in sick to work, the word got back to her and she’d show up on my doorstep like some cold/flu fairy, bringing comfort.

These days I generally mother myself, at least when it comes to food (with the occasional help of some well chosen take-out). I may be far from Japan and Kaoru-san, but when I’m feeling run down I still turn to Japanese food to make me better. Most of the time, I turn to soba. I don’t know what it is about these earthy buckwheat noodles, but a good bowl of soba makes me feel like all is right in the world.

Mothering, we take it where we find it.

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SOBA NOODLES WITH KALE, RADISHES, AND SCALLIONS

My soba creations vary based on what I have in the fridge at any given time. The sauce is something I make and freeze, so I always have it on hand. I add vegetables and more according to the season and my whims. Yesterday’s version had kale, radishes, and green onions. You could use bok choy or spinach, if you like. You could add tofu or chicken or mushrooms. My favorite soba version for when I’m actually sick has a poached egg on top.

If you don’t want to bother with making the sauce, you can buy bottled versions of soba tsuyu in an Asian market. Some brands of soba include sauce packets in with the noodles. You might want to jazz these up with some fresh ginger, however.

For sauce:
2 dried shiitake mushrooms
2 1/2 cups water
2 4 inch pieces of kombu (dried kelp) or equivalent
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine)
3 Tbs ponzu sauce
1 Tbs sugar or agave to taste
1 Tbs Asian sesame oil
2 Tbs fresh ginger, cut into thin matchsticks

Simmer mushrooms and konbu in water for 15 minutes on low (don’t let boil). Strain out solids and discard kombu (you can julienne the mushroom and add to noodles, though it won’t have much flavor). Add remaining ingredients and simmer on low until ginger has softened (5 mins).

This makes a lot of sauce (about four servings worth). I divvy it up in single serving containers (8 to 10 oz) and freeze for when I want noodles.

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For this version of noodles, per person:

1 1/2 cup lacinato (dino) kale, remove rib and julienne leaves
2 large radishes, grated
1 green onion, sliced thinly
1 tsp sesame seeds
1 bundle buckwheat soba (90 g.); makes about 2 cups cooked

NOTE: most soba contains wheat flour. For those who are gluten-free, you can buy soba that is 100% buckwheat. Eden Organic is one brand.

Cook the soba according to package directions, drain, and rinse well. Using the same pot, add 1 1/4 cup soba sauce and bring to a low boil.

Add the kale and cook 2 minutes, until the kale has softened slightly. Add soba noodles and mix.

Pour into a bowl and top with radish, green onions, and sesame seeds.

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As soon as I was finished taking photos, I dumped the who
le thing into the new bowl I have—a gift from Mrs. B, who has done her share of mothering me as well. This was my birthday present and it fits perfectly into the palm of a hand. Comfort is good—and you can never have too many mother characters around.

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PS. For those who have asked about the green bowl, they can be found at Flavour Design.

Comments

  1. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever had proper soba. Isn’t that sad? And such beautiful photos–I can tell you’re loving your new camera!

  2. Lisa–yes and yes: am looooving the new camera; and very sad you’ve never had soba. We might have to do something to rectify that, stat!

  3. I too enjoy eating soba noodles, especially good with pickled daikon and wakame. The saltiness of the latter really go well with the earthy soba taste.

  4. You are such a beautiful writer. This is one of the coolest posts I have come across in the food blogosphere in a long time. I loved the story and the photos.

  5. What a beautiful tribute! Great photos and as always beautiful, moving language. Now I have to run, I’m craving a hot steaming bowl of comfort. I take mine with lots of potato!

  6. Your new entry has been read with relish. I visited Japan in 1968 and relate to your love for it and it’s people. Will make your recipe, but would love a charming bowl like your green one w/chopsticks. Welcome back!

  7. Cha-sen–isn’t that true! Now you have my craving daikon pickles.

    Dallas–aww, thank you. So kind of you to say:-)

    Ethel–mmm, I want a taste of Irish comfort too!

    Anon–thanks for the welcome back. I hope to be spending much more time around here soon. I’ll see if I can locate a source for the bowl and will post it if I do. Cheers!

  8. I never had a Japanese mother, but my comfort food in my 20’s was sukiyaki! I’d make my brother go to the little Japanese restaurant one town away and bring it to me when I had a cold or flu. He was pretty accommodating about it.
    TS

  9. I love Kaoru-san. Her way sounds so “zen” – doing simple things with intention and grace. The bath water is a great example – I’m putting pine needles in my next hot bath!

  10. Love that bowl!

    My son is crazy about Japanese food. As a mom, I just love that I can please him so easily with this healthy cuisine – it may be a bit salty by times but Japanese food is so much better than burgers and fries that I never point out that drawback to him.

  11. Thanks so much for this recipe for the soup stock. This will keep up my soba about a hundred notches now.

    I wish I had someone to throw fragrant things into my bath for me. And I wouldn’t mind someone bringing a bowl of soba to slurp either.

  12. I will definitely make some of that sauce and keep it in the freezer. Great idea!

  13. I hope you feel better soon!

  14. What a wonderful story! I crave Japanese food when I’m sick too. My first baby was born in Japan, and so I was fed Japanese food (of course) as I recuperated in the hospital. My 2nd baby was just born, but in the US, and I missed the Japanese food terribly. My first meal when I checked out of the hospital was soba!

  15. What a thoughtful tribute to your Japanese mother. That experience must have been amazing, and the culinary creations you must have learned. Thanks for sharing, this soup looks great!

  16. I love your noodle bowl, and the soba looks so perfect in it. When I visited friends in Japan, I got a lesson in how to make soba from scratch, and I think the one batch I made — and cooked — there was the best soba I’ve ever eaten. Of course I’ve never made soba from scratch since then, but it was such fun to learn how.

  17. Was just thinking about soba, Tea. (About how it's been too long since I've had it & I should make some.) Bought some tsuyu at the Asian market, but may try making my own…I like the way yours sounds. I'm totally with you on Japanese food being comfort food…

  18. TS–what a very nice brother you have! I don’t think I would have been able to get mine to do the same:-)

    Zoomie–you know, I’ve never tried it here. I should!

    Dana–good point, I hadn’t thought much about that. Lucky that your son has such good taste, I am sure you had something to do with that!

    Susan C–I’d take someone else making it for me as well right now!

    Dana–it’s dead easy, I love that.

    Fuji Mama–what nice memories you must have. My foreign friends who had babies over there were all pleased with the experience.

    Kat–thank you, my dear! The soba always works wonders:-)

    Hayley–it was an amazing experience, changed my life (and the food, oh the food!).

    Lydia–you know I’ve never made soba from scratch before. I’ve watched it be made in restaurants where they specialize in that, but next time I will have to get someone to teach me. Lucky you!

  19. I have never eaten Japanese food and I’ve never been mothered with such care and kindness…
    I am filled wih envy
    Tant pis, maybe I can make your recipe instead, though finding the ingredients may be a challenge!

  20. Ah! I love that bowl! And I’ve never had a good soba before, never known what to do with those intriguing noodles. Thank you for sharing your recipe for the sauce. I love that it’s easy to freeze and keep around. :-)

  21. Soba noodles are the best!!! yumyumyum!! Your photos are exquisite!!!

  22. I love soba. And what a sweet story to go with it. Thank you for sharing.

  23. Reading your article about your Japanese mom has reminded me of my own mom who even as an expat in Brazil raised us just like that. Now that I married an American and moved to the US, I tend to see the difference of American mothering and Japanese mothering. You caught the essence of it and described it so well! As far as soba, for some reason at our house, we always ate it as a cold dish, in the summertime but I will definitely try it warm with your suggestions fro the trimmings!

  24. Well I am not sick (touch wood) but it is one grade-A crappy day here, both in terms of weather and a mild case of the crankies over some circumstances (nothing dire!). This does look like pure comfort. And hey, we have soba in the pantry!

  25. The February edition of Everyday Food had a little section on soba and soba recipes – cold soba salad with feta and cucumber, soba soup with spinach and sauteed chicken with herbed soba. I have never had it, but I really want to try one of these recipes. Just need to find out where I can buy it….

  26. Love that bowl! Amazing

  27. Hi Tea,

    this is my first time reading your blog and I really enjoy your writing style and your recipes.

    I’ve being living in China for 2 yrs, but unfortunately never had the idea of making soba noodles even thought I love them, and it’s very easy to find ALL the ingredients here.

    Funny thing is yesterday I went to my hood supermarket and was browsing through the Japanese food aisle and was thinking: I should really try to start cooking more japanese food. mmmmm. Now I have a reason to go back.

    happy, so happy to find you ;-)

  28. You don’t have to throw out the konbu after simmering it. My grandma cuts it up into thin strips (like a julienne) and stir fries it with some sesame oil and red pepper flakes. Makes a yummy salad or side dish with just a bit of heat.

  29. Tea, this post takes me back to Japan as well. I spent a month there this summer, and in the last week earned a Japanese mom (and dad!), too, while staying with a good friend of mine and her family. In the course of that trip, I also came to count soba and rice as comforting, invigorating foods and have fallen back to preparing myself big bowls of soba and miso soup during these cold winter months.

    Thanks for sharing your memories and your recipe!

  30. what a wonderful , warming post. whenever i am craving something homey i always want bibimbap, i know it’s korean and not japanese, but this post reminded me of that.

  31. Not sure you see comments long after the original post, but I had to come and say that I absolutely LOVED my soba noodles cooked this way. I made the sauce from scratch following your recipe and even managed to successfully have it for lunch next day – I rinsed the noodles VERY well after cooking, they sat in the fridge overnight.

    The sauce was also cold, I just briefly warmed it in the microwave, just a little. Removed the noodles from the fridge 1 hour before lunch – added the barely warm sauce to them.

    Added toppings…

    perfect lunch!

    THANK YOU

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