Soba is a typical noodle dish that may come to mind when you think of Japanese cuisine. Served hot or cold to suit the weather, you dip the thin buckwheat noodles in dashi sauce as you slurp.
Or at least, that’s how I used to think about soba. Having gotten so used to Izumo Soba, I now find regular soba rather bland in comparison. Where’s the deep color? Where’s the aroma? Where’s the nutty taste and firm texture? Why bother making a mess with dipping when I can just stir the sauce in and eat it as is?
Regular soba is made with flour from the tiny unhulled buckwheat seeds, which makes for a rather uniform (and typically factory-prepared) consistency, but Izumo Soba is made using the entire seed, hull and all. This not only makes for more texture and taste, but also more nutrition.
Furthermore, Izumo Soba is still typically handmade (you can see photos of the process here on the Haneya restaurant homepage), and these makes for variations in each restuarant’s brand. Some people are very fierce in defending their favorites, and seeing as I’ve only tried a handful of the different Izumo Soba restaurants swarming around Izumo Taisha and Matsue Castle. Provided you don’t have a buckwheat allergy, eating Izumo Soba is pretty much essential when visiting the region, and the place I take people usually depends on where we happen to be standing around lunchtime or what kind of scenery we want, or wherever we can squeeze into the establishment on especially busy days!
Another difference you may have noticed in the above photo is how Izumo Soba is served. While you might usually picture soba served on a bamboo mat, this is charming, but it doesn’t make it very easy to take noodles with you on the go. The bentou-box approach has become pretty standard for Izumo Soba, especially when served in Warigo Soba style (I have yet to even hear of an Izumo Soba restuarant that doesn’t offer Warigo Soba). In this form, it is stacked in three little boxes and an extra box on top with the toppings.
The toppings are mostly similar to what you’d expect in other soba servings–strips of dried seaweed, chopped green onions, maybe some katsuo flakes. However, instead of wasabi, Izumo Soba is usually served with momiji-oroshi. Literally translated, this grainy red topping is “grated maple leaves” but it is really a mixture of grated daikon radish and spicy red pepper. However, the toppings are not limited to this–I’ve also have Izumo Soba served with raw quail egg or sticky grated yam. Part of the fun of Warigo Soba is that you can try out different ratios and combinations of flavors in each dish. You add dashi (the sauce) on top and stir it all together before you start slurping, but you can add the leftover dashi to the the next dish for a strong flavor since it’s already soaked up some of the flavors in the first dish.
On that note, here is a handy video explaining how to eat Warigo style Izumo Soba like a pro!
Notice that drinking the water the soba was boiled in is an option. It’s known for how healthy it is, and has a smooth, light texture and flavor. One of the other popular ways to eat Izumo Soba is in the original water it was boiled in, with some flavor added to make it a nice broth. You can add additional toppings to this from there, and some establishments are known for their own touch on this, such as how Yakumo-an adds duck meat.
Way back in the Edo period when there were very clear distinctions between what different classes of people ate in the caste society, soba was considered commoner food (bare in mind that sushi started this way, too!). Despite how many members of the samurai class turned their nose up at such simple fare, one of the Izumo domain feudal lords was known for his love of good soba. While Matsudaira Harusato (better known by his tea name “Fumai”) is commonly associated with promoting tea culture (still very noticable today), he is also known for sneaking out of his quarters at night go dine at the cheap soba joints!
Nakamura Chaho credits him with the following words:
I drink tea, look for good tools, eat soba,
Garden, watch the nature’s beauty, and
Without other desire, laugh loudly.
I don’t know about Lord Fumai, but I usually desire dessert even after a satisfying soba meal.
It seems that weird ice cream flavors around Japan making use of the local speciality products (or at least making use of the creativity of the locals) has been a big topic around the internet lately, which I did not notice until I had people asking me if I’ve tried any weird ice cream flavors. Well, yes, but it’s not as I go looking for them. It’s more so that you can find them anywhere and my friends and I think, “gee, that’s interesting” and give it a shot. I wouldn’t say they were especially weird (but perhaps after living in Japan for a while my definition of weird has shifted), but I do have a favorite among them.
You can probably guess that I’m leading up to soba-flavored ice cream.
I tried this at a new Michi-no-Eki (a fancy style of road stations or rest stops throughout Japan, many of which are sights in and of themselves) in Unnan, located south of Izumo and Matsue (together with Okuizumo and Yasugi, these five cities/towns make up what is commonly know as the “Izumo region”). This Michi-no-Eki is called Tatara-ichibanchi and has a special focus on introducing local mythology (especially the Yamata-no-Orochi 8-headed giant serpent, which resided in Unnan), with the help of Shimane’s volunteer tourism ambassador, the scowling Yoshida-kun (whose day job happens to be attempting to take over the world). (Recall that Yoshida-kun and company have also volunteered their villianous services in telling Lafcadio Hearn‘s “Kwaidan” ghost stories.)
One of the gastronomical options at this rest stop is the Izumo Soba restaurant, Murage, and they offer this ice cream on their menu. In addition to the buckwheat seeds on top that provide a little crunch, their add components of the soba to the ice cream itself, and it’s a light, refreshing flavor. Unlike other flavor adventures which were more for the experience than for partaking of the treat again, this I would be happy to eat again just to enjoy it!
Izumo Soba is much the same way. It’s not only something I eat with people visiting, but it’s something I pick up at grocery store and use in my daily life, too. It’s not only for the experience as described–it’s simply really good soba.