Exploring The History of Soba Noodles

By THE FEDERATION OF JAPAN NOODLES ORGANIZATIONS

In Japan's capital, the most iconic soba is known as 2:8 soba, (pronounced ‘ni-hachi’ in Japanese) a reference to the noodle's key ingredients of two parts flour, eight parts buckwheat. This dish was and still is a staple of Tokyo life.

Asakusa Keidai Ningyo no Zu Nidai Kunisada (2020)THE FEDERATION OF JAPAN NOODLES ORGANIZATIONS

Ukiyo-e is a popular form of Japanese painting that first came to prominence in the 17th century. It was a medium that depicted a variety of scenes from both rich and noble lifestyles to mundane daily life and was a medium much loved by everyday people. In ukiyo-e works, you can get a glimpse of what real Japanese life looked like, and witness just what people of that time ate.

Some favorite 'Edo' (the old name for Tokyo) culinary delights included sake, sakana (drinking snacks), and of course, the focus of this feature, soba noodles.

Ohan Chouemon Katsuragawa Renrinoshigarami Yotaka to Yourisoba Sandai Toyokuni (2020)THE FEDERATION OF JAPAN NOODLES ORGANIZATIONS

Traveling soba noodle soup vendors were some of the key catalysts for the growth and spread of soba in Edo. When restaurants in Tokyo would close for business, vendors would satisfy the late-night cravings of the city's population. Rather than having a permanent location, the vendors used portable stalls that could be carried by a single person.

Touto Meisho Takanawa Nijyurokuya Machi Yukyou no Zu Shodai hiroshige (2020)THE FEDERATION OF JAPAN NOODLES ORGANIZATIONS

This 1837 painting titled "Twenty-six nights of Takanawa" is a piece from the golden era of Utagawa Hiroshige, a ukiyoe legend whose work influenced Western painters like Van Gogh and Monet.

The painting - which depicts a local spiritual celebration - shows many food shops busy in action, servicing the Edo-era locals, who are enjoying the festivities. Among the many stalls that feature in the night's line-up, you'll see much loved local snacks like grilled squid, tempura, kushi-dango (rice balls), and sushi.

Look closely, and you'll see the '2:8 soba' sign. Here you'll notice all the other food stalls are sturdier stands known as yataimise, but only the soba restaurants are ultra-portable stalls. It looks like the mobile night soba sellers who typically sell in town came to join this festive evening.

Tokyo Nihahci Soba "Seiro Soba" (2020)THE FEDERATION OF JAPAN NOODLES ORGANIZATIONS

Tokyo 2:8 soba, a delicious dish inherited from Edo-era

The most famous dish you could say was born in Edo and raised in Tokyo is 2:8 soba. At the time, people ate soba (buckwheat) in the form of dumplings or mixed with glutinous rice to make rice cakes. Through various innovations to make it easier to eat, it transformed into sliced soba, the shape of modern noodles.Preparing noodles using a blend of 80% buckwheat with a filler of 20% wheat, makes the noodles resilient and easy to slurp down and starting from the craftsmen and residents of Edo, this blend became so popular that merchants and samurai families would have it delivered to their homes.
Long, thin 2:8 Soba, with its texture and delicious mouth-filling flavor, became a daily part of life for the restless residents of Edo and has been well-loved as a good-luck charm.

Throughout Tokyo, you'll see that many soba restaurants that have maintained their original noren (a short curtain hung at the entrance of a soba restaurant). Like a visual marker of the food's history, some of these noren curtains date back over 300 years.

In 2019, the ‘Tokyo 2:8 soba’ initiative was established. The 2:8 soba organization recognizes Tokyo stores that are maintaining the authenticity and promoting the legacy of this iconic Edo period dish. As of December 2019, the number of affiliated stores in Tokyo was about 516. To uncover just what makes the perfect Tokyo soba, we visited two long-established stores to talk about the noodle trade.

Tokyo Nihachi Soba "Tsuyu" (2020)THE FEDERATION OF JAPAN NOODLES ORGANIZATIONS

"I've been drinking this same soup every day since I was little. My grandfather made me do it to learn the taste of this restaurant," laughs Eiichi Kaneko, the 7th generation owner of Sarashina Nunoya, a shining example of Tokyo's classic soba stores.

For 230 years now, Sarashina Nunoya, has been a much loved Tokyo institution, serving up classic and inventive soba dishes that have been passed down and perfected throughout generations.

The most crucial element of Sarashina Nunoya's menu is the dipping soup (known in Japanese as 'tsuyu'). The four key base ingredients of the perfect tsuyu are soy sauce, dried bonito broth, sugar, and mirin. While the foundation is basic, these four ingredients can be mixed in a multitude of ways, crafting a palette that tastes different one hundred times over.

Eiichi Kaneko of Sarashina Nunoya (2020)THE FEDERATION OF JAPAN NOODLES ORGANIZATIONS

As expected, Kaneko is a man incredibly well-versed in the history and culture of soba. He says that one of the critical reasons soba flourished in Tokyo, was the vicinity of the city to key buckwheat producing areas like Niigata and Nagano. Also, he explains, soba as a healthy Edo-era ‘fast food’ suited the busy lifestyles of the city and its people. Convenient, cheap, healthy, and light on the stomach, but still filling, versatile, and full of nutritional value, soba is an incredibly well-rounded meal.

The Sarashina Nunoya tsuyu blend is one Kaneko says "does not interfere with soba," instead, it's a harmonious partner to the 2:8 soba. Together these two elements draw out their main characters, rich but not too assertive, and slightly sweet, it's an exquisite balance.

Just like the classic Edo-influenced interior of the store, the flavor of Sarashina Nunoya tsuyu Eiichi claims has barely changed since the store's inception. While the flavors of the individual ingredients may vary, it's through fine adjustment and a well-trained palette that Eiichi ensures the blend stays just how it's always been.

Tokyo Nihachi Soba "Tri-color Change Soba" (2020)THE FEDERATION OF JAPAN NOODLES ORGANIZATIONS

Within the soba community, there is a popular motto that influences the way soba makers conduct their work. The motto is "soba no san-tate" which in English translates to the three elements of 'freshness' - freshly ground, freshly kneaded, and freshly cooked.

Following this philosophy, Sarashina Nunoya makes soba three times a day, ensuring their customers always experience nothing but the best the store can offer.

While Sarashina Nunoya is proud of its traditional roots, it does like to play around with its noodles by combining different flavors to the classic 2:8 combination. The clear white and sweet soba you see in the front is the store's regular soba; it's made with the flour taken from the most central part of the soba seed.

Some of Sarashina Nunoya's more ambitious combinations include plum, cherry blossom, mugwort, sansho pepper, shiso, bamboo grass, green yuzu, ginger, chrysanthemum, green laver (seaweed) and yuzu.

Tokyo Nihachi Soba "Oyster Soba" (2020)THE FEDERATION OF JAPAN NOODLES ORGANIZATIONS

Sarashina Nunoya soba made with seasonal ingredients

Sarashina Nunoya works with seasonal ingredients to showcase Japan's distinct four seasons. In early spring, you can try springtime buckwheat and clam noodles, while autumn brings mushroom soba noodles with shiitake mushrooms, shimeji mushrooms, and sweet enoki mushrooms. The image you see here is the oyster soba noodles, a comforting wintery dish is served around November to February using oysters from Hiroshima.

Hideki Tanaka (Right) and Tanaka of Kanda Owariya (2020)THE FEDERATION OF JAPAN NOODLES ORGANIZATIONS

Next stop is Kanda Owariya which has been around since 1923

Another icon of Tokyo's soba scene is Kanda Owariya, a proud family establishment that's been running since 1923. Hideki Tanaka is the store's third-generation owner. He's a man with sharp style and an imposing air about him, but once you get him talking, he's laid back but still warm and open, with a clear passion for philosophizing about soba.

No matter what he's doing, Tanaka, says that the spirit of 'iki' is one of his guiding ideologies. The concept of 'iki' is best described as a sense of effortless cool, or understated elegance with how one conducts themselves. With Tanaka at the helm, this historic but meticulously maintained restaurant embodies the 'iki' philosophy. Kanda Owariya's staple dish is, of course, 2:8 soba, but the store also takes pride in offering a wide selection of sake and side dishes too.

Tokyo Nihachi Soba "Large Shrimp Tempura Soba" (2020)THE FEDERATION OF JAPAN NOODLES ORGANIZATIONS

Shrimp tempura soba

This is one of Kanda Owariya's specialties, and an Edo favorite, soba, and tempura . The store takes great pride in its ability to produce 2:8 soba free of additives.

Tokyo Nihachi Soba "Duck Seiro" (2020)THE FEDERATION OF JAPAN NOODLES ORGANIZATIONS

This is a seasonal soba dish served on a bamboo dish (‘seiro’ in Japanese). Serving noodles like this are known as a seirosoba. Kanda Owariya's duck soba features a sauce that has been aged for a few days to bring out the depth of its flavor.

The Hands of a Soba Maker (2020)THE FEDERATION OF JAPAN NOODLES ORGANIZATIONS

At Kanda Owariya and many other shops that serve 2:8 soba, the noodles are handmade daily. Tanaka and his son explain that after physically making the soba (as opposed to using a machine) for many years, you'll find that the texture of the ground buckwheat varies throughout the seasons.

"I was taught to see with ten eyes when making soba," Tanaka explains, referring to his fingers. When we met , the soba Kanda Owariya was serving was a blend of carefully selected buckwheat flour from Hokkaido and Gunma prefecture.

Every time the soba is made, the mixture is finely adjusted to suit its surroundings. The taste of a restaurant is crafted by what could be described as a refined sense of self, which known in Japanese as "soba restaurant konkori," and translates roughly to a soba craftsman's guesstimate.

Hand-made Soba "Mizumawashi" (2020)THE FEDERATION OF JAPAN NOODLES ORGANIZATIONS

Hand-made Soba "Kone" (2020)THE FEDERATION OF JAPAN NOODLES ORGANIZATIONS

Hand-made Soba "Kiri" (2020)THE FEDERATION OF JAPAN NOODLES ORGANIZATIONS

Hand-made Soba "Shiagari" (2020)THE FEDERATION OF JAPAN NOODLES ORGANIZATIONS

Tanaka's approach to soba is clearly defined by a respect for traditional Japanese culture and etiquette, one that's developed over a long period of history. Still, he knows that to protect the culture, you have to move with the times. "I want to create the future while paying homage to the past," he says.

Kanda Owariya's shop philosophy is to respect tradition, follow the ideologies of 'iki', and to pass on soba culture to the next generation. But, Tanaka knows this is still as much a business as it is a culture, and keeping his customers happy is his main priority.

"There's nothing like the feeling of being told by a customer that what we served was delicious. Without that, there's no point to this business," says Tanaka, a true Tokyoite.

Seiro Soba (2020)THE FEDERATION OF JAPAN NOODLES ORGANIZATIONS

2:8, it's the golden ratio of soba born from the ingenuity and taste of Edo craftsmen with a legacy that lives on today.

Now in 2021, the year of the Tokyo Olympics and an era where more than ever international guests are exploring and appreciating the depth of Japanese culture, there's been no better time to appreciate and reignite the city's passion for this iconic, culture-defining dish.

Credits: Story

Cooperation with:
Shibadaimon, Sarashina Nunoya
Kanda, Owariya Honten
Tokyo 2:8 Soba

Photos: Mitsugu Uehara
Text: Lucy Dayman
Translation: Manami Sunaga
Japanese text & Edit: Saori Hayashida
Production: Skyrocket Corporation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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