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Slurp Soba for Less Than $10

Slurp Soba for Less Than $10

Torrance is a quiet bedroom community 20 miles south of Los Angeles proper, home to the North American headquarters for Toyota and Honda. It's no surprise then, that the epicenter of Japanese cuisine has moved away from Japantown (which is slowly being encroached upon by a growing Koreatown) and towards this suburb and its surrounding communities of Gardena, Redondo Beach, and Lomita. Ichimi-an is located in the middle of all the sprawl, and it's clear that this place does it right: at lunch, Japanese salarymen crowd the sushi bar and tiny dining space.

The main attraction here is the handmade soba noodles — chewy, cool Japanese buckwheat noodles. One could even say al dente, to borrow a term normally reserved for pasta. Nothing beats slurping cold soba noodles on a hot summer day in L.A., and with most combinations running less than $10, it's easy on the wallet as well. Get the sea eel and whitefish tempura bowl together with the zaru soba to experience the best of both worlds. The sushi-grade fish is dipped in a light batter, fried to perfection, and served with a slightly sweet tempura sauce on a bed of rice. Udon is made in-house as well, and if you're in the mood for sushi, the chirashi bowl is fresh and satisfying.

The space is simple, and the ambiance is relaxing. If you come during dinner, it hardly ever feels crowded, and the service is impeccable. If you've had a stressful day slogging through traffic on the way home from work, and you fancy a place to unwind at dinner, this is the place to go.


The Art of Homemade Soba Noodles

Dylan + Jeni

I had the first line of this story written before I even got out of the car. “Dogs smell your fear,” it said at the top of my notebook. “But soba smells your anxiety.” I’d been snarled in L.A. traffic, late on my way to meet Sonoko Sakai, the woman waiting to show me the way of soba, but there was one thing I already knew about the meditative culture of Japanese noodle making: Stressed out and road-ragey is not the way of soba. If ramen is the pork-fat shock-and-awe of the noodle world, soba is what philosophers slurp—a simple buckwheat noodle, a cuisine of purity and contemplation. A soba restaurant’s menu may include a tray of noodles served with tempura, or maybe a tangle bathed in a lean, coffee-dark duck broth, as austere as duck gets. But always, there will be an offering of plain soba, just-cooked, chilled cold, served with only a small cup of seasoned stock for dipping. It’s completely fireworks-free, but in simple things lie complex pleasures, if you choose to discover them, which is why you often find this most naked of dishes offered as a course on its own in refined kaiseki tasting menus. Slip a few strands between your chopsticks and dip them—ideally no more than a third of their length, to really taste the noodle. Slurp them up, feeling the way they glide toward you the Japanese have a word for what you’re looking for—nodogoshi, which means “good throat-feel.” Chew, and think about their texture—how firm, or yielding, or firm-but-yielding. Take in their flavor—do they taste nutty and earthy or round and mild, like buckwheat or wheat? Do this over and over, learning to notice the unnoticed: how evenly the master cut each strand how much sauce clings to them how the noodles change from day to day, season to season, as the flour ages and new crops replace old. Buckwheat is second only to rice as the traditional grain of the Japanese diet the word soba means both “buckwheat” and “noodle,” so it is the foundational pasta of Japanese cuisine. It is a craft perfected through meditative union between dough and maker, and an art when there is an eater to receive and make sense of it.

So I knew how my time with Sakai was supposed to go: I’d get a crash course in soba making and maybe find it surprisingly easy, at least until I got a little better and realized how little I actually knew. I’d understand that the masters adjust their dough according to the humidity in the air, according to the variety of buckwheat, according to the grind of the flour, probably according to the song of the birds in the wisteria above. I’d fall into a trance while rolling out the sheets, while cutting the noodles. I’d learn to make better soba, and making better soba would make me a better person: more present, more grounded. This was going to be a story of losing myself in the particulars, of mindfulness and detail and learning to see how big the world is by learning to see its smallest alchemies. I’ve seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi. That’s how Japanese food is supposed to work.

I finally arrived at Sakai’s sunbaked olive house, and she greeted me with her wide, smiling face, a scarf tied around her head, prepared for work. “My house is a little buckwheat monastery,” she said as she led me through its airy rooms: blond woods and cool, angular surfaces displaying little more than a book here, a book there, some pieces of art by her husband, Katsuhisa. I went to wash my hands in the bathroom and struggled to find the mirror.

“Soba saved me,” she said. A movie buyer and producer raised in New York, Mexico, and Japan, Sakai lived a big life in the presence of stars. But seven years ago, she finished producing a difficult film, one that burned her out, and she took more and more satisfaction in learning about noodles on her business trips to Japan. The day Sakai thought it would be a good idea to leave her clothes behind and fill her luggage with buckwheat flour was the day she knew her life had changed. “I stripped everything out of my life that I didn’t need.” Now she teaches the meditation of noodle making. “I like the scale of making food,” she said, and so she committed herself to the intimacy, the humanness, the smallness of a simple craft that you make, serve, and watch disappear over and over again.

Making Fresh Soba Noodles Dylan + Jeni

Talking with her, you’re immediately impressed with how centered, how balanced, she seems. In her studio, a plain room with a work table and two windows letting in lemonade light, she showed me some of her flours: this one American, by Anson Mills, with rustic shards of husk this one Canadian this one Japanese, milled at an impossibly slow pace of two kilos an hour to make a flour so fine, so heavy, it feels like cream when you put your hands in it. That Japanese flour, she said, makes supremely supple and refined noodles, but America actually grows far more buckwheat than Japan. Farmers here usually plant it as a cover crop, essentially a by-product, harvested and stored carelessly since there is little domestic market for it.

She stirred some flours in a massive lacquered bowl, its black expanse as wide as her arms could stretch around. Mostly she makes soba in the ni-hachi style, which usually means that it’s roughly 20 percent wheat and 80 percent buckwheat. For soba lovers, the higher the buckwheat percentage, the truer the flavor, but since buckwheat is gluten-free, most noodle makers will add some wheat to help give the dough strength and elasticity. She added water carefully, then repeatedly jabbed her fingers into the bowl in sharp motions, making spätzle-like strands as the flour began to come together. Then, with force in her forearms, she pressed into the bowl with broad swipes, rolling the strands into pebbles, rolling the pebbles into a dough. Through this, I noted how the ivory buckwheat turned a gravelly gray when it took in water and how it gave off, I swear, the scent of black sesame. “That’s good,” Sakai said. “You have to talk to your dough. If you’re treating it right, it has a real glow.”

Sakai worked in elegant, nearly ritualistic movements. With one hand, she rotated the dough, using the other to gently pull in its corners, forming a disk with inward pleats it looked a bit like a millstone to me, but she referred to it as “the chrysanthemum.” She rolled this on its side, the pleats stretching to meet one another at the point of a cone, which she then gently pressed into a near-perfect circle. Then came a series of passes with a rolling pin, a way of curling the dough around the pin like a scroll and stretching it to make squared edges, and finally folding and cutting. By the end, as she grasped her soba in little ponytails, patted them to puff away the dusting of starch she used to keep them separated, her noodles were not only beautiful and precise, they looked cared for. There was no waste, no scraggly edges, no subtly wavy noodles where the rolling pin landed a little heavy. They were not perfect, not quite, but I could see how close Sakai was to getting them there.


8 of 12

Tuna Melts with Olive and Lemon

Budget family meal price: $9.96, serves 4

Crack open a can of tuna&mdashor three&mdashand transform it into a restaurant-quality entrée. This quick family meal on a budget showcases many Nicoise salad ingredients to please the adults (olives, tuna, cornichons) and familiar sandwich ingredients for the kids (toasted bread, mustard, cheese). Four minutes of oven time is all that&rsquos required to make this meal.


Japan, Without the Urban Sprawl

ALL my sons wanted to do was look for arrowheads and old swords, not old sun goddesses. But legend had it that the sun goddess had hiked up the same trail we were on, 2,000 years earlier, and so I urged my sons, Gregory and Geoffrey, to keep a sharp lookout for anything she might have left behind.

Perking up at the thought that a Japanese sun goddess would come equipped with an amazing sword, they scrutinized the faint trail closely. It seemed vaguely plausible to my 7- and 4-year-olds that they might find something because the trail appeared to have been scarcely used in the last couple of thousand years. A faint path through the cedar and cypress forests to a holy Shinto mountain, the trail was marked with signs and blazes, but we never saw other hikers on that trail or any other hiking path in the area on our most recent visit in May.

That was one of the attractions of Omiya, a traditional little farm town in the lovely hills of Mie Prefecture in central Japan. In a country famous for its crowds and skyscrapers, Omiya is a refuge of hiking trails, bicycle paths, rice paddies, tiny shrines and lake-speckled forests. It marries Japan's ancient history and culture with a fabulous landscape, and so in the last four years living in Tokyo, Omiya has become my refuge from the crowds.

In one sense, there is nothing special about Omiya. It is simply a group of farming hamlets, with a total population of 5,700, separated by rice paddies and tea plantations. The homes are sturdy, old-fashioned buildings with tile roofs and tatami floors, all connected by winding narrow lanes and interspersed with tiny shops and shrines.

Few Japanese have ever heard of Omiya (this town should not be confused with the well-known city of the same name on the outskirts of Tokyo). I 'ɽiscovered'' the smaller Omiya only because a childhood friend had been living there for a couple of years, teaching English at the local junior high school. At first I came to Omiya strictly for work, writing an occasional series for The New York Times about life in small-town Japan. But gradually I found myself falling in love with Omiya, and when I brought my wife and children, they felt the same way.

When Americans pass through Japan, the two customary stops are Tokyo and the ancient capital of Kyoto. Both are worthy destinations, but they are also modern cities -- even Kyoto, once you step outside of the temples, is a bustling metropolis where kids eat at McDonald's -- and neither has the charm and beauty and friendliness of traditional Japan. So it seems to me that friends visiting from America miss something when they come to Japan on the Tokyo-Kyoto circuit, and that is the traditional loveliness of Japan as it is lived in rural areas, a loveliness that abounds in little farm towns like Omiya.

That is why I urge visitors to get out and visit some small town. My fondness for Omiya may arise from the similarities with the farm town in Oregon where I grew up, or from its combination of history and hiking, charm and convenience. Less than four hours from Tokyo or three hours from Kyoto, it is tucked into a valley surrounded by jutting green hills of dense forests. The area still has deer, Japanese antelope and wild boar, and although the last confirmed wolf kill in Japan was early in this century, there are still tales that some wolves have survived in these wild hills of Mie.

For all the wildness in the hills, the valleys have been inhabited for 10,000 years or more, and there are several archeological sites in Omiya of the Jomon people who lived in Japan between 2,000 and 12,000 years ago. At one of the digs, experts have recreated a Jomon house, and the pleasant little Omiya museum displays some of the Stone Age tools that have been discovered in the area.

The most important deity in Japan is the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, supposedly the ancestor of the emperors. One local legend has it that Amaterasu herself came to Omiya a bit more than 2,000 years ago and stayed for a few months, even climbing Noritoyama, the hill that I climbed with Gregory and Geoffrey. Another version of the legend is that the visitor was not Amaterasu herself but Princess Yamatohime, who is supposed to have wandered through Mie two millennia ago to look for a place to build a shrine for Amaterasu. There is considerable doubt about whether either Princess Yamatohime or her father, Emperor Suinin, ever existed, and even if they did the dates are hundreds of years too early to be plausible. But legends are often more interesting and powerful than history, and these tales had drawn me and my family toward Noritoyama.

A year earlier, I found the trail and tried to climb to the top with Gregory, but we ran out of time and had to turn back. On our most recent visit, all three of us got to the top -- a two- to three-hour hike round trip along a steep trail, occasionally crawling over or under trees that have fallen over the path -- and at the summit we looked out over the surrounding countryside just as the princess may once have done. Or perhaps as Amaterasu herself did. For on top is a marker, erected in 1890, declaring in Japanese: ''This historic spot was visited by the Great Goddess Amaterasu.''

There are other hiking trails in Omiya, all of them deserted while we were there. One of the best and most historic is the old Ise-Kumano Road, which for hundreds of years was the main road in the region. Samurai warriors and peasants hiked this road together, since Japan did not have horse carriages and was never much for the wheel until modern times.

Now it looks like nothing more than a forest trail or an old logging road, for it is unpaved and abandoned. But in places the old stone walls are still visible along the side, and it is a bit eerie to walk quietly along through the forests and realize that it was once the major thoroughfare.

In the old days, people came to Omiya mainly to visit the grand shrine (Omiya means big shrine) in honor of Amaterasu. The shrine is a branch of the more famous grand shrine in the nearby city of Ise, and like the one at Ise it is torn down and rebuilt every 20 years in exactly the same fashion. The Omiya shrine, called Takihara Shrine, is set beside a lovely river in the middle of a 140-acre woods with some of the biggest cedar trees in Japan, some of them five feet in diameter. One of the cedars fell in a typhoon in 1990 and turned out to be 340 years old it sold for lumber for $600,000.

The Takihara Shrine is the most sacred in Omiya, but perhaps more interesting is the nearby Kobenomiya, or Head Shrine. It was founded in 1191 when some children found a severed head in the nearby river and happily played with it. According to legend, the head belonged to a powerful samurai warrior whose ghost became fond of the children and threatened the nearby farmers with harm unless they built a shrine in his honor at that location.

So now the Head Shrine is a beautiful old wooden structure beside the river, and it has become renowned for making people smarter. Consequently, students come before university exams to pat the holy boulder and sip the holy water and pray to the God of Wisdom. For $50, the Shinto priests will even do a school-exam ceremony, in which they pound on drums, ring bells, wave a stick over a child's head and pray to the God of Wisdom for divine help on the tests. The shrine has also diversified with a ''trickling breast rock,'' a fountain that is supposed to resemble a breast oozing milk. Nursing mothers come to drink the water and pray for more milk.

I confess that I bought a charm here a few years ago to make me smarter, and it didn't do any good. But the Head Shrine is still fun to visit, and the physical setting beside the rushing river is delightful.

Rivers and lakes abound in Omiya, and normal fishing is permitted without a license. I haven't fished, but we picnicked beside a river, and after lunch threw left-over sandwiches to hawks that swooped down and gobbled them up. My kids were very impressed you can't do that in Tokyo.

It was dusk when we drove back to the hillside cabins where we were staying, passing paddies where old couples were planting their rice, tea plantations where women were harvesting the leaves, tiny roadside Jizo Buddhist sculptures to bring good luck, and the traditional wooden Japanese homes with tile roofs. At one cluster of homes, a group of men were going door to door, doing the lion dance in front of each house to bring fortune and prosperity. Groups do the lion dance in Omiya twice each year, once at the New Year and once in the rice-planting season, when I saw it.

A few decades from now, the hiking trails may be crowded with backpackers, and Omiya will have its own McDonald's. For now, however, it is still a refuge from city life and a window into an ageless Japan where Amaterasu lingers.

Following the trail of the sun goddess, 2,000 years later

Omiya, too small to be on many maps, is 25 miles southwest of Ise, a major city. Whether coming from Tokyo or Kyoto, the easiest way to get there is by taking the bullet train first to Nagoya, a major city, and then taking local trains for two hours. There is no station called Omiya the best stop is Takihara, the main hamlet in Omiya.

Trains to Takihara run only a few times a day, so it may be easier to take a local train to Misedani and then a taxi (about $10) to Takihara.

Or you can take a train to Matsusaka from Nagoya and rent a car there, if you have an international license. But remember that Japanese drive on the left and that signs are often only in Japanese. It may be easier to get around Omiya either by taxi or on foot or bicycle. Everything in Takihara is walkable, and from Takihara Station it is about 10 minutes on foot to the town-run Cycling Terminal, which rents bicycles for $7.50 a day (at 107 yen to the dollar). The terminal also offers maps to four bike routes, taking from one to five hours each.

I have usually stayed with friends in private homes in Omiya, but the simplest place to stay is probably the Cycling Terminal, with rooms in both Western and Japanese style (a tatami floor, and you sleep on a futon). Prices range from $14 to $33 a person, less for children. The rooms are clean and serviceable, but toilets are outside in a corridor. There is a cafeteria and also a wonderful Japanese-style bath (separate facilities for men and women) on the ground floor in which to soak away the pains of the day with other travelers. The Cycling Terminal telephone number is (81-5988) 62501, but you will not find anybody there who speaks English.

For those interested in the outdoors, a better alternative is Hanashino, a hillside resort just above the town. Hanashino, where I have stayed a few times, is about a 10-minute walk from Takihara. There are three cabins along a creek, with hiking trails in every direction. The cabins vary in size, accommodating four to eight people, and each has air-conditioning, television and a refrigerator. The toilets are outside and the kitchen is shared. The price is $37.50, less for children. Guests must do their own cooking, or Hanashino will prepare barbecue meals to eat in a pleasant spot. Alternatively, guests can walk to one of the several restaurants in the area, or Hanashino can arrange delivery from those restaurants. Families can bathe together at a Japanese-style hot-springs bath my kids loved it. Hanashino's number is (81-5988) 63061, fax (81-5988) 62052 someone can read an English fax but no one seems to answer the phone.

Canoeing and kayaking can be arranged if you are accompanied by a Japanese speaker. An American friend whose hobby is metal detecting has found the Omiya area a treasure trove: he has discovered countless ancient coins, 16th-century bullets, bits of swords and other odds and ends. There are also several public tennis courts, usually empty.

Since few people speak much English, getting around Omiya may be a bit difficult, so be prepared to get lost. The signs pointing the way to the trail to Noritoyama peak are all in Chinese characters. You can get someone to write the characters on paper so you get help in being directed to the right trail. People are very warm and helpful in trying to figure out what you want.

None of Omiya's restaurants are particularly high class all are typical little Japanese restaurants offering the equivalent of family cuisine for less than $10 a person. Right in Takihara there is a soba noodle restaurant called Shichifuku. Then nearby there are a couple of others: a restaurant made of logs called Marutanbou that offers some Japanese versions of Western food, and a pleasant little place called Okura that offers sushi and other foods my favorite dish at Okura is the Tororo Teishoku, with various foods made out of a grated yam substance called tororo. None of these restaurants has a street address or employees who can speak English on the phone, but Omiya is small enough that it's easy for foreigners simply to ask to be pointed in the right direction. NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF


We’re always looking for quick yet delicious recipes to add to our favourites list, and noodles have snuck their way into our hearts (and bellies) a lot lately.

All of these Asian noodle recipes are made with rice noodles to make them gluten-free but can be easily substituted for any noodle (like good ol’ spaghetti) in your kitchen. Winner, winner!

We’ve rounded up our 13 favourite noodles recipes ready in less than 30 minutes from the blog to provide you with a little cooking inspiration.

These Asian Noodle recipes are all inspired by traditional Asian recipes and have some different ingredients that might not be traditionally authentic.


Earthenware bowl

These Korean earthenware bowls and pots are called ttukbaegi in Korean and can be used to cook many Korean dishes including sundubu, doenjang-jjigae, and samgyetang. They’re perfect for stews and soups because the stone retains the heat so the dish remains hot until you finish your meal.

If I can find them, I prefer the ones that are matte, not shiny and glossy. A medium sized one (1½-quart) is big enough for most of your needs. Having a larger one around is nice for parties. You can cook Korean food without them, but they are suitable for the Korean style of eating and food culture so it’s worth seeking them out.

You should be able to find them in Korean grocery stores for less than $10 and as low as $4. You can find them on Amazon, too, but beware of high prices there!

Posted on Thursday, August 7th, 2008 at 7:00 pm . Last updated on April 11, 2020.
Tagged: cooking utensil, earthenware bowl, korean kitchenware


CRUNCHY ASIAN RAMEN NOODLE SALAD

Nutrition: 364 calories, 25.6 g fat (5.1 g saturated), 300 mg sodium, 27.6 g carbs, 4.5 g fiber, 14 g sugar, 7.4 g protein

Aside from being tossed with crunchy ramen noodles, this salad is sprinkled with edamame. The soybean "is a complete protein that also contains omega-3 fatty acids, which support the healthy development of your brain, nerves, and eyes," says Chip Goehring, Board President of the American Macular Degeneration Foundation (AMDF). Not to mention, countless research indicates consuming fibrous foods like edamame decreases the risk of obesity because it keeps you fuller longer.


BUTTERNUT SQUASH NOODLES IN SAGE BROWN BUTTER

Nutrition: 220 calories, 14.2 g fat (7.8 g saturated), 90 mg sodium, 25.3 g carbs, 4.7 g fiber, 4.6 g sugar, 2.4 g protein

These noodles provide 455 percent of daily vitamin A demands. That means healthier skin, teeth, vision and mucus membranes, as well as a reduced disease thanks to carotenoids in the squash. Beyond that, the orange fleshed gourd is packed with potassium and belly-slimming fiber. That's one wholesome dish!

Get the recipe from Boulder Locavore.


The Breakaway Vegetarian Cook, Phase I Videos Done!

Happy to report that we finished a slew of dishes for the filming of the new cookbook, The Breakaway Vegetarian Cook, and had a blast doing it. Here’s what we made and filmed:

  • Ginger Syrup
  • Dutch-Indian Baby
  • Gingery Oatmeal
  • Dukkah
  • Easy Picked Onions
  • Yuzu Kale Chips with Flowers
  • Green Tea Soba with Vegetable Medley
  • Fragrant Umami Noodle Soup
  • Three Ginger Salad
  • Winter Citrus Salad with Gingery Yogurt
  • Roasted Fingerlings with Saffron Breadcrumbs

It’s all very exciting for me, and finally becoming real. Now it’s time to put the finishing touches on all the recipes, and to start writing the intro, which will focus on why umami is so key to vegetarian (indeed all) cooking. Dishes are just a million times more satisfying when the umami factor is amped up. To me, dishes without umami are every bit as unsatisfying as dishes without any salt — something is sadly, and wrongly, missing.

The book is going to first appear as a digital product: it will be available as an Ipad/iphone app, and as an e-book, both for less than $10. Every recipe will have a video attached to it, with me demonstrating and commenting on the dish. Concepts, ideas, and mini-recipes within dishes will be linked to various writing I’ve done on those subjects, a feature that’s just not possible with a regular paper-based book. It will make the book vastly richer as a result, and will cost about a third the price of a paper cookbook. But for folks who still prefer a “real” book, no worries: I’ll still issue it in paperback. I just can’t help but feel the digital product will outshine the paper one by several orders of magnitude at a fraction of the price.

Here are some of the dishes we’ll be shooting next:

  • Triple Tomato Eggs
  • Daikon Wafuu Salad
  • Green Papaya Salad, Breakaway Style
  • Nutty Herby Tofu
  • Freshness Itself Herb Soup
  • Lotus Crack
  • Breakaway Tomato Spread
  • Umami Vegetarian Burger
  • Ginger Potstickers
  • Persimmon Udon
  • Vegetarian Pad Thai with Extra Umami
  • Herbed Kabocha
  • Carrot Cookies with Matcha Creme

All of these are new — it’s been very difficult NOT to blog about them!

I’ll be giving regular progress updates. I can’t wait to share all of this.

In other breakaway news, I was JAZZED to get a phone call from the Commonwealth Club of California (in SF) they invited me to give a talk! It’s going to concentrate on the cult on of authenticity, why blind tasting is the shortest and best route to becoming a better cook, and why blind tasting is an excellent metaphor for living an examined life one’s own way, to not simply accept what is considered authentic to others. It will take place on November 30 — it would be fantastic if we filled the place, so please do come if you can!

And today’s last bit of news: I’m the featured chef at Cookstr on Thursday — do check it out if you can.


Noodle Recipes for Weight Loss

Being creative with noodles can help make a weight loss plan easy and fun. First, purchase soba noodles that are 100 percent buckwheat. Buckwheat noodles calories are healthy and can be a good base for your meal.

To make soba noodle dishes ideal for losing weight, focus mostly on adding a good deal of vegetables to your dish. Veggies like broccoli, bok choy and spinach all contain a good deal of vitamins and minerals and are low in carbs and fat. Broccoli, for example, contains 80 milligrams of vitamin C and 92 micrograms of vitamin K, making up almost your full daily value for both of these vitamins.

Next, try adding a healthy protein to your noodle dish. Lean proteins like chicken are a great option for noodle dishes — and for losing weight. Tofu, which is common in noodle dishes, has a high level of protein, calcium, magnesium and zinc. You can also add a fried egg on top of your noodles for a good source of protein, vitamin A and vitamin B12.

Finally, make your noodles spicier or add some taste with sauces and spices. You can add chopped or minced garlic, red pepper flakes, ginger, green onions, salt, sesame oil or chili oil to your noodles to give them some more flavor.