How thrilling to know it’s possible to reach far back into Japan’s gastronomic past merely by visiting Azabu Juban’s Sarashina Horii Soba for a bit of “living history” in the form of a pleasantly simple meal. The Sarashina cooking lineage stretches back over 200 years and is always evident in the shimmering, high-quality plates of buckwheat noodles coming from the kitchen.
In 1798, Nunoya Tahei, a Mastumoto City textile merchant famous for his soba skills, founded the Sarashina soba lineage when he was encouraged by Hosina, the local feudal lord, to open a shop making a style of soba popular in the Japanese Alps area of Nagano. Many temples and samurai and daimyo houses surrounded his original shop and they regularly ordered soba to be delivered. The noodles were so well regarded that the Imperial family often asked to have them at the Emperor’s palace. Over the years and succeeding generations, a lineage grew and thrived as it served Sarashina soba, a light-colored, thinner noodle made with refined buckwheat.
During World War II the Sarashina house fell on hard times. In 1941 it even came close to bankruptcy. When the war ended there was a falling out amongst the protégés of the Sarashina school of cooks. Two students eventually opened their own shops just steps from each other on Azabu Juban’s shoten gai. Now Sarashina Horii boasts an 8th generation of Horii carrying on the tradition.
This is a modest and comfortable soba shop where neighbors know each other’s names. For many years the current Horii family’s children would burst in after school and occupy a table near the kitchen while they did their homework. The waitresses have been there forever and often remember their customers’ favorite dishes. On weekends the shop is filled with families coming together after celebrations or funerals. One day the mama-san (owner’s wife) came running over to tell us that Mick Jagger was seated in their semi-private tatami room. It was Steven Tyler who had had the fortune of stumbling into this special place with his entourage, but never mind. Sarashina Horii is a crossroads of history and humanity.
The signature dish here is kakiage soba, a tempura fritter of mizuna studded with sakura ebi (small shrimp) that is accompanied either by a bowl of hot tanemono soba noodles in a fragrant soy-based dashi broth or cold seiro soba noodles for dipping in a special cold sauce. The fritter is eaten as is or can be broken into pieces to be swished with chopsticks through the broth to add flavor to both the shrimp fry and the broth. Other ten-seiro, or tempura soba dishes, are deep-fried prawn, shrimp or vegetables served separately next to the soba.
As the weather turns warmer, cold seiro soba becomes the norm. Sarashina serves four slightly different kinds of cold noodles. The mori-soba is a simple hand-cut brown buckwheat noodle made from varied percentages of buckwheat and regular wheat. Using only the core of the buckwheat creates the white-colored Sarashina soba. The futouchi-soba is made from 100 percent soba flour, making it thicker and stiff. Since all of Sarashina Horii’s soba is hand cut, the futouchi tend to be almost like linguine in shape. Lastly, the kawari-soba is a lighter soba flavored with seasonal herbs such as sansho pepper or a citrus such as yuzu. All are served with a tsuyu dipping sauce – either traditional soy-based sauce, or a sweeter sauce if desired. Next to the sauce is a small dish containing wasabi and thinly sliced negi scallions to use as desired for flavoring the tsuyu. One of the standout cold sobas comes with a small bowl of duck broth laced with sparkling slices of fatty duck sitting off to the side. But really, you can’t go wrong with any of them.
After the cold noodles are fully consumed a waitress will set a lacquer vessel on the table filled with soba yu, or hot water in which the soba has been cooked. This is believed to be where all the vitamins are truly lodged. She will encourage you to pour some of the cooking broth into your leftover dipping sauce and create an after-meal hot beverage with a healthy punch.
Some of the classic tanemono hot soba bowls include shrimp with scallions, herring or scrambled eggs for a protein-heavy meal. One of the most gorgeous creations is tsukimi-soba with a raw egg slowly poaching in the broth, a nod to the autumn moon (Tsukimi), surrounded by shitake mushroom and kamaboko fish cake. The English menu helpfully includes pictures.
For more fish cake, turn to the stunning list of traditional side dishes. Amongst the standouts there is a sparkling kamaboko fish cake served with nori and wasabi, served in a beautiful wooden box, buttery-soft pork seasoned with soy sauce and an almost dessert-like scoop of velvety homemade tofu served with katsuo bonito flakes.
Classic red bean desserts round out the meal, including a soup containing buckwheat cake, served hot or cold. There is a limited sake and beer list to make dinner a festive evening. This is timeless and delightful Japanese food served in a classic manner in a typical soba establishment. There are no noodle fireworks, only tradition and respect for history.
This article was originally published on May 10, 2016.
- May 10, 2016 Sarashina Horii Soba
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