Freelance food writer, filmmaker and event programmer Sonoko Sakai hails from Tokyo and recently produced Common Grains, a roster of events that spotlight Japanese culture and grain education, on behalf of the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s (METI) Cool Japan program. Sakai even stepped into the kitchen for a two-week soba pop-up at BREADBAR Century City, presenting buckwheat noodles in several iterations with support from Seattle soba artisan Mutsuko Soma. We met at BREADBAR on January 16, prior to service, and Sakai shared culinary insights related to soba, grains, Japan, America and more.
What inspired you initially about soba?
I grew up in Japan, and I come from the Tokyo area, which is very well known for Edo soba…It’s a Nihachi soba. Tokyo people love to eat soba. If you divide the country into two sections, the people in the Tokyo side tend to eat a lot of soba, and the southern part eats more udon noodles. From mother to grandmother, if there were noodles to be served, it was often soba. When I came to this country, all I could get was dried noodles. What you buy at the store is mostly wheat. It’s 60-70% wheat, but they call it soba noodles. I really wanted to figure out a way to eat real soba. The only way I could do it was to learn how to make it myself.
How did you decide who to learn from?
Well, I had to go back to Japan. Soba noodles, it’s a discipline. Unlike wheat pasta or wheat noodles, which has gluten, you could pretty much let the noodle stretch and bind on its own. Buckwheat has no binder, it has no gluten, so to learn how to make soba noodles takes a lot of practice. I was fearful in the beginning, it’s just not something I could ever learn as a home cook, but I decided I would just take a class. Actually, it was very accessible. I took a six-week class, and that got me a certificate, but I’m still quite a novice at it, because I’ve only been doing it for a couple years. I enjoy it, and I started teaching classes, and I had to figure out how to bring the flour, because a lot of the buckwheat flour we have here is basically milled differently. It’s milled for pancakes, so I started contacting millers, I started contacting farmers, so it’s become a real journey.
How did you decide which buckwheat to use?
There’s quite a number. There are different kinds of buckwheat. Actually, it’s really fresh buckwheat. Buckwheat is not a cereal. It’s a fruit, and you harvest it and it’s not something you let sit. The fresher, the better…The soba people, the serious practitioners, try to even grow their own buckwheat because they want to get to the buckwheat and mill it and use it stone-milled, and not roller-milled, and make it on their own…I was actually trying the different ones that you buy at the market, but none of them worked. I tested Red Mill or Arrowhead, there are buckwheats that basically for pancakes, so I contacted Anson Hills in South Carolina, and he actually has a Nihachi, and then he works with farmers to grow buckwheat. I know that somebody like Glenn Roberts at Anson Mills, who’s a farmer himself, would provide me with certain buckwheat that I could use for soba. I found some buckwheat there, and then I met a producer in Washington who exports all his buckwheat to Japan, millions of it. I think it’s seven tons – I don’t have the exact figure right now.
Who’s the farmer?
It’s a group of farmers. Washington state is the biggest buckwheat producing region in the United States, and the producers are telling me that it’s completely sold in Japan. None of it stays in the United States, and it’s used for soba. That means that there’s no demand in this country for soba. I said, “You use this beautiful buckwheat. Why don’t you give me some? I would like to try milling it myself.” This event, for the first time, we are milling our own from the fresh seeds.
You’re doing that here?
We’re offering that soba. It’s freshly milled, and we’re blending the buckwheat. It’s a blend of Kitwise, and there’s another one called Mancan, and we’re taking the growth of seeds, and we’re taking a stone mill to mill it. Because it’s a manual – we have also a small electric stone mill – but we can’t do the volume. Mutsuko Soma from Seattle, who I met through my search of buckwheat, we’re the only ones doing it, so we also have to depend on imported buckwheat flour from Japan. We are working with a miller in Japan who ships us the flour.
Is the pop-up any easier the second time around?
I would say it’s a little easier. Last year I did it basically on my own. I’m working with a grant from the Japanese government. It’s a project called Cool Japan, and their mission statement is to promote Japanese culture, which includes fashion and animation. Food is very much part of the soft media culture. There’s a media culture, but there’s also food, and they realized food is making such a big impact in the world. Japanese food is appreciated, but so little is known. Like you go to a sushi bar, but you attempt to make it yourself, not too much. Noodles, people love ramen noodles, but I don’t think too many people try to make it at home. My mission is, I would like people to learn about soba noodles, or udon noodles, or rice.
You make other types of noodles too?
Yes, I do.
What other types?
I do udon noodles, and I cook ramen noodles too, but ramen to me, that’s more something you go to a store to eat, or people eat the instant stuff, and I’m not a big fan of the instant ramen noodles. I prefer the traditional noodles, which are udon and somen, which is a really thin one. Those are wheat based, but my passion is buckwheat, because it’s very healthy, and all the nutritional properties we find in buckwheat, including gluten, is an antioxidant and cleanses your blood. In Japan, it’s a symbol of health, healthy living.
What are the biggest challenges to making soba?
L.A.’s very dry. I think we’ve had the driest winter, and I’m looking at the humidity level. It’s 25 – 35%. Because we only use water and flour to bind the noodles – there’s no salt, there’s no egg, it’s just water and flour – you have to work really quickly. Part of the experience that I have, is having difficulty binding the noodles. My noodles sometimes fall apart. Especially when you use 100% buckwheat, but what we do, with Nihachi – Juwari is 100% buckwheat, which we’re offering on a limited basis – Nihachi has the blend. It’s 20% wheat and 80% buckwheat. The Juwari’s 100% buckwheat, so the Juwari’s even more difficult.
How did you decide how to present the soba?
Well I wanted to offer the traditional ones. In America, a good experience, like pasta, you put a sauce on it. It’s basically seasoned with the sauce, so you’re not just tasting the noodles. You’re really looking for the meatballs, but soba noodles are enjoyed – especially when they’re fresh – you want to taste the noodles. The first two are just noodles. It’s plain noodles, and you have a little cup of sauce. It’s only 1/3 of a cup, and you take the noodles and go a third of the way in, you’re basically slurping the noodles, and tasting the flavor and texture as you slurp, and a little bit of that soy broth to give it a bit of that nice punch. It’s basically just plain noodles, and the other noodles that we have, is pork sauce. Another one is duck, and another one is hot mushrooms. Those are all hot sauces, where you take the plain, cold noodles, and you dip it in and you slurp it.
What brought you to Los Angeles?
I was born in New York, and raised in Japan and Mexico City. I was in San Francisco and L.A. It’s a lot of moving around, but I’ve been in Los Angeles for more than 30 years. I’m kind of a Los Angeleno.
What brought you to Los Angeles originally?
My father worked for the airlines, Japan Airlines, so he was transferred here. They all moved back, but I stayed.
So you’re primarily a writer?
Well I do writing also. I do primarily food writing on a freelance basis. I write for the LA Times on Food, and I also write for another website called Zester Daily. I teach classes in town and I produce these cultural projects. This one, for me, is one of the biggest projects I’ve done. It’s not just the BREADBAR. We’re going to the Japanese National Museum, the onigiri contest, and then we’re going to have a rice exhibition at Cookbook. I don’t know if you know Cookbook?
In Echo Park?
Yes, so we’re taking that gallery, and we’re going to do a rice exhibition and sell 50 brands of rice. It’s going to be fantastic. We’re producing a little book of rice, which we’ll give to people who come, and we’re doing a panel discussion with cutting edge grain experts: Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, Roxana Jullapat from Cooks County, who’s a fabulous pastry chef, and we’re going to have Monica Spiller from The Whole Grain Connection. Actually, part of the proceeds from this rice and buckwheat event is going to be donated to benefit the Whole Grain Connection, so it’s an opportunity for us to talk about grains, the importance of grains in a healthy lifestyle, so it’s not just staying with promoting Japanese grains, but I want to find a common ground to do food, and get people thinking about grains.
Is there anywhere else where you enjoy soba in the United States?
Can you imagine opening a restaurant at some point?
Right now, I’ve sort of been a producer all my life. I did movies before. I produced films, and I like the idea of being able to move around and promote the food culture, and tell stories and I’ve only done a few of these pop-up events, so I’m not sure if I’m ready to make that commitment. It’s a lot of work, and I’ve been doing it on my own, but it’s the first time I’ve had a real team. We’ll see, but Mutsuko Soma, who I asked to come from Seattle, she’s been a chef for over eight years, and she’s a trained soba artisan, and she’s planning to open a soba bar in Seattle. You can meet her. She’s great. I do have people with good experience in the kitchen. My mission has been to promote it to the grassroots and also home cooks. I want people to cook Japanese food at home. I think it’s important. Even restaurant food, I think it’s something very accessible and less exotic than people think, because you can buy all the ingredients in L.A. It’s a great place for Japanese cooking.