Kyoto soba three ways

Of the various types of Japanese noodles, soba is easily my favourite.

Ramen comes a close second (especially on a cold rainy day), somen is only so-so and I’ve never been a fan of udon. When our waitress at Ippodo Tea recommended a soba-ya just down the street for lunch, we naturally had to try it out.

Like most small restaurants in Japan, the exterior of Soba Roujina was simple and elegant but easy to miss.

There was no big logo on the noren hanging above the door, but the first clue that it was a restaurant was the small wooden sign hanging on the blackboard that said 営業中, which is kanji for “in operation”. The second clue was that Google Maps said this was a soba shop, so it had to be the right place.

For those of you who zoomed into the photo to take a closer look at the kanji on the small wooden sign, you’ll notice that it says “準備中” instead. Congratulations, you get a gold star sticker for being super observant! The photo above was taken on our way out, after we had finished our lunch.

準備中 in Chinese characters translates to “under preparation”. In Japanese kanji, and when seen in front of a restaurant, it basically means “sorry, no food for you”. Good thing we got there in time.

It was already the tail-end of lunch hour, but we still had to wait for two other couples in the queue before we were seated at our counter seats. There were a couple of tables towards the back, but when dining at Japanese restaurants, the first rule is to always choose the counter seats — the view is more interesting.

The menu was simple and offered various choices of soba and accompanying appetisers. The Wife saw our neighbour having a bowl of cold soba topped with sudachi lime and immediately made her choice.

I was torn between the Kamo Seiro, one of my favourites, and the day-time set with Mori Soba, also one of my favourites. The tie-breaker came down to the second rule of eating in Japan — always choose the set lunch, for the best value-for-money.

But since the set lunch didn’t include any duck, I ordered a side of roasted duck meat. Or at least I tried to, but it was sold out for the day (sad). They recommended trying the Kamomiso Aburi, which we did, and we also added a portion of Yuba Tofu.

From their menu, you can infer that they get quite a lot of gaijin tourists, because there’s a helpful guide in English on how to eat soba.

What is missing from the guide though, is the most important fourth step: slurp the noodles as loudly as possible, preferably until someone turns around to look at you.

It’s a whole lot of fun, and don’t worry, it’s a sign of respect for the chef and totally acceptable behaviour.

Even the locals do it.

Really.

Our appetisers arrived, and the Yuba Tofu matched its description of “tofu with soy milk skin on the top”. I loved this simple dish of tofu-ception, best enjoyed with a splash of shoyu.

The Kamomiso Aburi was a bit harder to decipher. There was no description, but if you break down its name, you get “kamo” (duck), “miso” (well, miso) and “aburi” (flame-torched). Which kind of described the burnt minced duck paste that was served. Despite how it looked, it was a tasty appetiser with strong flavours. And you know that the chef had fun with the blowtorch.

The Wife’s very pretty-looking cold Hari Soba was served, and she had no regrets. It was as light, fragrant and tasty as it looked. The only thing that would have made it perfect for her was if they had used yuzu instead. But sudachi is a close cousin and that was good enough for her.

My Day-time Set with Mori Soba arrived on a large tray. It had a nice nutty flavour and a firm bite, and likely made using a ni-hachi blend of 20% wheat and 80% buckwheat. The wheat provides the gluten that binds the flour and adds chew to the noodles, while the buckwheat (which itself doesn’t contain any gluten) gives soba its distinctive taste. I’ve never really understood the Japanese double-carb meal, but the ginger/tofu rice was also quite nice.

We were one of the last customers to leave, and as we were walking to the Kyoto Imperial Palace for a post-lunch stroll, we realised that we actually had had two soba meals back-to-back.

Dinner the night before was at Matsuba where we had some amazing Nishin Soba, or hot soba topped with simmered herring.

Their main store is located in an old building at the junction of Gion Shijo street and the Kamogawa river. From the second floor, you can easily see Exit 8 of the Gion Shijo train station and since we arrived early, it was still quite empty.

Matsuba is a really really old restaurant with a history of more than 150 years. It was the first restaurant to introduce the shoyu-simmered herring soba dish, and has been serving it for most of its existence. You can even buy vacuum-packed pouches of its signature herring in the ground floor retail shop. They are rightfully proud of their tradition and highlight it prominently on their menu.

You have a choice of a few additional appetisers to go with the main dish, and we went with some anago and yuba tempura. I felt that they were only average, but probably because I’ve had some really good anago tempura in a small shop tucked away inside Kamiyacho station and then again in an izakaya on Tsukishima island, both in Tokyo.

But we weren’t there for the starters. We were there for the Nishin Soba.

Soba, herring and dashi. That’s all; and that’s all you need really. If you prefer, you can sprinkle on some negi for a bit of crunch.

To be honest, the herring, which was hiding underneath the soba, didn’t look particularly appetising. It was dark, bordering on black, and looked like it was burnt and overcooked.

But when you take your first bite, you immediately understand why they are famous for this dish. Then you have a small sip of the broth, followed by a big slurp of the soba, and you realise how well they all go together.

The cold Sudachi soba at Roujina resides at one end of the soba spectrum, light and refreshing; whereas this hot Nishin soba at Matsuba is right at the other end, bold and rich. All other soba dishes, including Roujina’s Mori soba, sit somewhere in between.

Looking back, and if I had to choose, this Nishin soba at Matsuba would be my number one choice, followed by the Kamo Seiro at Honmura-An (though quality seems to have dropped recently) and then the Kitsune soba at Mimiu.

I have not seen Nishin soba sold outside of Kyoto. It doesn’t feature on the menus of soba restaurants in Tokyo, and definitely doesn’t appear in the menus of restaurants outside of Japan. Which is a big pity, because it is such a delicious noodle dish and more people should have the chance to try it.

It’s a shame that it took me so long to discover it, but at least I know that Matsuba will always be there in Kyoto, and one thing, in a long list of things, to look forward to during our next trip.

Eleven days in Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto

The world has changed forever due to that-which-must-not-be-named and international travel is on an indefinite pause. There are many countries we want to visit again and Japan is definitely among the top choices.

In the meantime, as we remain grounded in Singapore, we can look back and remember the wonderful time we had in our eleven days in Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto during the autumn of 2018, two years and a lifetime ago.

Paperback: www.amazon.com/dp/B08DC84GBD
eBook: www.amazon.com/dp/B08DD8P8W3

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