Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Cold noodle, Morioka Reimen

Before I was to leave Nanbu Bijin Brewery (南部美人), Kosuke Kuji, the 5th generation brewer, took me to eat the most famous noodle dish in Iwate prefecture.

Iwate is famous for Wanko Soba, when one finishes a small serving bowl of soba, a staff member will fill the bowl with fresh soba noodles. The staff will keep filling the bowl as long as you eat. It is more game than eating, but this is an unique soba eating experience.

But Kuji-san didn't take me to a Wanko Soba place. He took me to a restaurant specializing in Morioka style cold noodles. Morioka Reimen as it is known, is the answer to all-season lovers of hiyashi chuka, which is the quintessential summer cold noodle dish only available during the summer months.

The restaurant is Pyon-Pyon-Sha (ぴょんぴょん舎), a Korean fusion or Yakiniku restaurant in a very modern building. Each table has a grilling station similar to that of Korean restaurants in NYC. When Kuji-san was parking the car in the restaurant's lot, I noticed a number license plates of cars parked there from outside of Morioka and Iwate prefecture, a clear indication of drawing power of this famous place.

Morioka Reimen is similar to the North Korean cold noodle dish Naengmyeon, except that the noodles are made from potato starch and flour instead of kuzu or buckwheat flour. The noodles are nestled in a cold beef broth with toppings like slices of beef, hard boiled egg, raw vegetables, and kimchi, and customers can add as much kimchi as they'd like to spice up the Reimen.

The Morioka Reimen style of cold noodle was created by a Korean immigrant named Aoki-san from Hamhung, North Korea. Nostalgic for the spicy cold noodle dish that he grew up eating, he created a cold noodle dish that he originally called Pyongyang Reimen which as it grew more famous became known by its Japanese place of origin as Morioka Reimen. It took long time for locals to embrace it since Japanese people weren't used to eating spicy kimchi. The name "Pyongyang" didn't attract many customers either. However, working hard and not compromising his taste and style, he built up fan base for his noodles. In 1986, at the Japan Noodle Summit, the current owner of Pyon-Pyon-Sha renamed the Pyongyang Reimen as Morioka Reimen, and introduced it as Morioka's specialty noodle. And, as they say, the rest is history.

When a server brought the Morioka Reimen, Kuji-san advised me to sip the cold beef soup. It has a light beige color and has a delightfully sweet, rich flavor that makes you just want to finish the entire bowl as a first course. After sipping the soup, we ate a few strands of noodle. It was a chewy glass glass noodle that was a great compliment to the soup. After a few slurps, we started to add more kimchi turning the soup bright red. It was so addictive, we couldn't stop eating until the red soup disappeared leaving only a white bowl.

Now, many Japanese enjoy eating the dish that was brought by a humble immigrant, who beat the odds of becoming successful in Japan. It was great dish and it was surely a great success story.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Mr. Kuji -- Nanbu Bijin Brewery

Hiroko had never been north of Tokyo. When she mentioned to Kosuke Kuji (久慈浩介), the 5th generation of Nanbu Bijin Brewery (南部美人酒造)in Iwate, Kuji-san invited her to his brewery.

Nanbu Bijin Brewery is located in Ninohe (二戸), Iwate prefecture in the Tohoku region about 3 hours from Tokyo by rail, and the second to last stop on the Tohoku Shinkansen before Hachinohe, Aomori prefecture. With a population of about 31,400 (in 2006) it is rather small city which still has the remains of the historic Kunohe Castle (九戸城) and the famous Kindaichi Onsen (金田一温泉). Among its restaurants is the legendary soba restaurant Maita Koubou Sobae-An (米田工房そばえ庵), the hard-to-get-in yoshoku Restaurant Bonheur, (レストラン・ボヌール), and an extremely famous ramen shop, and several late night drinking spots.

Anyone who is familiar with Japanese language may get confused about the name Nanbu Bijin. Translated as Southern Beauty, one may wonder why the "Nanbu" or Southern when the brewer is located in the northern part of Japan?

"Nanbu" comes from the name of the Nanbu samurai clan which originated in Northern Japan, mainly in what was once known as Mutsu province (which now encompasses present-day Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate, and Aomori plus some parts of Akita). Descended from Emperor Seiwa (reign 858-876), Minamoto no Mitsuyuki (1165?-1236?) of Kai province (Yamanashi prefecture), took the name "Nanbu" from the town where he lived changing his name to Nanbu Mitsuyuki. He is said to have moved to Mutsu province around the time of the Oshu War in 1189. Over time, the Nanbu became the dominant samurai clan in the Mutsu area and built their castles as they established themselves in the area which is how the Nanbu name came to be associated with this part of a Iwate.

Nanbu Bijin Brewery is rather small, family-run operation. It has seven kurabito (people involved in the brewing process), all young men in their 20's and 30's. They also employ twenty staff members to run the operation. The brewery produces 2,500 koku of sake. (1 koku = 180 liters or 100 x 1.8 litter isshobin). It is considered a small to mid-sized brewery (those with production of less than 1000 koku are very small.)

Kuji-san is an energetic young man in his 30's whose ebullient personality casts sunshine on the sake world and beyond. He has been to New York City to promote his sake many times, and has enthusiastically encouraged many sake fans to become Nanbu Bijin lovers.

He is also a risk taker and revolutionary in terms of developing new products with a spirit akin to the samurai Nanbu Mitsukuni who made the bold move to very far north from where he was born. Seeing the popularity and trend of umeshu or plum sake/liquor, Kuji-san has created a non-sugar added umeshu.

The journey started when his wife Rika suggested mixing his "All-Koji Sake" with kiwi or strawberry to make a fruit cocktail. This all-koji sake was a early brainchild that he created in 1998, and it is now a staple of the Nanbu Bijin lineup. It is made from just three ingredients: koji (koji-mold affected rice), water, and yeast starter instead of the four ingredients usually used for making sake: rice, water, yeast, and koji. Koji-mold's job is to break down the rice starch into the simple sugar, glucose. Therefore, koji (rice innoculated with koji mold) has a high glucose level. This "All-Koji Sake" has a little sweetness that makes it a good mixer for a fruit cocktail.

After his wife's inspiration, Kuji-san had his "ah ha!" moment. He theorized that the all-koji sake could be infused with ume (Japanese plum) to make an umeshu that is naturally sweet. He tweaked his all-koji sake, and using the koji's natural glucose level, he successfully create the umeshu that needs no additional sweetener.

His search for the perfect ume for his product led him to a local farmer in Iwate prefecture. He also found a young local artist to design the label for the product. He patented the process in 2009, and his umeshu now sells briskly...his February released umeshu is almost sold out.

Look for it in the U.S. by October of this year. Kuji-san's samurai spirit inspired umeshu is sure to cast its spell on umeshu fans here too!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Famous Soba place in Ninohe

While Hiroko was visiting the Nanbu Bijin Sake Brewery (南部美人) in the town of Ninohe in Iwate prefecture, Ono-san from the brewery took her to an out-of-the-way soba place located in the middle of the town.

After parking the car in what looked like someone's backyard, he said, "this way." Seeing nothing that looked like a restaurant, Hiroko followed him along a muddy path through a field over ground that was soggy and slippery from melting snow. "This is it," he said. At that, she looked up and saw someone's house.

The soba place called Maita Koubou Sobae-An (米田工房 そばえ庵) was run by Kayo Yoneda-san. What is special about this Sobae-an is not its location in the middle of a field, but rather Yoneda-san's belief in eating local. She may not know the current "locavore" trend but she follows the old way of life in Japan. Food self-sufficiency was at about 73% in 1965 and is now hovering at around 40% in the last 10 years. To put in different perspective, the US food self-sufficiency rate is around 130%.

Yoneda-san grinds h
er own soba (buckwheat) flour. She even makes her own soy sauce for soba dipping sauce. To make her soy sauce, she also grows soybeans and wheat! I told her that she was super-woman, and she was modest telling me that she doesn't know anything else. She promotes local cuisine giving lessons on how to make soba. She is a well-respected, well-known figure in the area.

Her soba is made from 100% soba flour, whereas many soba noodles contain some amount of wheat flour. Since soba flour does not contain gluten, some wheat flour helps to bind the dough together. Nihachi Soba, which is 20% wheat and 80% soba flour, is a highly regarded specialty soba noodle. Many of the dried soba noodles sold at supermarkets contain more than 50% wheat flour. (Look at the ingredients listed on the back of package. If the first ingredient is soba flour, then it contains more than 50% soba flour in the noodle.)

Her soba were sliced very thin and long, had a pale soba color, and looked very delicate. Once it is put into the mouth, it has a resilient and firm al dente texture. It was hard to believe that the soba was made only from soba flour. Once she had started, Hiroko found it hard to stop eating and she soon found herself looking at an empty plate.

After eating the soba, Hiroko was lucky enough to join with locals (old and young) for the soba making class given by Yoneda-san.

She casually placed soba flour and cold water together in a large bowl, then mixed and rubbed the mixture together with her hands. While she was talking, the dough began to form. When it became the texture of an ear lobe, it was time to roll the dough.

She placed a handful size of round dough onto a big square cutting board. Rotating the dough as she rolled it out, before you know it, the round dough had become a square the same size as the cutting board.

She then folded the dough carefully and started to slice it very thin. The entire process took only 10 to 15 minutes! Everyone was mesmerized by the way in which she had so casually yet expertly, created her soba noodles.

It was a priceless experience see Yoneda-san's soba making method and eat the resulting delicious noodles. Also it was nice to see local people of engaging with the local cuisine and learning to carry on their tradition to the next generation.

Maita Koubou Sobae-An 24-2 Jumonji Shimotomai Ninohe-shi, Iwate 028-0611
tel: 0195-23-8411
11am to 5pm

Closed on Friday

〒028-6100 岩手県二戸市下斗米十文 字24-2


Monday, March 15, 2010


It has been a while since we updated this blog. Now that Hiroko is just back from her trip to Japan, we'll be adding some more new posts soon. Meanwhile, we wanted to share our first taste of the joy of spring. In Japan, when people begin to see sansai (mountain vegetables) such as fuki-no-tou (butterbur sprout), bamboo shoots, fiddlehead ferns, and udo (mountain celery) in markets and/or vegetable shops, they know the spring is near. Sansai are foraged in wooded areas as the snow melts toward the end of winter.

When Hiroko was in Tokyo, she found fuki-no-tou at the vegetable stands. Unable to resist, she brought some home with her. The most familiar way to serve fuki-no-tou is as tempura. The farmer from whom she purchased it recommended this method as the best for serving but, he added that it could also be pan sauteed or blanched and then cooked in soy broth.

When the
fuki-no-tou are removed from the package, their fresh, green, earthy aroma reminds one immediately of spring. Once opened, the debate ensued on how to cook them. After some initial reluctance about deep frying and a long discussion over several glasses of sake, we decided to prepare them two ways; Western i.e. sauteed in olive oil and garlic and of course, the "classic" tempura.

Version #1: After first heating the pan and sauteeing the garlic, the fuki-no-tou was added with sprinkle of salt. After just a few minutes, it was ready eat. This vegetable has a pleasantly bitter taste (bitter like broccoli rabe but not the same flavor). Although there is some similarity to each, it's flavor is not like celery, nor shiso, nor green pepper. It has its own distinctive sansai flavor. Since it was so delicious, for a moment, Hiroko thought the she didn't need to go the tempura route. But after some pleading from Rick,she did.

Version #2: Hiroko whipped up some tempura batter in no time, and after dipping the fuki-no-tou, lightly fried it in canola oil. The tempura version was absolutely delicious! The bitter taste of the fuki-no-tou cut the oil from the tempura batter, and it made for a very fresh and savory dish. A sprinkle of some "sakura salt" that we received from someone in Japan added just the right element to make for a perfect tempura. We really enjoyed the fuki-no-tou both ways.

It's a different, less familiar style of vegetable, but we found it to be a delicious taste of early spring. And, since we had the batter, we used it to enjoy a few of our local vegetables tempura-style, joyfully eating them with some fresh soba that Hiroko had also brought back from Yamagata-ken.