Listen: [audio:firstissue/gordon.mp3]Reviewed in this essay:
On Tuesday nights you can go eat soba, a Japanese buckwheat noodle, at Ichiriki restaurant on Bloor Street in Toronto. Iizuka-sensei will be waiting for you with his san-tate, three (san) simple but critical procedures perfected through years of training, “just now finished” (-tate) in the moments of your visit: hiki-tate—the grain just now ground; uchi-tate—the dough just now kneaded and cut; yude-tate—the noodle just now boiled and the dish just now assembled. He might tell you of a fourth tate, too, unique to this place: tori-tate—the buckwheat itself, from Manitoba, just now reaped, specially picked and packed, and of the highest quality available in the world.
You might think these would be the best tasting soba one could ever eat. But the taste alone is not the point. The point is that when soba arrive you eat them immediately, just now, even before others in your party are served. Waiting would be disrespectful to the sensei, to the buckwheat, to all that has brought these noodles here, now, for you. You eat them at the proper temperature, cold, before their strands begin to stick together. You slurp them with gusto from the bowl, perhaps after a mouthful of sake to further pique your sense of their earthy taste and texture.
The idea of soba is to eat them with purpose, recognizing and appreciating the outcome of all of those careful preparations. Order, for instance, the soba ikura, a bright red disc of swollen-smooth orbs of salmon roe, perched atop a square white bed of grainy daikon radish. Mark the significance of red and white as good-luck colours, forming a rising sun in a clear sky, like the flag of Japan: like the fiery burst of salt from the eggs extinguished by cool, moist radish, purifying your palate. Note how, in a glance from across the table, the dish appears as a carefully composed streambed: a transparent coddle of beaming eggs huddles on bright, white sand, a fertile isle nestled between soba-coloured skeins of stone.
In Japan, on the evening of the threshold day when one year becomes another, after your debts are all discharged, and your body is bathed clean, and in so many ways you become pure and ready for birth into another cycle of things, you always eat soba. You wish for and act out a long continuance of life eating these seemingly endless, thin noodles, rising long and unbroken from bowl to mouth, everything tied together. The reason for soba? A chain of moments and meanings, carefully practiced, and enjoyed.