For a while my son, IB, has been thinking about going back to Japan. He has felt compelled to return after his year teaching English in Satsuma-Sendai on the southernmost island of Kyushu a few years ago. In his latest brainstorming peregrination, he thought he might learn some Japanese cooking techniques and he located a chef in Gifu who spoke English who might be interested in working with him. It turned out that this man was coming to Chicago for a trade show at McCormick Place and IB, quite talented as a cultural impresario, arranged for him to do a soba noodle workshop at the high-end restaurant where he presently works.
Last night the workshop happened. The chef, Shuji Ozeki, is a high energy, impish, good-humored man (also an aikido master), who shared his unique approach to soba noodle-making as well as his approaches to tempura, dashi, tempura dipping sauce, and soba broth. Watching him prepare the buckwheat dough and masterfully cut the noodles was thrilling, the speed and accuracy like a precision athlete. The leftover scraps of soba dough would be fried after the tempura was finished to be sprinkled with salt and wasabi. Ozeki-sensei said that in households these chips, when prepared for children, are often sprinkled with sugar.
Though many of us in the workshop helped in small ways with the preparations for the workshop and the dinner which followed, it was mostly my son and Ozeki-sensei who put the food together. The tempura vegetables were light and delicious. (Ozeki’s secret was adding ice water to the whipped eggs and gluten-free flour.) Abalone mushrooms were also tempura-ed which resulted in a flavor close to fresh seafood. The scrumptious soba chips were next.
This was followed by the highlight of the evening, which was the soba noodles served by themselves in a bowl accompanied by a second bowl of broth made with dashi, aged soy sauce, and mirin with mushrooms, braised shallots, pieces of filleted duck, and duck fat from the braising of the duck. We dipped the soba into the broth and were told to slurp and suck the noodles into our mouths.
Yesterday was one of the first beautiful days of spring in Chicago. And the promise of renewal was made even more visceral by being part of a group of people absorbed and engaged in making soba noodles. As I tasted the warm and flavorful broth coating the soba, I understood the value of the intensity of time and preparation it took to make this dish. I wanted the tastes to linger. There was broth left in our bowls and Ozeki-sensei brought out a pan filled with the water in which the soba had boiled (because he said there were nutrients in that soba water) and he poured a scoop into everyone’s left-over broth. Still brimming with umami, the flavors were stretched to last even longer.
As the evening wound down, I couldn’t help but think about umami. Yes, there can be umami in many of the dishes we eat— depending on ingredients, time, and intention. But there can also be umami in making connection and relationship with people. My son is a chef and he doesn’t know it. He is a chef in his ability to network and make connection, to put people together to create meaningful and savory experience— a cultural umami— based on the quality of ingredients, time, and intention.