Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The soba before the storm

About four days ago, I lost my sense of taste completely.*

I was in a kushikatsu bar in Osaka.  I had just ordered a bunch of skewers: lotus root, tuna cheek, eggplant, quail egg.  We'd made it through Shinsekai unmolested, found a bustling place without a ridiculous line, been irasshaimase-ed enthusiastically, and provided with a rough English menu.  I was virtually wriggling with excitement as I watched the cook casually flip my food in the big fryer with a few long metal chopsticks.

 When it got to my mouth, it tasted like fried paper.

All of it.

Hot, oily, crispy fried paper.  Even when I added a coating of shichimi togarashi (Japanese seven-spice) that normally would have turned me red and set me a-coughing.  Still hot, oily, crispy, now slightly gritty fried paper.

I tried some accompanying cabbage: wet paper.  Drank water: cold, icy paper.  With mounting desperation and dread, I unwrapped a red bean mochi ball I'd gotten earlier that day and shoved it in my mouth: lumpy, gummy paper.

Then I went home and cried.

I can say no more on this topic without becoming so despondent that I cease writing this entry.

But the day before all of that, there was this one bowl of hot soba.

When we asked the man who ran our Nara guesthouse for noodle recommendation, he prefaced his recommendations by saying he was from the 'udon prefecture' of Kagawa.  The way he said this was matter-of-fact.  It wasn't uppity or snobby.  He didn't say it like I would have if someone asked me, a native Chicagoan, for hot dog recommendations in Los Angeles: with a toss off the head, a flip of the hand, and utter derision for Los Angeles' inferior attempts at meat in intestine casing.

No, he just mentioned it, letting his credentials hang in the air, then moved on.  Looking carefully at our map, he pulled out a pen and started circling corners, appending them with his shaky English handwriting.

We went to the rough location of his first recommendation, but couldn't be sure whether we'd found it, since all signage was in Japanese.  We stood outside the door and did that thing we've learned to do: Eugene haltingly sounds out the hiragana, and if it's a food word, I'll recognize it.

"Za-ru-so-ba," Eugene said, and I nodded.  "Yeah, yeah, zaru soba, OK..."

"Sa-n-u-ki-u-don," he continued, and I nodded more vigorously.  "I think we found..."


"All right!"

We entered.

A ponytailed man with a completely open kitchen greeted us warmly and gestured for us to sit at the bar.  From where we were seated, we could see his whole setup.

I ordered kakiage soba; Eugene ordered tanuki soba.  I thought I was so smart because I knew kaki meant 'oyster' and age meant 'tofu' so I figured I was probably going to end up with some crazy oyster-tofu concoction.

No.  That's not how Japanese works.  Kakiage turned out to actually be a big hockey puck full of tempura-ed vegetables and shrimp.

Made of, and surrounded by, amazingness.

The udon-making man was not content to simply let his (beautiful, savory, steaming hot) bowls speak for themselves.  He radiated food-enthusiasm.  His total lack of English and our near-total lack of Japanese did not stop him.

He pointed to Eugene's tanuki udon and started talking.  As he talked, he made his fingers into rings and covered his eyes.  Then he made frantic digging motions with his hands.  "Tanuki," he said, staring intently into each of our faces in turn.  "OK?"

We nodded.

Then, he pointed his finger vaguely in the air, and, chatting, he put his palms behind his ears and turned them this way and that.  "Kitsune," he said, catching our eyes.

"Tanuki soba.  Kitsune udon."

I am so glad that I knew what those two words meant (raccoon, fox), and what they signified (the same style of soup for soba and udon, respectively) before this tirade, or likelihood is I'd have gone away thinking I'd been drinking woodland creature broth.

(Not that this would have stopped me.)

His soup came out too hot even to slurp, the noodles glistening like grass snakes.  My tempura cake floated like a buoy on the broth, shining with oil and nearly audibly crackling, straight from the fryer.  It tasted like both the ocean and a good solid greasy spoon breakfast.  The shells on the shrimp got stuck in my teeth; I rinsed them out with swigs of strong roasted rice tea.

The whole time we were eating, the man talked.  He disappeared into a little closet and came out with his hands full of tomatoes.  For the first time, he spoke English.  "I am farmer," he proclaimed.

Then he ran the tomatoes under cold water and placed them onto two side dish-sized plates, handing them over the bar.  "Please," he said.

Shit, I thought.

See, I hate tomatoes.

People always ask me, before trips, what I will do if some foreign host offers me something really gross: a sheep's head, snake blood, fermented mare's milk, etc.

And I ask them, " is this a problem?  I'd eat it!"

But I never considered that somebody might offer me a tomato.

There are three things I strongly dislike eating.

And raw tomatoes.

But here the tomatoes were, dribbling water from the faucet, fresh from the farmer's hands, fresh from the farmer's farm.  He was smiling at me expectantly.

What could I do?  I took a bite.

It was the first tomato I've ever wanted to finish.

It had none of the sponge-soaked-in-stale-water texture I've come to expect from tomato slices; none of the skin-pulling-creepily-away-from-the-flesh, zombie-like outside.  Its seeds didn't hover in a solution of slime.  It didn't taste like fertilizer and poison.

In short, it transcended tomato-hood.


I'd like to tell you where you can find this charming noodle shop, magically learn to like fruit you've previously hated, and be regaled with woodland creature tales of your own, but I honestly cannot remember its name.  Instead, have a pin-festooned Google Map.  That's better than an address in Japan anyway.


*It was last in a long line of indignities committed against me by my body, which, suddenly noting that it hadn't really been sick in a good three or four years, decided to get ALL the illnesses, ALL at once.  First it hit me with a sore throat, the kind that feels like knives when you're swallowing something offensive, like warm broth.  Then, it gave me a raging fever, caused me to pass out a couple times, stuffed up only one side of my face, and ended with the kind of hacking cough that goes on forever but doesn't do any good.  Finally, it took my taste.  (And my sense of smell.  I stuck my nose right in a vat of Tiger Balm to check: nothing.)


  1. I didn't know about your abhorrence of tomatoes, lol! But yes, most of the tomatoes we get here are absolutely tasteless. I'm glad you're feeling better, though, talk about a fate worse than death for a foodie like yourself!

    1. Even the tomatoes my mom grows on her vine outside I've never liked. I don't know what it is about this seemingly harmless fruit. But yeah, the taste finally coming back was a HUGE RELIEF. No lie, I considered flying back to the states if it didn't return!