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July 13, 2011

Eating soba in Owari-ya (Kyoto Guide)

Owari-ya is one of the oldest soba (buckwheat noodle) restaurants in Kyoto, and normally such a place would be packed with tourists. But thanks to the location slightly off the beaten path (north-east of the Karasuma-Oike crossing in a street called Kuramaya-cho) it can be a heaven of repose peopled only with a few hardcore soba lovers and the occasional businessman from Karasuma-dori.

Owari-ya, Kyoto

Owari-ya is housed in an old wooden building. Most of the tables are upstairs, to which a creaking staircase gives access. There also some private rooms, elsewhere the tables and chairs have been made to fit the shape of the building.

On the menu of course soba, soba and soba... the top dish is called "Horai" ("Paradise") and is a high stack of soba boxes with a plate of ingredients the customer can freely arrange on top of the noodles. Among the warm dishes my favorites are Shippoku (various vegetable ingredients such as a large shiitake mushroom) and Nishin soba (dried herring).

Seiro Soba from Owari-Ya, Kyoto

Cold soba is not called "zaru soba", but "seiro." This name (not typical of only Owari-ya) refers to the box in which the soba is served: a rectangular steamer made from lacquered wood with inside a sieve made from bamboo on which the soba rests. Seiro can be stacked on top of each other so that the cook can steam several dishes at the same time. You eat the noodles with a dipping sauce based on soy sauce, adding chopped spring onions, katsuobushi and wasabi paste. You also receive a pot with the hot cooking water  - after finishing, you pour this water that still contains proteins from the soba into the cup with the remaining sauce to drink as soup. A delicious finishing touch!

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Whether called "zaru," "mori" or "seiro," this is the simplest and therefore also most difficult soba dish. The soba must stand on its own merits. For soba lovers it is also the most delicious way to eat soba: not hindered by other ingredients, you can fully savor the delicate sweetness of buckwheat noodles.

Cold soba is immensely popular during the hot weather, but also in all seasons as a dish at the end of a banquet or drinking party. Soba helps the liver in dealing with alcohol and also lowers the blood pressure.

By the way, the reason soba is served in bamboo baskets, goes back to a three hundred year old custom. Since buckwheat noodles break easily (especially when made from 100% buckwheat), they were steamed, transported  and served in the same receptacle. Nowadays, buckwheat noodles always contain a certain amount of wheat, so that they do not break and can even be boiled, but the custom of serving them in bamboo baskets has remained.

Soba noodles were originally sold by confectionery shops and Owari-ya was founded as such a shop in 1465.

Which type of sake fits to soba? I would suggest taking something light and fresh, so either a Honjozo or a Junmai if on the lighter end of the taste spectrum. With cold soba I advise to drink the sake also cold.

[Information about "seiro soba" from The Book of Soba by James Udesky (Kodansha 1988)]