Day 13, part 2: aasa soba at Nakamura Soba

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Before I came to Okinawa I’d looked up this place as they’re meant to be pretty famous for their Okinawa soba. But I’d completely forgotten about it. We were driving back from Sesoko Island to Naha and, on a whim, I turned off the Route 58 bypass onto a little road heading down to the sea, to the old Route 58, thinking it’d be more scenic, and right there as we rounded the corner to a view of sparkling azure waters was a generic squareish building with big lettering on the front: なかむらそば. I didn’t even remember the name of the place but something about the façade looked familiar so I swung the Vitz* around. This was the place, exactly where I wanted to be on my last day in Okinawa, last chance for Okinawa soba.

You order at a ticket vending machine (hadn’t seen one of those since Tokyo!) and there was a choice between a few different kinds of soba: regular Okinawa soba, with sliced, stewed pork, so-ki soba with slow-cooked ribs, Nakamura Soba’s specialty, a soba topped with bite-sized pieces of pork, chilled Okinawa soba. But I saw a sign recommending the aasa soba, made with a kind of light green seaweed that’s common around these parts. So I put in my coins, got my ticket, a few minutes later I was sitting at a window overlooking the East China Sea with a steaming bowl of noodles.

Floating on top of the soup was a thick layer of what sort of looks like algae but, I can assure you, tasted just fine: fresh and slippery and a little bit briny. Aasa is a type of seaweed I hadn’t heard of before coming to Okinawa but it featured heavily in a lot of the food we ate there, in salads and miso soups and sauces. Texturally, it’s not substantial – it’s almost ethereal, almost disappearing into each mouthful – and taste-wise, too, it doesn’t have a huge presence. But it adds a little something, a little freshness that goes really well with stronger flavours. Plus it’s really good for you. So, there’s my long explanation of aasa.
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The noodles themselves were jikasei, or made in-house, and for this particular dish only, they make a special soba with aasa kneaded into the dough. The noodles were pale green and flat, a perfect texture, a normal flavour with just a little hint of weediness.

The pork was really excellent: falling-apart tender, slightly sweet, a little bit fatty, a little bit juicy. Next time I think I would add on extra pieces. Very good.

The soup had a clean, assari flavour, a little salty and a little mellow all at once. I added a splash of the bottled kooreeguusu (chilli vinegar) at the table and it added a little sharp acidity and just a tiny bit of heat that offset the sweeter tones. It was meant to be.

Now I’m off to Kyushu where there is no more Okinawa soba (but there will be plenty of ramen!!). Pretty happy I came across this one last bowl before i left. It was a good one.

Sayonara, soba. Until next time, Okinawa. Farewell, you beautiful place.

*our trusty rental car. It was my first time driving in Japan. I didn’t crash once (though there were a few near misses between Vitz and some concrete walls when I got stuck in the narrowest of streets in a little village at the tip of Okinawa)!
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Day 10: rest stop so-ki soba

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This was just a really honest, simple bowl of Okinawa soba.

We’d rented a car in Naha and had been driving north all day and it was about four in the afternoon and we had no idea where to get lunch, and the further north we got the less places to eat there were, and places were closed, and sometimes it seemed too hard to turn the car around just to check out a place that might not be open, so in late-afternoon hunger and frustration we finally pulled into the michi no eki in Kunigami, a rest stop on the side of Route 58.

I didn’t expect much, but at least there was a place selling noodles, and it was open. I got the so-ki soba, with a big hunk of pork floating on top.

The noodles were definitely not handmade, the soup was probably msg-laden, but damn. It was good. The pork substantial and well-seasoned throughout, both tender and lean all at once, the soup refreshingly clear and salty, I inhaled the bowl in a few minutes. I would not expect this quality of food at a highway rest stop, ever. But Japan constantly defies these expectations. Damn. Yum.

Day 9: Mozuku soba

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This one was really good.

In Okinawa, and on Zamami Island in particular, there’s a type of long, thin, edible seaweed called mozuku. (Actually I think it’s pretty widespread all over Japan – you can buy it in little packs at the supermarket – but it’s harvested around here). They come in strands, like slippery little noodles, and are often eaten cold in a rice vinegar dressing, sometimes with a bit of lemon, really refreshing. And good for you too: they’re a good source of fibre, and vitamins and minerals, especially iron.

At the far end of Zamami village, near a stream flowing into the port, is this little open-air mozuku shop called Wayama Mozuku. They’re only open for lunch, and they only serve a few things: Okinawa soba, with mozuku kneaded into the noodle dough, rice and pork (the rice cooked together with mozuku), and fresh mozuku in rice vinegar. Mum and I went there at lunchtime, in between a swim at Ama beach and another swim at Furuzamami beach, and ordered one of everything, except they’d just run out of fresh mozuku for the day, zannen. It must’ve been popular.

Even without the fresh mozuku the rest of the food was really good. My Okinawa soba, topped with sliced pork and kamaboko and red pickled ginger was deeply fragrant, the light, clear broth carrying the distinct umami flavour of katsuo (bonito), savoury and just faintly sweet.

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The noodles were a light grey-ish colour and just a tad earthy-tasting from the mozuku kneaded into the dough, and their twisty-ridgy shape suggests they’d been hand-cut, none of this machine-made uniformity here. They were at once slippery and firm, with a good bite; the slightly irregular shape seemed to carry more flavour with each slurp. This dish, guys: a textural odyssey in your mouth.

The toppings were pretty standard as far as Okinawa soba goes, but the sliced pork was well-seasoned and a good balance between fat and meat.

On the table there were some bottles (one homemade, one commercially bottled) of Okinawan chilli vinegar, a recommended condiment for soba. I added some: it wasn’t too hot, just a little tingly and sour from the vinegar. Yum.

After this, mum got to talking to Wayama-san, the owner, who invited us to a party of sorts. But that’s a story for the next post. Stay tuned!

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Day 6: Okinawa soba, an initiation

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Okinawa soba. Uchinaa-suba. Or, in Okinawa, often called simply soba. It’s not soba as you or I know it; the noodles are made of wheat instead of buckwheat, the broth is a light, porky, salty soup and it’s topped with a big, fatty hunk of slow-cooked pork. I’m in Okinawa for the first time, and though I’ve eaten a lot of Japanese food in my life Okinawan food is mostly new to me.

My first bowl of Okinawa soba was from Kanouya (I think), a lively little Okinawan restaurant around the corner from our hotel in Naha. I’d just flown in, ravenous after a flight delay and a dull three-hour flight, and my mum (who had flown in on an earlier flight and eaten here for lunch) recommended this little place close by.

The restaurant is actually most famous for their prawns – we had some cold in a salad, and hot off the grill – but they also have a range of typical Okinawan dishes, and from this I chose the Okinawa so-ki soba, Okinawa soba with a big, fatty, boneless chunk of pork rib meat floating on top.

This is the perfect stamina-giving meal for someone doing physical labour or coming off a long flight: filling, fatty, but not too rich, the noodles satisfying to slurp, the broth packed full of flavour. It was a bit different from anything I’d tasted, but somehow familiar at the same time: a full-bodied smoky sweetness, rich with umami, with globules of pork fat floating on top.

(Now I understand ‘globules of pork fat’ might put some people off, but they really did add to the overall satisfaction levels I experienced eating this soup, and if you really wanted to, you could avoid them…)

The pork was falling-apart tender, very fatty, but again you could just pick off the meat if you wanted to. The noodles were thick and flat, almost linguine-like; they seemed to have been made from dried rather than fresh noodles but I’ll forgive Kanouya that, they are a prawn shop after all.