Japan 10: The Soba Nazi

Written by

Andrew Millar


January 12, 2008

She worked in one square metre of floor space. This was part of a three-square metre slot at the back of a food stall that served as a kitchen.

But the fact that she was not very tall helped. In fact she was almost at eye level with the deep fryer she was stationed at. The crone’s job was to preparing tempura; vegetables, prawns and bits of fish, deep-fried in a light rice flour batter. And she approached her job with serious diligence. She gave no hint that she found anything vaguely funny about tempura.

Above her hung a sign in Japanese, English and Chinese. It read to the effect that they don’t sell tempura without soba noodles. So don’t even ask.

And it is thus that we found Tokyo’s Soba Nazi. Soaked in the oily fumes of her deep fry, ladle in hand, and patience thin as she dunked creamy white blobs of stuff into the smoking oil, retrieving them once golden brown.

It was a sunny morning, so crisp and clear you could almost hear it. But cold, creeping cold in the Tokyo Fish Markets. And a bowl of Soba for breakfast was what we needed to thaw and energise for more exploration. We took a seat at the counter with our backs to the pavement.

She looked up from her frying and said something quickly in Japanese and swung her ladle at the sign. A few drips of oil flew off and struck the wall where many more had done on other occasions. It was her routine to point at the sign. Obviously people often just wanted tempura. But this was a soba noodle bar. And she was the Soba Noodle Nazi.

We nodded in agreement and with that she deemed it permissible to serve us. We had passed her test.

Taking a small twisted bundle of grey noodles that looked like a ball of wool a kitten had tormented for an hour or so, she dunked them in boiling water. 30 seconds. No more. To pass this fleeting time she ladled a little of the water to warm the bowl. Scooping the noodles into the bowl she added Miso stock, rich green fresh nori (seaweed) and thinly sliced spring onion.

Then, the tempura… Without asking she made a lunge for the battered prawns. But my wife wanted the bird’s nest of shredded vegetables. I could almost see her face change from solemn to grumpy to angry. I fully expected a Japanese Seinfield tirade roughly translated to “You. No noodles, one month.” But she agreed and dunked the bundle into the seaming soup. She did it with a palpable but not audible grumble.

She presented it and then set about constructing the second serve.

When it came time to pick the tempura, I didn’t get a choice. Once you’ve ordered vegetables, that’s what you get regardless. Maybe that was her revenge.

I didn’t think she was being nasty. Just minimalistically efficient. It is the same in New York, a city of similar size. Don’t try and buy a newspaper without the correct money. When things get busy, they just don’t have time to fiddle about. It is an efficiency you need to adopt to serve everyone.

My wife reminded me that the Japanese can sometimes seem aloof, efficient to the point of being cold, unfeeling. And that you may not get to see the real character of individuals until you see them with their ‘shoes off’. In other words, at the end of their day, when they’re relaxing on Tatami mats at home and the work is all done. Then the true warm character comes out.

The Soba Nazi was probably a very nice person. She was just dishing out food with military emotions.

A young couple were hovering behind us as we ate. I thought they were Japanese but I spotted a guidebook in hand. “”Is it good?”” she asked in unfamiliar English. “”Oishi. Delicious””, I almost said, but resorted to speaking with my hands. (When in language doubt, act it out.) I did that European chef thing of kissing tightly bunched fingertips. And followed it up with a nod for good measure.

They seemed to get the idea. And I returned to sprinkling roasted sesame seeds over the best soba soup I have ever eaten – with one eye on the Soba Nazi just in case I did the wrong thing.

The young couple moved on. That was their loss.