Natsu no Tokyo 夏の東京 (summertime in Tokyo)
by Chef Lippe.
It was 1998. The month of May was not completely gone, slowly drifting away with spring, but Tokyo was already engulfed in a thick palpable constant humidity that permeated everything, making your shirt cling to your body like plastic wrap. The Japanese call this groggy feeling “natsubate”, clear calling card that summer with its lethargic hot and humid personality was already knocking at the door.
As the day wore on, and the bustling never-ending sounds of the city melted into a hazy sunset, people left work to flood the streets into bars, restaurants, “taberunas” and other establishments for a pit stop before confronting the crowded train ride home.
I was a lucky soul, I lived in a hotel in Akasaka, six blocks walking distance to Urban, the model agency I worked for. No long train rides for me, I walked or took a cab ride anywhere I needed to go, and I did not necessarily had to go anywhere I was in Tokyo, which meant I was on vacation.
After eleven months of continuously traveling around Europe America and Brazil looking for models for the year, my job was done. I was in town to give my annual report. So it was vacation time of sorts.
Some evenings, when it was breezy and cooler I would stroll down the street and catch a cab to a little soba restaurant halfway between Akasaka and Roppongi tucked away on a little side street away from the noise of the avenue. I cannot recall the name now, but it was your typical little Roppongi noodle shop. Five or six four-seat tables inside, and three or four tables outside on the terrace. I loved this particular spot because they made the soba noodles by hand on-premises, fresh. The end wall of the restaurant, instead of a counter, displayed a wall to wall window, on the other side of which you could see the noodles being rolled out with the typical “menbo” long rolling pin set and cut with the “sobakiri” knife, a large blade resembling a Shaolin fighter weapon.
Japanese eat very seasonally and although in Tokyo you can find any food at any time, some restaurants do follow the practice of changing their menus with the seasons. Summertime eating is called "natsu no shun" 夏の瞬. I would sit outside contemplating the shrubbery, trimmed to perfection the way only Japanese do. As the night grew upon the dusk, light bugs would appear from the shrubs and fly around the terrace. The humid twilight, with its last pastels of pink, the light bugs and the smell of the food from the kitchen gave the whole scenario a surreal feeling, almost magical.
My order was almost always the same. Cold buckwheat noodles called Zaru-soba,ざるそば with "Nama-sake-to-masu",
生酒とます the first sake of the year, fresh, unpasteurized, with hints of rice still lingering, served in a fragrant wooden box and a liter bottle of Yebisu wheat beer to wash it all down properly.
Zaru soba came chilly cold served on a bamboo mat specifically made for this, accompanied by a dipping sauce called Tsuyu つゆ made of soy, mirin dashi, and sometimes special flavors in this case Genmai cha, 玄米茶 roasted brown rice tea. Additionally, small plates with toppings for the noodles were served. Commonly nori seaweed cut into thin strips, grated daikon radish, and katsuobushi かつお節 (shaved dried bonito). A bowl of soba-yu was served after the noodles were gone. Soba-yu そばゆう literally ‘soba water’ is the water where the soba is boiled. It is traditionally drunk with Zaru soba. Its delicious earthy flavor contains B vitamins and rutin, an antioxidant.
Namazake is literally “raw” sake. The winter season is used for the fermentation of the rice into sake. With the arrival of spring, it is ready for pressing. After the pressing is complete, and before pasteurization, you have “nama” or raw unpasteurized sake. Much fuller bodied than its pasteurized version, often sports complex earthy, fruity, and grassy notes both in the palate and the nose.
Yebisu back in the late eighties was the only wheat beer produced in Japan and was also traditionally a summer brew due to its sweeter, lighter character versus the more robust barley malt varieties. Yebisu is also the name of one of the seven gods of good fortune in Japan.