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Now reading Profile in Obsession: Sonoko Sakai

Profile in Obsession: Sonoko Sakai

The woman who is attempting to make soba as accessible in America as ramen and pasta.

Sonoko Sakai
Soba teacher and Founder, Common Grains
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Age: 59

Sonoko Sakai teaches classes on making soba noodles from her home in LA’s Highland Park. “It’s a work in progress,” according to the disclaimer she gives, but the progress is beautiful: sculptures by her husband, and big wood tables that he’s built. “All my tables here are for the workshops. Next week I have thirty-five moms and children coming here,” Sonoko says. “My son’s out of the house, so my bedroom is a soba room. And my husband’s even out of the house because he gets in the way when I have workshops. I’ve taken it over. I even take the patio. The whole place is just a workshop.” But teacher is only one of many hats Sonoko wears. A film industry veteran (she was an agent and producer), she’s also an author, a cook, a liaison between farmers and chefs, and a passionate advocate for buckwheat.

I was eating a lot of soba, and every time I went back to Japan, I would do pilgrimages to different artisan soba restaurants. Only 1 percent of soba is stuff people are actually doing by hand; the rest is made by machine. When I started tasting the difference, I thought, Oh my god. I was willing to go to Japan and not eat sushi; I’d just go and have soba. I would go back to Japan to do film work, but I was taking trips to different places to meet soba masters. And I thought, Well, maybe I could take a soba class, a workshop. I went back and did an immersion, and what was a summer workshop became, Oh, maybe I want to go to school?

So I did a twelve-week immersion class, where every day I made tons of soba. And then I did a stage at a well-known soba master’s place in Tokyo, Hosokawa. He has a Michelin star. He’s one of the most well-known curmudgeons; he fires everybody. He had lost all his apprentices, and at the end of the year, when you need soba, he didn’t have anybody. I was visiting as a customer, and I was asking so many questions that he came out to talk to me. He was saying, “I don’t know what to do because I don’t have any help.” And I said, “Well, I’m going to be here for two weeks. I can come and help. I could wash dishes, I’ll do anything.” He said, “Really?” And that’s what I did: I washed dishes. But he let me watch him. He mills everything on the premises, so I got to vacuum the floors. I got to mix the flours sometimes. It was incredible.

I did that for a couple years; whenever I could go back, I would go visit him, and he would invite me into the kitchen. Which was unheard of, especially for a woman my age. It was like, What is she doing here?

He was wonderful. I feel very fortunate I had that experience. The soba masters—unlike other chefs, their parameters are narrow. People here would say, “That’s just noodles! What about the toppings?” That’s not it. It changes your whole value system about how you look at an experience, and you appreciate it. Whether it’s the bonito he gets from a certain katsuobushi maker, he tasted everything—and he would let me taste it with him.

Common Grains, Sonoko’s cultural project devoted to educating people about grain traditions, sprang out of a search for good buckwheat in the United States.

I was going to Japan like three times a year just to get my buckwheat. I’m crazy enough to give up any clothes shopping in Japan; I bring back flour instead. There’s nothing in my suitcase except for flour; I even carry it in my carry-on. The other day—I couldn’t believe it—I brought back fifty kilos and didn’t have to pay excess.

Growing buckwheat is easy—it’s just how you harvest it and how you store it and how you mill it into flour. That’s the art of it. I was going all around the country looking for buckwheat—but there is buckwheat! Buckwheat is grown all over the place, except that it’s used as a cover crop, or it’s shipped to Japan. It grows everywhere, actually. It acclimates. It picks up the terroir. People think it only grows in the cold northern climates, like China and Russia and Washington State—but it could be tropical, subtropical. It only takes about seventy-five days to grow buckwheat, as opposed to wheat, where you plant it and wait a whole season. Buckwheat is not a grass; it belongs to the rhubarb family. It reproduces really fast, but it has to be harvested before the frost.

Sonoko is choosy about the buckwheat she uses in her soba—not much in the U.S. passes muster. There are the trips to Japan, and she gets some from Glenn Roberts at Anson Mills in South Carolina. But she’s also hard at work spreading the word to local farmers in Southern California. The reasons to grow it are numerous.

Who wants to grow buckwheat? It makes no money. Farmers will look at me and say, “Oh god, that’s an orphan. That’s an orphan crop.” It’s just manure, green manure. I’ll say, “Wait a minute, wait a minute! Please don’t treat my crop as an orphan!” Buckwheat mellows the soil—it’s great for the soil. You can’t let farmers just grow one thing; that’s what happened to the Midwest, and that’s what’s depleting the nutrients in the soil. This is all something that I’ve learned; you diversify the way that you eat, and you become healthier; you diversify the way you grow things, and the planet benefits.

Dr. Steve Jones, the director of the Washington State University Mount Vernon Research Center, said, “We’re going to have to help you with this.” He started inviting me three years ago, and he said, “Well, first you have to talk to farmers, so you can understand how farmers think.” I started going out there. I did a workshop, and I invited all the farmers; they got to learn how to make the buckwheat soba, and we did this whole tasting thing. So the Port of Skagit, which works with the Bread Lab, said, “Well, why don’t we try to find some money?” They applied for a state grant, and they just raised a small fund to start bringing seeds from Japan. We’ve already had one harvest where we did like seven different varieties of buckwheat. I shipped it to my miller in Japan, and we just got the samples back. We’re going to make noodles with it.

What Steve Jones really wants to do is develop an economy of buckwheat, like he’s done with the wheat. Something sustainable, organic. It’s going to take several years, but this is our first year. We’ve gotten the funding; we’re going to see how we’re going to use it. Maybe we’ll get a buckwheat seed cleaner, which will cost ten to fifteen thousand dollars. We even convinced the buckwheat miller in Japan to immigrate. We have all these ideas—but it started out with nothing. It started out with, Well, I like to eat these noodles. I make these noodles. I’m bringing this flour from Japan. Why is it so hard?

What can we do to keep the buckwheat here in the U.S., instead of sending it all to Japan? I’m telling you, like seven million dollars’ worth or more of buckwheat, in its seed, without even being cleaned, goes straight to Japan in big containers, and then it gets processed into flour. Why am I then bringing it back in suitcases? And paying all this money and sacrificing all my love for good clothes?

We move to the bedroom, where there’s a table with a big bowl of flour in it, already sifted. “This is four hundred grams of buckwheat, 20 percent wheat.” The buckwheat is from Anson Mills; Sonoko’s flour from Japan, that she ordered and had shipped, is stuck at the port. “So here I am; I spent five hundred dollars on flour, and it’s stuck for three months,” she says. “I was so mad.” She pours water into the bowl with the flour and makes circles with her hands. “You don’t even add egg or salt; it’s just water.”

You could do it with 100 percent buckwheat if it’s well milled and really fresh. Buckwheat is a fruit; you harvest it, you mill it, and you eat it right away. You don’t have to age it. It doesn’t have a really long shelf life; it’s all about how it’s milled.

My buckwheat miller in Japan knows flour like you wouldn’t believe. He has a missing finger that got caught in the roller mill; he has all these missing fingertips. Milling is not just about buying a machine and getting somebody to do it for you: it’s an art. It takes years of understanding quality of grain. It’s a long process.

There’s no miller in the United States that has figured soba-grade quality flour out yet. That’s my calling and my mission. I decided, well, my grandmother lived to 102, I could still go on. And if I could have a mill in five years, I’d be very happy.

Sonoko gathers the flour into a cone of dough (“this is called a chrysanthemum”), seemingly without any effort, then rolls the dough out. “What I’m trying to do is make this circle into a square,” she explains, with a teacher’s authority. “Feel it!”

I didn’t think I would ever go into teaching. But I thought, What can I do out of my house that would make the economics work? It’s still not paying off that well, but I do other things: I get a gig cooking rice. Or I get a book deal; I’m doing a book with Chronicle. So that opens up my opportunities to expand myself beyond noodles. Being too obsessed with just the noodles when I don’t even have a noodle shop is not going to work.

I have to be able to teach other things if I’m going to keep teaching. But I also started collaborating with people like Roxana [Jullapat], where I thought, Oh! So I’ll find someone who’s young and talented and can work with me! And we share the menu. Right now we’re doing a grain-centric pop-up, working with local farmers. It’s a wonderful opportunity.

Sonoko has rolled the circle into a rectangle. “You can’t spend too much time on it because it starts to get dry,” she says. “So you have to go at it real quick. So now I’m gonna cut it. It’s a pretty strong dough, but once you get a slip in it you can’t fix it. So you have to be very careful not to rip it.” She gives a lesson in cutting the soba. She taps her knife against a wooden guide, to give the noodle its width, then the knife comes straight down. “When you tap, it’s like a horse trotting. This board is called koma-ita, and means ‘little space in between.’ It sounds like a horse trot. If you listen to the soba master it goes ta takka ta takka ta takka. It takes skill.”

I’m not that great. You have to do volume every day. So I was really pretty good when I was at the soba school doing 1.5 kilos six times a day. I was fit! But if I’m doing twenty servings once a week, that’s not good enough. My goal is to do a hundred servings every day. I’d like to do that.

If you go to a serious buckwheat place like my master’s, he wants you to eat only the buckwheat. He only gives me soba. He doesn’t want me to eat anything else. You have to learn this flavor first. It’s fundamental. Don’t even think about the other things; you’ve got to get through that, and then you can start appreciating the tempura…

We move to the kitchen, where Sonoko heats some oil and fries the rejects—all the misshapen end pieces—first. “When you go to a soba restaurant, an artisan one, they don’t want to waste anything,” she says. The resulting soba chips are nutty and addictive. She cooks the noodles in unsalted water—it’s quick, only a couple minutes. She fries little slices of kabocha squash. She ladles a simple broth over the noodles and squash—just dashi, bonito, kombu, and shiitake mushrooms. On top go a squeeze of lime, crumbled chili pepper, scallions, and finally some nori. The noodles are slippery, supple, and incredibly good—unlike anything I’ve had before.

Have I had good soba in America? No. They can’t source the flour. That’s the main reason why nobody has attempted it. Any soba restaurant that you see is probably cheating on the flour. It’s mostly wheat—like 70 percent, 80 percent wheat.

It’s not a trend for me. I was out there on my own before people even heard of buckwheat. Oh yeah, there’s a pancake called buckwheat. It smells really bad. I’d say, “Smells really bad?” They’d say, “It’s too earthy.” I’d say, “Earthy! That’s a really weird word for buckwheat.” It smells that way because the husk is in there, and it hasn’t been properly washed, and you’re probably tasting the diesel from the combine. And there are probably lots of other reasons! Because if you smell fresh green buckwheat, it’s grassy, and it’s nutty, and it’s beautiful. It’s not weird. My miller came here, and he was taken to different buckwheat mills, and he said, “I could just smell the diesel.” Or, “This is really old!” He walks in and he knows already.

I think that if you’re going to pursue something, you have to really humble yourself. The beginner’s spirit is really important. Every time I make a noodle, it’s different. Today the water ratio, I missed it by like two tablespoons! It’s very runny today. And I may be the only one who knows, but I’m just going to have to try a little harder next time.

It’s so fascinating, though. And buckwheat is so beautiful. Have you seen the flowers? The fields, oh my god. It’s like the mustard fields right now—how it’s all yellow? Buckwheat is all white. Just like that, but all white. And the bees love it. It has to be part of a program to include these rotation crops. If people eat it, then the value will go up. If people just want to use it as a manure, it’s going to stay at twenty-five cents a pound, and it will never make it into the food world.

What I’m hoping to do is continue my collaboration with people like Roxana and try to work with bakers. If I have enough clients I could make the hundred servings a day. And then it would make sense for me to have a commercial kitchen. I won’t be a line cook, but I’ll train people to cook it right. I’ll show them how to prepare it and sell it wholesale. That way I could maintain my stamina and spread the gospel. I don’t want to be too precious; it’s not that precious in Japan. If you start putting it on a pedestal, people aren’t going to like it. I want it to be as accessible as ramen and pasta.

It’s a pursuit. If it takes my lifetime, that’s okay.