Wanko soba: Discovering Iwate's culture through its bottomless noodles
June 26, 2017
I made it! To Morioka, that is, a city in Iwate Prefecture about three hours north of Tokyo via bullet train. I arrived on a rather cold and cloudy day, and the air was clean and bracing. Standing in the middle of the bridge over Kitakami River, I filled my lungs with the delicious air. Glancing upstream, I was greeted by the beauty of the majestic Mt. Iwate.
The main reason I’d come to Iwate was to sample its local specialty, wanko soba, a distinctive way of serving buckwheat noodles. You sit in front of an empty bowl while a server stands behind you, brandishing a tray laden with tiny bowls, each containing a mouthful of soba. As soon as she tips the contents of one into your bowl, your job is to slurp it down so that she can immediately top up your bowl with another mouthful as she chants out cries of encouragement. This continues on and on until you’re full. This all-you-can eat style is what wanko soba is all about. Wanko, by the way, means “bowl” in the local dialect.
So here I was in Morioka, ready to take on the challenge at the main branch of Azumaya, one of Morioka’s most prestigious wanko soba establishments. I arrived at noon along with busloads of students on field trips, so the restaurant was bustling with activity. I’d initially planned to slurp my way through bowls of soba in private, but realizing taking in the atmosphere was all part of the experience, I sat at a table with a family who’d come from out of town. I rolled up my sleeves in anticipation of my very first wanko soba challenge, ready to take on the server in a noodle showdown.
In front of me was a selection of condiments to keep things interesting: tuna sashimi, nameko mushrooms with grated daikon radish, chicken soboro, spicy pickles, sesame seeds, nori seaweed, and pickled daikon and cucumbers. On my left was the bowl into which the server would be emptying tiny bowls of soba and dipping sauce. In the center, a tub in which to empty the sauce after slurping down the noodles.
After making sure I was comfortable, the server explained the rules:
- The challenge begins as soon as you open the lid of your serving bowl.
- 15 wanko soba bowls is the equivalent of an average-sized bowl of noodles.
- You can drink the dipping sauce if you like, but it can be quite filling, so it’s better to pour it into the tub.
- When you’re ready to stop, just replace the lid.
She then left for a moment and returned with a large tray full of tiny bowls, each containing a bite-size portion of soba and dipping sauce.
Here we go!
With a cry of “hai, don don!” the server emptied the first wanko into my bowl. As soon as I slurped it down, she yelled “hai, jan jan” and filled it with another mouthful. So began the non-stop flow of noodles. When she ran out of ammunition, she left to bring back another tray full of wanko. This short respite was an ideal opportunity to try the various condiments laid out in front of me. At first, I was afraid they’d take up valuable space in my stomach, but counting the number of empty bowls stacked in front of me, I realized I had already managed to empty 15. Probably a good time, I thought, to try some condiments and cleanse my palate. This strategy helped stimulate my appetite and I succeeded in going through two more trays—45 bowls. Finally, after my 50th, I realized it was probably time to stop. Easier said than done. The server managed to tip in another bowl before I could get the lid on. She was relentless. After 10 more tries, I finally managed to replace the lid and finished with a grand total of 60 bowls!
At the next table, a group of men were still at it. There was already a huge stack of empty bowls in front of them. One member of the group had managed to gobble up over 250 bowls of soba.
Once you’ve completed the challenge, the restaurant gives you a certificate showing how many bowls you ate. If you manage to eat more than 100, you’re also given a tablet—though this time they made a special exception for my mere 60.
I really enjoyed taking on the wanko soba challenge. It was a fun and tasty experience. I especially enjoyed the interaction with the server, who kept on encouraging me to eat with shouts of “hai, don don.”
Soba and Iwate's climate
How did this unique tradition come about? Its evolution is closely tied to the cool climate of Iwate Prefecture. The mountainous regions get heavy snowfalls, while the coastal areas are hit by a cool eastern wind called yamase during the rainy season, making it difficult to grow rice. What’s more, cold weather and pests cause frequent damage to crops. Incidents of widespread famine have been documented here ever since the Edo period some 400 years ago.
Because of this challenging terrain, farmers relied on easy-to-grow grains rather than rice for sustenance. Of those grains, buckwheat—that is, soba—was considered the most desirable because of its tasty and nutritious qualities and was served to guests at festivals and ceremonies.
Hosts wanted guests to eat to their hearts’ content even if meant emptying their cellars, and would serve bowl after bowl of soba until the guests could eat no more. The custom of using tiny bowls evolved over time as a way of serving numerous guests at once and eventually became the wanko soba style known and loved today. Its origins are firmly rooted in Iwate’s food culture and a tradition of hospitality.
On March 11, 2011, Iwate was hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake. Mr. Takahashi, the manager of the soba restaurant, says it felt like the coming of doomsday. As a result of the quake, the restaurant was forced to close down for a while. But then one day, one of the regular customers came and asked for soba. He was the first of a succession of regulars who dropped by to see how the restaurant was doing. Mr. Takahashi says he felt encouraged by their kind words and decided to reopen the restaurant, working hand in hand with the staff. He says he’s determined to preserve Iwate’s soba culture. Soba, he says, is what the people of Iwate eat when they’re happy. It’s also the ultimate comfort food, something you crave for when you’re feeling down and out.
Morioka, the noodle capital
Wanko soba is not the only noodle specialty in Morioka. Equally famous are Morioka reimen and jajamen.
This incredibly tasty dish features firm noodles made from flour and potato starch nestled in a rich, cold beef broth topped with daikon kimchi. Unlike Korean reimen or cold noodles, which are made from buckwheat and arrowroot starch and are therefore gray, Morioka’s noodles are a pale, almost translucent yellow. The combination of the slightly thick and firm noodles and the rich soup and kimchi is really addictive.
This is a dish of flat udon noodles topped with savory meat miso, cucumbers and grated ginger with rice vinegar or chili oil to taste. It's all mixed together to create a burst of flavors.
Once you finish eating the noodles, it's common practice to finish the dish by breaking a complimentary raw egg into the bowl and mixing it with the leftover miso.
You then hand the bowl over to the cook, who fills it with soup. The combination of this broth and savory miso results in a divine egg drop which the locals call “chiitantan.”
Text: Ichiko Murata
1-8-3 Nakanohashi-dori, Morioka, Iwate Prefecture
1-8-2 Oodori, Morioka, Iwate Prefecture
5-15 Uchimaru, Morioka, Iwate Prefecture
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