Rezaul Karim Chowdhury
Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.
Rezaul Karim Chowdhury
This Bangladesh-born soba chef runs his own restaurant in the seaside town of Zushi, Kanagawa Prefecture. Arriving in Japan at the age of 20 to study the language, Chowdhury first encountered soba noodles on a field trip with fellow students from his Japanese school. Drawn to this healthy, delicious dish, he resolved to become a soba chef, spending four years learning the craft at various Japanese restaurants, before finally launching his own business in 2002, at the age of 27.
August 11, 2016
Japanophiles: Rezaul Karim Chowdhury
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The flag of Japan, the iconic hinomaru, should require no introduction, an instantly recognizable classic of minimal design. It is actually somewhat similar to the national banner of Bangladesh. This flag also features a crimson circle at its center to represent the rising sun, although in the case of Bangladesh, the background is a deep green intended to evoke the nation’s lush, fertile lands.
Indeed, some scholars even suggest that the very word Bangladesh may derive from the name of an ancient sun god -- another solar echo across cultures.
The latest edition of our periodical Japanophiles series focuses on a Bangladeshi who was drawn to a career in Japan by a bond that goes beyond such cosmic coincidences: Rezaul Karim Chowdhury is a chef who has spent years striving to master the centuries-old tradition of making buckwheat soba noodles.
It was lessons on the tragic impact of nuclear weapons on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that first piqued Chowdhury’s interest in Japan while at elementary school. He finally came to visit the country for himself as a language student at the age of 20, but it was an excursion with his Japanese-school classmates that was to change his destiny forever.
On that trip to a soba restaurant, Chowdhury was intrigued by what his teacher described as healthy Japanese food. And when he tried a simple morisoba set combining plain, cold soba noodles with a tsuyu dipping sauce, he was blown away by the taste.
Morisoba, a classic of culinary simplicity, relies on a harmonious balance of noodle and tsuyu dipping sauce, with chopped green onions and grated wasabi added to taste.
Soba noodles are made from a dough using ground buckwheat, often in combination with wheat flour.
“They tasted amazingly good,” he recalls. Never a particular fan of the spicy food of his native Bangladesh, Chowdhury was soon won over by the subtle flavors of Japanese cuisine. Curious to find out more, he sought out books that taught him the history of soba, along with supposed health benefits derived from a high concentration of the antioxidant compound rutin.
And finding out about the famed difficulty of the soba-making art further cemented the desire he had felt from that very first mouthful to try his own hand at producing soba noodles. “I saw it as a challenge,” he tells host Peter Barakan. “It’s considered difficult even for Japanese to make. But I thought: ‘If they can do it, so can I.’”
Host Peter Barakan finds out all about Rezaul Karim Chowdhury’s path to running his own soba restaurant.
He embarked on a four year journey learning the basics of Japanese cuisine through jobs at various noodle and other Japanese restaurants. Like many previous guests on Japanophiles he had to overcome various hardships en route to mastering his chosen craft, and at points even came close to giving up.
But he persevered, and now handles every step of the soba-making process himself. He painstakingly grinds the buckwheat flour, kneads the dough with a quantity of iced water adjusted daily to account for differences in temperature and humidity, rolls and slices the noodles to uniform thickness, and goes through the three-day process of making his own tsuyu dipping sauce from the perfect blend of konbu kelp and skipjack tuna flakes.
To ensure a consistent texture once cooked, the rolled dough must be cut into noodles that are completely uniform in thickness.
This last step in the process was particularly hard to learn, as his mentor explained such recipes weren’t something that could be written down and must instead be learned “with your fingers and taste buds.” Batch after batch was rejected before his teacher finally gave Chowdhury the motivation to carry on with the faint praise “I guess this is OK.”
Milling the flour was another area where he struggled to find a plant that would take him on and show him the ropes. But he was eventually welcomed into the fold by Yasumitsu Kutsuma, whom Chowdhury describes as “the person I respect most in Japan, and the person here who was most accepting of me.”
The pair overcame a language barrier that set Chowdhury on his way to finding his own way to make the most of high-quality buckwheat from Hokkaido.
Kutsuma lavishes glowing praise on his unlikely star pupil: “Soba is all about very subtle nuances -- softer or firmer, or underdone, whether there’s an aftertaste, and so on -- all sorts of different things. That’s what I taught him, and I’m delighted to see how far he’s come.”
Thanks to the support of his regular customers, every day sees Chowdhury sell all the soba noodles he makes fresh each morning.
Soba noodles are a popular fast food all over Japan, and deep-fried, battered tempura and finely chopped green onions are two common accompaniments.
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