NHK World has a TV program called Japanology, which explores various aspects of Japan, both traditional and contemporary: arts, sports, entertainment, food, technology, nature, etc. Some episodes of the program introduce some Japanophiles – the non-Japanese persons who love and admire Japan and everything Japanese. One of the recent episodes introduces Rezaul Karim Chowdhury – a Bangladeshi in Japan making soba noodles and runs his own restaurant, “Ishiususoba” in the seaside town Zushi of Kanagawa prefecture. His story goes like this:
Rezaul came to Japan at the age of 20 to study the language. He first encountered soba noodles on a field trip with fellow students from his Japanese school. Although from Bangladesh, Rezaul was never fond of spicy food. Love for less spicy food came from his father. Therefore, when Rezaul tasted ‘morisoba,’ a classic of culinary simplicity, relies on a harmonious balance of noodles and tsuyu dipping sauce, with chopped green onions and grated wasabi added to taste – he was intrigued by its simplicity and amazing taste.
Attracted to the healthy, delicious taste of soba, he decided to learn how to make soba. He sought out books that taught him the history of soba, along with supposed health benefits. He soon finds out that making soba is not easy.
Soba noodles are made from a dough using ground buckwheat, often in combination with wheat flour. The taste of the best soba noodles dish depends on many factors: quality of buckwheat, quality of water, water temperature, moisture in weather, boiling time, serving, etc.
He spent four years learning the basics of Japanese cuisine through various restaurant jobs. He had to overcome fear, rejection, hardships on the way to mastering his chosen craft. He came to at points close to giving up the whole venture. But he persisted. He tried and tried many times to make soba and seek quality checks from his teacher.
No luck. He tried to write down the steps, but his teacher insisted that such recipes were not something that could be written down and must instead be learned with your fingers, eyes, and taste buds. Batch after the batch was rejected before his teacher finally gave Rezaul the motivation to carry on with the faint praise, ‘I guess this is OK.’
Soba noodles took him four years to learn before finally opening his own business in 2002 at 27. Now he 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.
Milling the flour was another area where Rezaul struggled to find a plant that would take him on and show him the ropes. But he was eventually welcomed into the fold by Mr. Yasumitsu Kutsuma, whom Rezaul describes as ‘the person I respect most in Japan, and the person here who was most accepting of me.’
Yasumitsu provides Rezaul the high-quality buckwheat from Hokkaido, which is very important to make soba perfect – not too soft, not so firm, not underdone, not overdone – just perfect.
The local Japanese community supported Rezaul when he started his business – some of them distributed free flyers for his business and gave him support and encouragement. As he works alone in his restaurant, his customers bring their food, drinks from the kitchen to the table when he is busy. Some even come back to pay money when he forgets to charge for any item on the menu. It happened many times.
A Bangladeshi in Japan is making great Japanese noodles, succeeded in winning the hearts of his customers. He is planning to expand his business as now he can offer only forty servings. He wants to serve more. Japan is more than a second home for him now as he lived there for many years, speaks fluent Japanese, his child was born there. No wonder there. Did any Bangladeshi in Japan tasted soba at his joint! Are there any writings on him in the Bangladeshi community in Japan!