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The Acclaimed Soba Maker Who Champions Home Cooking

By Mimi Vu

Philip Cheung; Assistant: Kali VineburgSonoko Sakai in the “soba room” of her studio in Highland Park, Los Angeles.
Sonoko Sakai in the “soba room” of her studio in Highland Park, Los Angeles.

Wandering among the artisanal shops of Kamakura, Japan, with her grandmother, a young Sonoko Sakai used to watch with fascination as tofu makers, tea roasters and rice millers crafted their products by hand. There was a fishmonger who delicately sliced and dried his fish on wire mesh screens, and a senbei (rice cracker) maker who sat on a tatami mat turning over each crisp, aromatic disc with chopsticks above a charcoal grill.

As the Queens-born daughter of an executive with Japan Airlines, Sakai, now a cookbook author, teacher and food activist, also spent plenty of time familiarizing herself with other traditions and other tastes. She grew up between Japan, the U.S. and Mexico, and during the years the family was in America, her mother would gamely devise meals using Japanese staples — miso, dried bonito, kombu — and frozen supermarket foods. (One of her specialties was a lasagna served with rice, and sometimes a little soy sauce.) “Traveling the world allowed us to dream and imagine,” said Sakai, “but I knew Japan would always be waiting for us.”

Philip CheungFlour sifters, bannetons, serving baskets and strainers in the soba room.
Flour sifters, bannetons, serving baskets and strainers in the soba room.
Philip CheungGlasses of umeshu, or plum wine, a liqueur made by steeping green ume fruits in shochu (a grain liquor) and rock sugar.
Glasses of umeshu, or plum wine, a liqueur made by steeping green ume fruits in shochu (a grain liquor) and rock sugar.

As Sakai, now 65, wrote in her 2019 cookbook, “Japanese Home Cooking,” it’s her grandmother’s dedication to classicism, along with her mother’s fearless improvisation, that most inspires her work today as an educator, noodle maker and advocate of modern, craft-based home cooking. “Nurturing ourselves and our families through good food really starts there,” she said. For the past 10 years, she has taught classes in everything from umeboshi pickling and miso fermentation to curry-brick making from the culinary laboratory — brimming with flour sacks, fermentation vats and spice jars — that takes up most of her 1920s Spanish-style home in Highland Park, Los Angeles. She’s also conducted workshops at cooking schools across the States and created soba pop-ups and events at buzzed-about California restaurants such as Bar Tartine, MTN, Tsubaki, Porridge + Puffs and N/Naka.

Still, her career in food came about almost by accident. For two decades, Sakai worked as a film producer and international film buyer, while nurturing her culinary interests on the side. (She occasionally wrote about Japanese cooking for the Los Angeles Times, and published her first cookbook in 1986.) But in 2008, burned out and dispirited by the critical reception of a film she produced, she quit the business and, on a lark, took a noodle-making class in Japan. She immediately fell in love with the craft. Over the next few years, she continued learning from masters in Tokyo, including the famed soba shokunin (or artisan) Takashi Hosokawa and the buckwheat miller Yoshitomo Arakawa, who is known for his incomparably flavorful sobakoh (buckwheat flour). Back home in Los Angeles, Sakai soon began teaching Japanese cooking herself. Her reputation grew by word of mouth, and she became renowned in her own right as a maker of some of the most sublime soba in the country.

Philip CheungClockwise from top left: Soba in a chilled dashi broth garnished with thinly sliced young Meyer lemons and Mexican limes from Sakai’s garden. A salad of tomatoes and red shiso leaf and a green salad with squash and cucumber. Zaru soba (or cold soba) with an accompanying dipping sauce.
Clockwise from top left: Soba in a chilled dashi broth garnished with thinly sliced young Meyer lemons and Mexican limes from Sakai’s garden. A salad of tomatoes and red shiso leaf and a green salad with squash and cucumber. Zaru soba (or cold soba) with an accompanying dipping sauce.

While she still humbly refers to herself as “just a home cook,” the scope of her vision is broad. When she first began to make noodles, in 2009, she found commercially available buckwheat flours in America to be so dry and bland that she started seeking out higher-quality sources — and ended up befriending experts in heritage grains, including Glenn Roberts, the founder of the famed Anson Mills in South Carolina (who later introduced her to Stephen Jones, the director of the Bread Lab, a grain-breeding research centre at Washington State University and another collaborator). Eight years ago, Roberts and Sakai began encouraging Southern California farmers to revive then little-grown varieties such as Sonora, Red Fife and einkorn wheats and Abruzzi rye. Today the project, which Sakai calls a heritage grain restoration movement, is thriving, stretching from Tehachapi, Calif. (where Sakai and her husband, the artist Katsuhisa Sakai, own a ranch), to Tennessee and Vermont. “The quality of the flour that we’re seeing, that we’re tasting, is so amazing that it’s something I would like to support for the rest of my life,” she said.

 

Soba dough is cut into thin strands with the help of a komaita, or cedar cutting guide.

 

 

At the same time, she’s committed to developing her repertoire — in “Japanese Home Cooking,” you’ll find a recipe for crispy mochi waffles with tatsuta-style (marinated and fried) chicken and a fragrant, spicy-sweet maple yuzu kosho (yuzu chili paste), alongside those for more classic dishes — and sharing her sensibility and know-how via intimate exchanges. Before the pandemic hit, one of her workshops would typically begin in her small tiered hillside garden, where she grows a vast array of produce: deep amber-coloured persimmons, tart and astringent yuzu, ruby red Santa Rosa plums, eggplant, zucchini, shiso leaves, mitsuba and lemongrass. Once students have picked what they need for the class, they head inside for a tour of the studio, which is filled with handcrafted maple-wood butcher tables and large abstract wood sculptures made by her husband. There’s an obligatory visit to the fermentation room, which used to double as a guest bedroom until it got so funky that friends who stay over now opt for the living room sofa. Here, students can sample things like miso and shio koji (koji salt). Then they get down to work, and afterward enjoy the results of their labour, whether it’s a bowl of chewy ramen noodles or a plate of delicate tempura.

Philip CheungOne of Sakai’s favorite rituals as a child was harvesting ume plums from an old tree in her grandmother’s garden to make umeboshi (pickled ume fruits) and umeshu. “I believe umeshu and umeboshi had something to do with my grandmother’s longevity,” says Sakai. “She lived to 102. The tree was probably as old as she was.”
One of Sakai’s favorite rituals as a child was harvesting ume plums from an old tree in her grandmother’s garden to make umeboshi (pickled ume fruits) and umeshu. “I believe umeshu and umeboshi had something to do with my grandmother’s longevity,” says Sakai. “She lived to 102. The tree was probably as old as she was.”

Now that her live classes are temporarily on hold, Sakai has shifted online by offering webinars and creating kits with impeccably sourced ingredients — buckwheat flour milled by Arakawa, kombu from Yagicho Honten in Tokyo, turmeric and chiles from Diaspora Co. — for students to use in their own kitchens, while following along with her tutorials. And this month, she is introducing a handcrafted curry powder, the first product in a forthcoming pantry line. The lockdown, and the accompanying surge in interest in home cooking, has only expanded her reach, allowing her to teach people as far away as Hawaii and Indonesia — and to forge a wider community bolstered by the comforting, connective power of food, something that, in this time of crisis, feels more valuable than ever. “Every cook has an opportunity to express themselves through food,” she said. “It is a form of art, and it’s such a beautiful thing.”