When Mutsuko Soma, lauded for her impeccable handmade soba, stepped away from Miyabi 45th in January 2016, she left a gaping hole in the food scene. But Soma promised to return, and the Japanese-style pop-up with which she kept fans sated in the meantime, Kamonegi, bloomed into a full-fledged restaurant less than two years later.
Though it’s only three months old, Kamonegi is already drawing widespread praise for its soba and tempura, two classic dishes originating in Japan’s Edo period. And Soma, Eater Seattle’s award-winner for Chef of the Year 2017, is reminding Seattle that she’s a force to be reckoned with. She spoke with Eater about the importance of soba in her life, and the difficulty of mastering this style of noodle.
“Soba has always been an important dish in my life. My grandmother used to make soba by hand during our family gatherings. I watched her make soba all the time,” Soma says. “My grandmother lost one of her arms in an accident so even though I’d watch her make soba often, I wouldn’t have been able to really learn the style or technique from her.”
After attending culinary school, Soma enrolled in a two-year soba-making program in Japan, learning to grind buckwheat and make small adjustments to her recipe based on weather and temperature.
“The primary difficulty of making soba by hand is the fact that buckwheat has no gluten,” Soma says. “It’s a common misconception that buckwheat is a grain, but it is actually a seed. Making noodles from a seed, with little gluten, requires deftness and technique in making and in cooking. It also means that the fresh noodles we make are perishable. They can dry out, become brittle, and fall apart in the water if kept too long or not made properly.”
Her painstaking process elevates these noodles far beyond the dried supermarket variety most consumers are familiar with. Those versions have only a small percentage of buckwheat, Soma says, and a higher percentage of wheat flour, to make them shelf stable and simplify the cooking process for the home cook.
“The difference in flavor, aroma, and texture is noticeable,” she says. “We use a traditional ratio called nihachi, which is 80 percent buckwheat and 20 percent flour. This creates a low-gluten soba noodle that’s silky and is so rich in buckwheat aroma that you can smell it before and after cooking. Even the cooking water from cooking these noodles retains a noticeable buckwheat flavor.”
While studying to make soba in Japan, Soma learned that Washington State is one of the largest producers of buckwheat. However, she’s found that the texture and feel of current Washington-grown buckwheat — most of which is used as a cover crop rather than for consumption — doesn’t work well for soba. While sourcing from other states, she’s still hoping to shift to local buckwheat in the future, and is working with Washington State University’s Bread Lab to test varietals of buckwheat for culinary use.
Soma’s restaurant marries soba with seasonal tempura, a common pairing in Japan. The tempura’s fat and crunch complement soba’s delicate silkiness. And just like her soba, Soma’s tempura raises the bar far beyond the average deep-fried take-out variety.
While Kamonegi leans heavily on Japanese tradition, Soma showcases her playful nature with creative departures from convention: dashi-braised kabocha squash tempura paired with foie gras ice cream and a caramel made with braising liquid, or a tempura satsuma yam with gorgonzola and buckwheat honey. “The flavors remind me of a holiday party cheese plate,” Soma says.
“We do get creative with our soba and tempura so there will be many options and specials that are unique to us, to the ingredients we have here, and the preferences of our food scene,” Soma says. “I like to think of it like we are the soba restaurant of the Pacific Northwest where even though the tradition is upheld and present, the experience is not that serious, it’s meant to be fun and diverse.”
Her food may not be serious, but her craft is. With that kind of dedication, it’s not hard to imagine the James Beard committee taking notice come awards season.