Our best food memories serve more than just the taste of a meal. They encompass place and time. For twenty-five years, more than half my lifetime, I’ve been searching for authentic yakisoba in Minnesota. I’ve been looking for a yakisoba that can bring me back to my youth and to the old Japanese man who fried noodles at his cart in the street. When I need comfort, I think of that vendor and his good soba.
I know I can ever relive that experience or those flavors… but that hasn’t stopped me from trying. I’ve grazed my way through dozens of Twin Cities Japanese restaurants and enjoyed many delicious noodle dishes. Of course, none have had the grilled street food flavor of the yakisoba I ate on the outskirts of Tokyo.
It began with the smell. Like a pig searching for truffles I sniffed my way through our neighborhood. The aroma became a place where sesame oil met hot griddle, where strings of noodles were kissed by spicy threads of pickled ginger. In Tokyo yakisoba vendors were as common as hotdog stands in New York City. Yakisoba was the food of the people hustling through the streets with no time for a proper sit down meal.
The old man who ran the yakisoba stand near our house didn’t speak English, and I only spoke enough Japanese to elicit a finger-pointing toward the closest subway station, but he knew I loved the ginger and always gave me extra. I could watch him for hours, frying noodles over the long hot griddle. He added bits of vegetables and pork and finished the fried soba with a flourish of sauce. With nimble skill he’d heap a generous portion on to a cardboard plate using chopsticks and a spatula, then hand the plate to outstretched hands. On a cold day, standing near the grill was a way to keep warm while you waited for you noodles.
The Edina location of Cooks of Crocus Hill, a local kitchen store and cooking school, recently hosted a Japanese Street Food class, and I felt like my search for authentic yakisoba in Minnesota was at long last over. We eager students (sort of) accomplished the correct folds on our gyoza, learned the secrets of a perfect takitori skewer and sauce, and made a delicious yakisoba. The noodles weren’t fried outdoors over an open flame (although we did fry them over the flames of a good gas range), and there weren’t the fine ribbons of ginger that I crave whenever their is a promise of Japanese food. In the end our yakisoba didn’t completely end my longing for the dish I still dream about.
But oh, what a meal.
Am I ready to return to Tokyo and receive soba training from a master so that I can open my own yakisoba cart in the the Twin Cities? (Yes! Perhaps just a stand in my own backyard…) From the streets of Japan to a night in Edina, these dreams of yakisoba guide me.