Niigata Noodle JUNKtion: Hegi Soba, Ramen + The Italian
Japan is noodle crazy. Each station in each town of each prefecture have their own noodle specialty. Being noodle fiends ourselves, Kayoko and I researched some of the regional noodles of Niigata prefecture before setting foot there last month.
As soon as we arrived, we noticed a lot of ramen and soba. We wanted to try it all, but we only had two days. We specifically stayed in Sanjo City in Niigata. Niigata usually has very cold winters, making it an ideal place to grow rice and make sake. The winter in Niigata this year was especially warm and they were not getting half as much snow as they usually do. We were lucky to see some snow falling, but it was really light.
Like every place in Japan, everyone is obsessed with food. So much so, that the cover story for a local magazine called Komachi is all about regional noodles. This book is packed with so many ramen, soba and udon joints that could last you a lifetime.
Komachi magazine with cover story "Niigata's Best Noodles"
Our first local noodle dish, hegi soba, appeared before us for lunch at Kojimaya. Served in a serving platter called a hegi these soba noodles are enjoyed family style. I had never had soba this way -- it added a sense of active fun to the lunch. Another unique thing about hegi is that it is made with funori, a type of algae harvested in the summertime. The funori makes the soba shiko-shiko (slippery) and bouncy at the same time. The noodles are cooked al dente, reminding me a little bit of konnyaku. I really enjoyed these firm noodles that had a hint of the sea.
The soba set also came with fresh wasabi for garnish, DIY style. I thought this was genius because grating wasabi is very time-consuming. Free labor!
The second place we went for noodles was Matsuya Shokudo. Although this style of ramen appears in all types of cold climate towns and prefectures, Matsuya is the town favorite in Sanjo City. Each bowl has a layer of pork backbone fat that keeps the contents piping hot.
Originally, they added this layer of fat because the ramen was delivered to your doorstep, and the fat prevented the ramen from cooling off during the trip. The pleasant side effect of this is that the pork fat adds another layer of umami that makes the whole experience pretty intense. I almost finished the whole bowl.
Last and definitely, the least, is the Italian at Mikazuki. We had heard about this prior to our trip to Niigata. It's a regional "Italian" noodle dish that is comprised of yaki soba (pan-fried wheat noodles) with a ketchup-like sauce, onion bits and canned corn. Yeah, it tasted as weird as it sounds.
I didn't have high hopes for this dish, but I did have some hope. Hope was lost in many ways upon digging in on the bullet train back to Tokyo. It was lukewarm, gummy and the sauce didn't really taste like anything despite the fact that it was pretty red.
It was clearly not a favorite, but I loved the name "The Italian" and the fact that you can really only get that dish in Niigata. But that's really as far as my love extends for this regional dish. At least it was only 260 yen (under $3).
Trying just these three noodle dishes in a tight time span really put things into perspective. The rest of my life is not enough time to try all the regional noodle dishes in Japan. There are still thousands out there to explore.
Niigata 959-1232, Japan
T: +81 256-66-3003
Niigata 959-1233, Japan
T: +81 256-62-4739
MIKAZUKI (Same plaza as Kojimaya)
Niigata 959-1232, Japan
T: +81 256-66-1171