I was driving to Los Angeles early one morning last week, listening to the news on Santa Monica public radio station KCRW, when suddenly I heard the pleasant and familiar sound of Sonoko Sakai's voice explaining soba noodles. The program was an installment of SoundsLA, and it features brief samples of interesting sounds, in this case the clip-clop of Sonoko chopping soba dough into noodle strips on a wooden cutting board. Sonoko is a part-time Tehachapi resident and perhaps the country's leading advocate and teacher of Japanese buckwheat noodle traditions.
Great food, traditional cooking techniques and cultural heritage have long been integral parts of Sonoko Sakai's life. This food writer, cooking teacher, author and film producer champions the use of heirloom foods and heritage varieties of seed, especially buckwheat and grains.
Based in Southern California but a frequent traveler, Sonoko and her husband, a renowned sculptor, bought property and a home in Cummings Valley a couple of years ago. The highly-regarded food enthusiast first visited Tehachapi to attend a wedding at the Ari Bod Tibetan retreat center, and liked what she saw.
"My husband, Sakai, and I just loved the landscape of Tehachapi, and the beauty of this place keeps growing on us," Sonoko explained. "Sakai often works on sculpture in the Mojave Desert, and Tehachapi is near enough that he doesn't have to travel too far. We want to be part of this community and its rich heritage."
Sonoko herself has an interesting heritage and had an exotic upbringing, having been born in New York City and been raised in Tokyo, San Francisco, Kamakura, Mexico City and Los Angeles. She and her parents and her siblings, a family that eventually included five children, moved back and forth between Japan and the North American continent since her father was an executive with Japan Airlines who opened new offices abroad for the company.
"Every three years we'd move when my father was assigned to a new city," Sonoko says. "We were like migrating birds. Long airplane flights were still something of a novelty then, and most Japanese people had never been overseas. The planes weren't jets, they were propeller planes, so we'd have to stop in Hawaii and other places to refuel. My two brothers didn't enjoy the frequent moves very much and ended up going to boarding schools, but to the three girls in the family, it was always another adventure — we'd be excited, wondering where are we going to move next?"
While living in the Japanese city of Kamakura, an ancient seat of power during feudal times, Sonoko began to develop her love for artisanal food and exceptional ingredients.
"There were lots of fishermen around Kamakura, and the seafood was wonderful," Sonoko says, "People had great food traditions, and everything was handmade."
Sonoko spent a lot of time in the company of her grandmother, an exceptional woman who lived to be 102.
"My grandmother had the first oven in the entire city," Sonoko noted. "In Japan we had no culture of baking — we did simmering, grilling, frying, and of course eating foods raw. But no ovens. My grandmother baked every week, however, and she gave me an appreciation for flour and kneading dough by hand. Neighbors would come to see what she was baking because it was such a curiosity. My grandmother was a wonderful influence in my life."
When she was a junior in high school, Sonoko moved to Los Angeles with her family after 10 years of not being in the U.S.: "I struggled my way into this culture, and eventually attended UC Davis, and graduated in Japan as part of a 'study abroad' program. My degree was in International Relations, which is a discipline that has no discipline — it's kind of fluffy, and I didn't know what to do with myself for a career. I got a teaching credential to teach bilingual education, and got a masters, and eventually entered a doctoral program at UCLA."
It was there that she met Lou Stoumen, an Oscar-winning documentary film maker who was to become one of her most important mentors. With Stoumen she met many influential film and still photographers, and she remembers driving up the California Coast to have lunch with Ansel Adams. Stoumen inspired her to be creative, and with his encouragement she published a cookbook, “The Poetical Pursuit of Food: Japanese Recipes for American Cooks.” The book features a wealth of recipes and information learned in her grandmother's kitchen, and in many respects was ahead of its time.
Sonoko went on to have a 25-year career in the international marketing of films and film rights, buying movies for major Japanese film distributors, including box office hits like “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy as well as independent films like “Reservoir Dogs” and “Like Water for Chocolate.” She always maintained her interest in food, however, freelancing as a food writer for the L.A. Times and other publications for 10 years, and eventually transitioned from film back into food again. She has been involved in so many cultural food projects and events that it would be hard to summarize them, but in recent years she has gained renown as a leading teacher of traditional soba making.
Soba is the Japanese word for buckwheat and for the traditional noodles made from 100 percent buckwheat flour. Buckwheat is not technically a grain, since it's made from the seeds of buckwheat, which is a flower (dicot) rather than a grain (monocot), but when finely ground, buckwheat seeds yield a flour not unlike that produced by wheat, barley, rye, or other traditional grains. Except that it doesn't contain any gluten, which makes it both desirable for those who are gluten-intolerant, and also a little trickier to use, since it doesn't have gluten to hold it together.
Sonoko has studied with soba masters in Japan, and she teaches the techniques she has learned. I attended a soba workshop given by Sonoko, and it was remarkable experience. Sonoko is a gifted teacher with a wonderful awareness of interesting cultural nuances and traditions, and she shares them as she encourages those in her classes.
As you knead soba flour, it develops a faintly greenish color and a smooth, beautiful texture like wet porcelain. After being rolled out into a thin rectangular sheet, the noodles are carefully cut into thin strips and are then ready to be incorporated into a variety of healthy dishes. A Japanese American friend of Sonoko's named Noritoshi Kanai — the businessman who brought the first sushi bar to the U.S., in fact — considers soba to be the best Japanese food there is.
"Kanai likes soba because it makes him feel soboku — a quality Japanese people treasure that means to be simple, natural, modest and elegant in an unadorned way," Sonoko says.
You can learn more about Sonoko and find out about her different food workshops at her very interesting blog, which includes Tehachapi entries and is updated almost daily, online at cooktellsastory.com. Sonoko and her husband, Sakai, are among those who make Tehachapi such an interesting place to live.
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to email@example.com.