Four hundred posts! I can't believe that what started as a "digital" experiment has lasted this long (six years and counting). Thank you to friends and relatives who read this blog (yes, all seven of you). Blogging is the perfect way to remember places I have been to, food I have enjoyed and experiences that have moved me.
This 400th post may be a bit ironic. There is no pig or pork at all -- this is about an almost vegetarian noodle dish that I enjoyed during my recent trip to Kyoto.
Koke-no-chaya is a soba restaurant that has long been a familiar feature on the road going to the Saiho-ji Temple, more popularly known as Koke-dera.
Koke means moss and chaya is a resting place or a tea house where travellers could relax and take a snack or a meal.
From the looks of this black and white photo, Koke-no-chaya has been around for quite a number of years.
I love that the restaurant still looks very much like the the original in the photo above. The wooden sign on top of the doorway is the very same one in the photo. One notable change perhaps would be the giant ice cream cone that stands on one corner. Koke-no-chaya must
sell a lot of soft serve matcha (green tea) ice cream during the hot summer months.
A menu board in front of the restaurant shows the various soba dishes available, interspersed with photos of its famous neighbours, the temples Saiho-ji, or Koke-dera, Jizo-in and Kegon-ji.
Right outside the restaurant are some low tables where diners can eat while viewing the
rather unruly but utterly charming pocket garden. Since it's winter time there are no takers,
not in this chilly 5C weather.
The interiors are appealing and homey, fusing both old and new. Photos and notes from famous personalities are framed on the walls, old baskets hang from the aged wooden rafters and a cast iron tea kettle is suspended over an electric fire.
Portable heaters provide much needed warmth and there are several photo albums filled with magazine and newspaper articles about Koke-no-chaya.
Here's a multi tasking heater that also serves as a warmer for the teapot.
We are served hot mugicha or roasted barley tea, poured into squat round bowls. Each sip warms me all the way down to my toes.
Koke-no-chaya is a soba restaurant -- the buckwheat noodles are handmade right in the restaurant's kitchen. You can have plain soba, hot or cold and a few other simple dishes.
The cheerfully bustling okamisan (lady owner) who waits on all the tables encourages us to order their specialty, tororo soba and naturally, we are happy to oblige.
As we wait for our orders, I peek into the kitchen at the back. Koke-no-chaya is not exactly a small restaurant, I would peg it at a 30 seater so I am quite impressed when I see that
aside from the okamisan (who is already of a "certain age") there are only two other people helping her run the entire place.
There is the white-haired chef (who I presume is her husband) and a lady who washes the dishes. The restaurant runs smoothly -- and the okamisan is even able to keep up a running conversation with her guests as she goes to and from the kitchen carrying everyone's orders.
And this is Koke-no-chaya's pièce de resistance, its tokubetsu-na ippin or house special.
Tororo soba is a traditional way to eat buckwheat noodles. Tororo is grated, almost pureed sticky mountain yam that is placed on top of a bowl of hot or cold soba noodles.
My steaming hot bowl of soba comes with a raw egg placed right in the middle of the grated yam. A sprinkling of dried seaweed flakes completes Koke-no-chaya's tororo soba.
The okamisan told us that the dark green seaweed is evocative of Koke-dera's moss garden that
we would soon visit after our lunch.
NB This dish is also known as tsukimi tororo soba or moon watching soba, an aptly descriptive name.
After mixing everything together -- tororo, raw egg, dashi broth and soba, we enjoy our
quick, delicious and filling lunch.
Bowls of soba finished, we head off for our 1:00 p.m. appointment to view the moss garden at Koke-dera. Koke-no-chaya certainly lived up to its name as a place where travellers can take their ease, relax and have a good meal.
The okamisan accompanies us out the door and stands by the side of the road waving good bye.
My tummy is warm with the tororo soba but my heart is even warmer with her kind and gracious farewell.