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SHUKO ODA: ON THE RHYTHMS AND RITUALS OF EATING
Growing up, big get-togethers with Shuko Oda’s family centred around hot pot.
The soup-food would contain something for everyone. ‘There were ingredients you definitely wanted. I can’t have a hot pot without tofu,’ says Shuko, ‘but there was a bit of what we had available too. It pretty much all goes into the pot’. Sometimes it would be kimchi, or chicken and cod—‘I didn’t think that was weird until someone English asked why I put fish and meat in the same pot’—often accompanied by dipping sauces. ‘We would have a citrus-based soy ponzu and a more wholesome sesame sauce,’ describes Shuko, with a fondness not unlike the one she holds for the food at Koya. Whatever the contents of the pot, the process of creating the meal, the togetherness it fostered, was always the same. ‘I enjoyed it because it was an activity as well as eating. It involved talking inherently’.
‘Rituals and routines, all of that, are very important to Japanese culture,’ says Shuko. When we think of food as ritual, occasions come to mind. Colourful, tightly-packed ‘jubako’ boxes of New Year treats in Japan. Ceremonial roast turkey on Thanksgiving in the US, the only time of year when the whole bird gets cooked in this way. Patra Ni Macchi, a Parsi celebration dish of succulent white fish wrapped in a fragrant banana-leaf parcel. Rightly, we attribute the hours of work and expensive ingredients that go into cooking these dishes to a sense of celebration. But there’s a humbler kind of food ritual, too.
Generally speaking, three meals per day are eaten globally, with the odd exception. Argentinians, for example, eat four times, favouring lighter meals for breakfast and merienda; Greeks refer to their afternoon coffee as a meal; Jamaican farming communities snack on juice and sweet coconuts in lieu of lunch. Timings and frequency have changed throughout history—the Romans, who were obsessed with digestion, thought more than one meal per day was gluttonous—but meals have always provided a certain rhythm to our days. On the scale of chicken and avocado Pret sandwiches behind an office desk to spit-roast pig on Christmas Eve, there’s a happy overlap, where the banality of routine meets the joy of ritual. The revered hangover comfort of the greasy spoon Full English, never satisfyingly replaced by its gentrified counterpart, avocado on toast. Or Shuko’s family hot pot, its creation itself an occasion.
‘When I was little, restaurant visits were seen as a special occasion, but sometimes my grandma cooking a simple lunch was just as special.’ Shuko’s Grandma, Etsuko, would make a take on the Russian stuffed cabbage dish golubtsy. ‘Japanese food has always been experimental. Particularly after the war, in my grandparents' generation, all these different cultures emerged into Japan’. This meant that global cuisines were digested and adapted to the Japanese palette, ‘not as buttery, maybe, if it was a French dish, but with key aspects of the original’. Etsuko’s rolled cabbage kept the core elements of cabbage wrapped around mincemeat and cooked in soup but she made her own versions of the broth; some tomato-based, others Asian-influenced with soy or mushrooms. ‘It felt special when she made it,’ says Shuko, simply.
It is to her own amusement that routine drew Shuko to her craft. ‘If I was to really analyse myself,’ Shuko laughs, ‘I grew up moving every three years. I enjoyed it. I’d get the urge to go to a new school, move house, that sort of thing. But as I got older, as much as I liked change, I began to understand the importance of routine. I searched for it in small things. That’s why I enjoy making noodles’. The three components of udon are strong flour, tapioca flour and saltwater. ‘I always think about the magic of flour,’ says Shuko, ‘how it changes and transforms with the simplest additions’. The noodles aren’t hard to make, necessarily, so long as the flour is right, but it’s a long process. Once the flours and water are combined—'there's very little kneading required, it’s more like binding the flour and water’—Shuko puts the dough into a plastic bag and steps on it with her feet. Next, she rolls the dough into a cylinder and leaves it to rest. Then she steps on it again. Leaves it to rest. Steps. Rests. To finish, she stretches it one last time to the thickness she wants her noodles, then cuts them. Her obsession lies in the way the flour and texture changes, ‘how it feels on your feet, your hands’.
Shuko fell into making udon ‘by chance, really’. She and her business partner John Devitt were inspired by Kunitoraya in Paris to do something simple and healthy, and do it consistently.
‘I was originally more into soba noodles,’ she admits, ‘but the thing with udon is that it’s so simple and deep, it can take on a lot of flavours. It’s like rice, you can never get bored. That’s what you get when you have a really strong base’.
This is magnificently on display in Shuko’s current menus, both concise selections of Koya summer favourites. One, a deceivingly simple sansho asparagus udon. When it comes to asparagus, ‘the simpler the better’ says Shuko, pairing them here with her trademark silky udon and a soft-set onsen tamago (Japanese poached egg) to create a dish that lets the quality of the ingredients sing. The other, a cold udon with grilled aubergine and sesame sauce (‘goma dare’), references the hot pots of Shuko’s childhood. To create the perfect consistency, the whole aubergines are slowly grilled until the skin is crispy and the inside gooey, then cut into soft pieces to top the dish. The result is a creamy bowl of udon cut through with chilli oil. Unlike the rich broths of its sibling ramen, udon is easy enough on the stomach that it can be eaten often. Thus, in turn, Shuko’s own appreciation for consistency has created a space where regulars have come to expect the same. ‘That’s a big part of what we do at Koya,’ she explains, ‘we produce the same quality food, everyday.’
For Shuko, cooking is ‘the most honest way to say something’. In the same way that Estsuko’s rolled cabbage was a quiet message of love, the nurturing that goes into Shuko’s udon is the ultimate message to her guests. ‘Serving people food is such a perfect way to interact. A lot of our regulars come back and eat the exact same dish everytime and I appreciate that. I know how that particular dish gets to them and I never want to change that. It’s a positive kind of repetition. That simple process of seeing them eat and be happy, it fills me with joy.’