Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Le Guin on reasons for action

`Do Mages often beg?' asled Tenar, on the road between green fields, where goats and little spotted cattle grazed.

`Why do you ask?'

`You seemed used to begging. In fact you were good at it.'

`Well, yes. I've begged all my life, if you look at it that way. Wizards don't own much, you know. In fact nothing but their staff and clothing, if they wander. They are received and given food and shelter, by most people, gladly. They do make some return.'

`What return?'

`Well, that woman in the village. I cured her goats.'

`What was wrong with them?'

`They both had infected udders. I used to herd goats when I was a boy.'

`Did you tell her you'd cured them?'

`No. How could I? Why should I?'

After a pause she said, `I see your magic is not good only for large things.'

`Hospitality,' he said, `kindness to a stranger, that's a very large thing. Thanks are enough, of course. But I was sorry for the goats.'
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan, 1971

Saturday, 10 October 2009

(4) soba

Number 4 of “Ten things I love about Japan”.

Soba are not the first, nor even the second kind of noodles that I had in Japan, but they've long since become my favourite. All sorts of things seem wrong to a Westerner, encountering soba for the first time: the noodles are grey; in summer, you eat them cold with a dipping sauce; and why is that guy over there drinking the cooking water with his leftover sauce, as if it were tea, at the end of the meal? One needs to get over each of these things. I took my time about some of them: every one of those days was wasted, in that sense.

So to the basics: the restaurant dishes are soba served in hot flavoured broth, of many different kinds — basically a winter dish, although it's also served in summer — or served cold on a bamboo tray, a bit like a sieve, with a dipping sauce and wasabi and negi (think leek) on the side; the noodles themselves are probably dressed with some nori (dried seaweed). There is nothing like cold soba as a refreshing meal in the seemingly endless, humid summer. There are many variants: my own favourite, and a common one, is tenzaru soba in which a small selection of tempura with its own dipping sauce is provided on the side.

There is yaki-soba as well, where the noodles are fried on a kind of barbeque hotplate, but this is a different sort of thing: food for street-parties, for walking around.

Sit-down soba is subtle. Like some other Japanese foods, texture is a big part of the experience, and the best soba is handmade and a bit rough: you find it in small places in the hills where you can't read the menu, or in homes where people still make it for themselves. The noodles are (usually) thin and long, like (but unlike) spaghetti, and made from a mix of buckwheat and wheat flour; I do not know the proportion. There's a special kind that's green, flavoured with green tea — I have always found it a bit gimmicky — but your basic soba is an uncompromising glistening-when-wet grey. Unlike udon, where you can kid yourself that you're eating a deviant kind of pasta, soba sits there looking alien. You need to learn its language. It is saying “go on, eat me, you will not regret it”. And neither you will.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Le Guin on The Old Powers of Earth

`The thief who wrote the way to enter thought that the treasure was there, in the Undertomb. So I looked there, but I had the feeling that it must be better hidden farther on in the maze. I knew the entrance to the Labyrinth, and when I saw you, I went to it, thinking to hide in the maze and search it. That was a mistake, of course. The Nameless Ones had hold of me already, bewildering my mind. And since then I have grown only weaker and stupider. One must not submit to them, one must resist, keep one's spirits always strong and certain. I learned that a long time ago. But it's hard to do, here, where they are so strong. They are not gods, Tenar. But they are stronger than any man.'

They were both silent for a long time.

`What else did you find in the treasure chests?' she asked dully.

`Rubbish. Gold, jewels, crowns, swords. Nothing to which any man alive has any claim ...'
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan, 1971