BANGKOK – It was in November 1998 when Shoichiro Sugimura first became interested in the “soba” (buckwheat noodle) business.
Sugimura, 57, a manager of a security company in Ito, Shizuoka Prefecture, was attending the Southeast Asia Forum in Yokohama when he learned about a program that encourages farmers in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia to stop growing poppies for the drug trade and instead grow buckwheat.
Sugimura’s idea was to use that buckwheat to make handmade soba, a quintessentially Japanese food, in Thailand for local consumption.
The Golden Triangle, which straddles Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, is one of the world’s top sources of opium and heroin.
Part of Sugimura’s goal has been achieved.
Earlier this month, he opened the Sarashina restaurant in Bangkok, the first in Asia outside of Japan offering handmade soba.
He hired Lawan Wongwila, a Thai woman and skilled soba-maker, to make the noodles at the restaurant.
“There are as many as 300 Japanese restaurants in Bangkok, where many Japanese live, but they serve only dried noodles,” Sugimura said.
Sugimura hit upon the idea of producing soba in Thailand after considering some other schemes involving overseas ventures.
Initially, he planned to export used Japanese-made motorcycles to China. But the country’s high tariffs forced him to abandon the plan.
In February 1998, Sugimura made his first trip to Bangkok, where he said he was impressed by the gentle and friendly attitude of the local people. Among them was Lawan, 32, whom he met during the trip.
Sugimura also received inspiration and advice for his current venture from Akio Ujihara, a professor emeritus at Shinshu University in Nagano Prefecture and an expert on agriculture.
Ujihara had been dispatched to Myanmar by the semigovernmental Japan International Cooperation Agency to teach local farmers how to replace their poppies with buckwheat.
Ujihara advised Sugimura that the first phase of his business plan should be to open a restaurant in Bangkok.
Even though some areas of Myanmar are producing buckwheat, Sugimura must import all his buckwheat flour from Japan. This is because the entire crop is bought up by the Japanese noodle industry federation.
Sugimura’s first shipment arrived a mere two days before Sarashina’s opening. The delay was due to lengthy procedures required for obtaining a license from Thai authorities, as the 500-kg shipment of flour was the first such large shipment to Thailand.
On Sarashina’s first day of business, Lawan churned out 5 kg of soba for about 40 customers, the maximum amount a single skilled soba maker can be expected to produce in a day.
Each serving, on a bamboo platter, is priced at 150 baht, or about 370 yen.
Lawan’s education in noodle-making began early last year, after she secured a one-year apprenticeship at a restaurant in Ito.
Numerous other restaurants in Japan had previously turned her down, saying a year was not long enough to master the technique of making the noodles.
“It was mortifying to be told that such a small Thai person like me can never make soba noodles. So I hung on,” said Lawan, who is 153 cm tall and weighs 42 kg.
She was referring to the fact that making the noodles by hand requires a great deal of physical strength and stamina.
Sugimura meanwhile is looking forward to the day when he will no longer have to rely on imported flour.
“We could make handmade noodles from buckwheat (in the Golden Triangle) substituted for poppies,” he said.
The ambitions of Sugimura and Lawan do not stop there. “Our long-cherished dream is to also cultivate the buckwheat in Thailand and then export it back to Japan,” he said.
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