When my brother and I were kids in elementary school, a regular weekday was made special when a package from Japan, sent by one of our grandmothers, waited on the table. We would open the large box anxiously, in the hopes that they would contain the large yellow tins containing delicately wrapped bags of soba-boro. Derived from the Japanese soba (buckwheat) and the Portuguese bolo (cookie), I can’t think of any American baked good with its texture. It has the lightness of meringue, but with a toasty and substantial crunch. We loved all of the other sweets in the boxes too, especially the kurimanju (chestnut-shaped pastries filled with white bean paste), but fought over soba-boro the most.
Japanese bakers have been making some form of boro since the 16th century, when Portuguese traders and missionaries introduced European-style confectionaries to the national palate. Various iterations of boro exist throughout Japan, including a milky white version that dissolves in your mouth (made for infants).
My brother and I were born in Nara, a small and historical city in western Japan known for its roaming deer and enormous daibutsu (Buddha statue), the largest in Japan. (Many people believe Japan’s largest daibutsu is in Kamakura. They’re wrong.) It is also a stone’s throw from a larger and more famous city, Kyoto. Many of so-called “best” foods in Japan (miso, matcha tea, sesame seeds) hail from Kyoto, as it was the country’s aristocratic capital from the 8th to 12th centuries. The buckwheat version that our grandmothers sent us were made by the city's Kawamichiya shop, which reputedly has the best soba-boro in Japan.
Growing up Japanese in New Jersey meant receiving regular packages from our grandmothers in Nara, stuffed with miso paste from Kyoto, nori from Hokkaido, and all of the other foods that we couldn’t find in New Jersey. We were actually luckier than most; a large Japanese supermarket (now Mitsuwa) was only 30 minutes away in Edgewater, but it stocked only the mass-produced versions of all of these foods. This supermarket is nonetheless a lifeline for the rotating Japanese expat population, comprised of Japanese businessmen, stationed in their companies’ New York offices for 3-5 years, and their families. As a result, there is not a large “Japanese-American” population in the American Northeast, as most families return to Japan after their stint in New York. We ended up staying in New Jersey, and our grandmothers’ multiple-package deliveries of miso and soba-boro sustained us.
I moved away from home and lost regular access to soba-boro, but was struck by a sudden craving for some Japanese sweets after an extended FaceTime chat with my grandmother about the reception following her most recent noh performance. I realized that unlike the chestnut shaped kurimanju, I might actually be able to bake up a batch of soba-boro myself. Pages of recipes on Google clued me into the fact that countless home cooks had been trying to reverse-engineer these crunchy cookies.
I had all of the ingredients on hand, so with nothing to lose and a craving that wouldn’t quit, I started whisking brown sugar into a single egg and kneading in the powdery buckwheat and white wheat flours. I chilled the dough to set it and cut out small leaf-shaped cookies using a cookie cutter (the cat-shaped cookie cutters are Food52's). Soba-boro are traditionally shaped like little flowers, but I figured that a little adaptation wouldn’t hurt the taste. The resulting cookies were exceedingly plain looking and brown, but that didn’t stop my brother and me from fighting over the last batch. Finally, I can make them for myself; a link to my grandmothers with no deliveries from across the globe required.
- 1 extra large egg
- 100 grams light brown sugar (light demarera, muscovado, etc.)
- 100 grams buckwheat flour
- 80 grams all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 tablespoons butter
Do you have any recipes from your childhood you'd like to reverse-engineer? Let us know in the comments!