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Peak stress? Try some yakisoba

You’re exhausted.

You’ve wandered the streets of Boston for an hour or more. It is nearly 10 p.m. It is hot, muggy.

You left the Denver airport that morning and flew to Philadelphia. From there, you were to catch a commuter flight to Beantown — with a very short layover on the schedule.

You dreaded the commuter flight. You had a vision of a small, two-engine turboprop operated by one of those end-of-the-line companies that vacuum up the debris left over from the major carriers and shuttle it to a final destination.

“Final” being the operant term.

You see it in your mind’s eye: the marginal Polish-made aircraft, rivets akimbo; a 19-year-old pilot with her hat on askew. She makes $17,000 a year and works a swing shift at Burger King in order to pay off the loan she took out at Jim’s College of Airplanes.

You spot her in the cockpit as you enter the aircraft; the cockpit door consists of a Little Mermaid shower curtain and it is tied back with what appears to be the co-pilot’s belt. The pilot and co-pilot are reading a frayed manual titled “How to Land This Aircraft.” The pilot points at a word on the page, a puzzled look on her face.

With this vision in mind, you ponder your fiery, high-velocity fate all the way from Denver to Philly.

Imagine the relief when you find that the commuter plane is, in fact, a jet. The pilot appears to be at least 35 years old and he has the swagger of a pro who has flown at least 100 hours. You search the flight attendant’s eyes for any sign of fear. You are greeted with a look of deep fatigue, born of far too many run-ins with the public. No fear, just ennui.

That’s a good sign … for everyone but the flight attendant.

Your relief, however, ends abruptly, right after the plane is pushed away from the gate and taxis to the back of the line of aircraft waiting to take off.

The captain addresses the passengers and lets everyone know that bad weather in Boston has backed up the flights. In fact, he says, the 12:30 flight is still on the ground, not to mention the 2 and 3:30 flights. Your’s is the 4:30 flight.


It is now 4:45 and the anxiety level shoots through the roof when the captain announces there could be a slight delay.

Slight, as in four hours.

An hour or so later, seated amongst your equally unhappy and sweaty fellow travelers, you have ground the enamel off the surface of your teeth and you are gaining intimate knowledge of the role of ergonomics (or the lack thereof) in the design of airplane seating.

The captain’s voice comes over the intercom.

A miracle: the heavens have parted over Boston. Planes are leaving the ground in Philly. Give it a half hour or so, and you’ll be on your way.

By the time the flight arrives in Boston and you grab a cab to your hotel, it is after 8 p.m.

You check in at the hotel and discover that the “incredible deal” your wife got on the room through an Internet service is, indeed, incredible. As in a room approximately eight by 10 feet, with a dubiously named “Queen” bed. For the two of you. Putting you alone in a queen bed is like plopping Shamu in a kid’s wading pool.

The room temperature is approximately 90 degrees. The air conditioner is clanking and banging, coughing out teeny spurts of air that do nothing to cool the joint.

You and your wife set out on foot to find food, cool drinks. Your wife is an “expert” on Boston, having last been in the city 15 years before.

You wander the streets of Boston for an hour or more.

You are exhausted.

And you … are me.

Kathy and I stagger around a corner and we find Faneuil Hall. Though she is nearly delirious, Kathy remembers that the Quincy Market and its food court is adjacent to the historic building. We wobble down the cobblestone walk next to the hall and there it is: the food court to beat all food courts.

With nearly every stall closing up for the night.

What to do?

Where to eat?

What could possibly save us, wash away the stress, replenish us?

Yakisoba, of course.

Everyone knows that.

We careen down the steps of the market, hoping to find one of the restaurants that line the sides of the market building still open.

And there it is: Wagamama.

Wagamama is a London-based chain of restaurants with outlets located in cities around the globe.

The restaurants motto is “positive eating + positive living.”

We need both.

And yakisoba is a positive balm that heals.

I order a teriyaki salmon yakisoba. What I get is a major league mound of fried soba noodles mixed with onion, chicken, shrimp, bean sprouts and grilled peppers, the mound sprinkled with fried shallots and pickled ginger. And, on top of that, a grilled fillet of salmon aglaze with sticky, sweet teriyaki sauce.

Kathy orders a beer. I drink half of it. We eat. We order another beer.

We are saved.

By yakisoba.

And cold beer.

It had been quite a while since I enjoyed this most basic of dishes. Years ago, my friend Naomi Nakano introduced me to yakisoba at a little dive on east Colfax in Denver. The place had three, two-person tables along one wall and a counter with five stools from which diners could watch the ancient Japanese chef prepare all manner of delights two feet in front of their noses. He did so using a two-burner gas stove, a rice cooker, a deep fryer, a couple crockpots and a teppan grill (a “flattop” in American restaurant parlance). The guy made some of the best gyoza I have ever eaten. His tonkatsu and katsu don were extraordinary, as was his curry. Saba anyone? The man knew his mackerel.

But, when the master tossed soba noodles on the grill with little bits of this and that added in (I suspect it was whatever was left over from lunch — bits of meat, shellfish, vegetables and the like) and proceeded to fry them up with a final douse of a spectacular yakisoba sauce of his own making, he was at the top of his game.

We waddle back to the hotel, sated, on the Freedom Trail.

We are ensconced at the Parker House Hotel — the oldest continuously operating hotel in the U.S.; a lovely place (absent consideration of the “Queen” room). Home of the Parker House roll. Onetime gathering place for folks like Emerson, Hawthorne, etc. And the birthplace of Boston Cream Pie.

We do not sample the roll, but we eagerly scurry up to a hotel lounge the next night, after dinner at Legal Seafood down at the harbor, in search of the archetypal Boston Cream Pie. It disappoints, but we eat it all.

In the face of this, or any kind of disappointment, there is a culinary saviour: yakisoba – simple, delicious, gratifying. We make a return trip to Wagamama to smooth things out before we depart Boston.

I made yakisoba the other night, with stuff I acquired at our local market. You can put almost anything in it — any kind of fish or flesh, nearly any kind of vegetable matter. It is the garbage dump of comfort food.

I cut up some chicken thighs and seasoned the pieces. I thinly sliced white onion and green pepper. I chunked up a zucchini. I minced and mashed a couple cloves of garlic and I grated some ginger. I had frozen green peas at the ready.

I made a simple sauce out of two parts mirin (a sweet Japanese cooking wine), one part soy sauce and a splash or three of sriracha. I tasted and adjusted (you want the sauce to be sweet. A bit of honey won’t hurt if the blend is suffering in that department).

Lacking a teppan grill, I rooted around in my cupboard for the frying pan with the largest surface area. I put it over medium high heat and I set a pot of water to boiling on another burner.

Into the frying pan went some neutral oil (I used canola) and when the oil was shimmering I tossed in the chicken. I browned the chicken and removed the chunks to a plate. Into the pan went the onion and peppers. I cooked them until they were soft. I added the garlic and ginger and cooked the mix a bit more before I removed it and mixed it with the chicken.

I tossed a full pack of yamaimo/buckwheat soba noodles into the boiling water, cooked the noodles about five minutes, removed them to a colander and rinsed them with cold water. These noodles are made with buckwheat and yam. They are interesting, but can get a bit gummy. Regular soba or Chinese egg noodles, even a standard pasta, will do the trick nicely.

I put a bit more oil to the pan, made sure it was hot and threw in the noodles, frying them, turning them frantically to prevent them from sticking to the pan (no mean feat with the yam-based product). Then I dumped in the chicken mixture, the zucchini and a half cup of peas. When all was incorporated and hot, I poured my sauce into the pan and mixed everything thoroughly.

A heaping mound of yakisoba can turn your day around.

They should serve it on commuter airline flights.