Japanese noodles for low-cost spirits food may become a victim of the Ukrainian war

TOKYO (Reuters) – Ryo Ishihara will soon raise the price of its cheap soba noodles for the first time in nearly a decade, as rising costs and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are unlikely to take a toll on Japan’s beloved buckwheat noodles.

Although it is seen as one of Japan’s most important foods—and eaten on New Year’s Eve for good luck—a significant portion of the buckwheat that goes into noodles comes from Russia, the world’s largest producer of buckwheat.

Russian buckwheat can still be imported, but instability and shipping disruptions have hampered and delayed purchases. This has added to the suffering of soba store owners, such as Ishihara, who are already suffering from the global rise in commodity prices, along with a falling yen, driving up prices.

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The cost of soy sauce, the flour, the vegetables used in the tempura, and even the fish used in the broth have risen in cost.

Ishihara said in his cramped quarters, boiling the tubs of water behind him.

Soba is known for being a cheap meal served cold or hot, and is often eaten quickly by workers and students in cramped shops who may cut costs by cutting out seats. The pasta’s low calorie count and nutritious vitamin and mineral content make it healthy, too.

Prices for Ishihara range from 290 yen ($2.25) to 550 yen, with additional costs such as tempura and rice sets.

“Now, with the war, the cost of importing buckwheat has also gone up,” he said.

Despite soba’s iconic status, in 2020 Japan produced just 42% of its buckwheat needs, according to the Japan Soba Association. The gap was filled by imports, with Russia becoming the third largest exporter of buckwheat since 2018, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

A customer looks at his mobile phone at a soba noodle restaurant in a shopping district in Tokyo, Japan, February 25, 2016. REUTERS / Yuya Shino / Files

In 2021, Russia climbed to number two, China explained, and as of February it was No. 1.

Then it invaded Ukraine, further driving up commodity prices, while the Japanese yen in the meantime fell to its lowest level in 20 years. Moreover, sanctions and repression on the Russian banking system, which have frozen Moscow out of international finance, have made it even more difficult to settle some accounts.

The result has been a nuisance to soba importers and mill makers like Hua Yue in the procurement division of Nikkoku Seifun Co Ltd in Matsumoto, a city in the traditional soba-producing Nagano region.

Her company imports buckwheat seeds from Russia, as well as other countries including China, in bags weighing between 800 and 1,000 tons, though it declined to give exact amounts or percentages of the amount each country provides.

So far, the biggest problems have been delays and a 30% rise in the price of Russian buckwheat over the past six months, although this is partly due to an export halt last year which has been resolved.

Since Russia produces half of the world’s buckwheat, the problems mean that demand will shift to China, the second largest producer of buckwheat. But as China cuts buckwheat production each year, prices are likely to rise even more.

“So it can be difficult to eat soba in low-cost places,” she added.

Loyal Ishihara clients, such as Keidai Fukuhara, who comes twice a week, ignore the higher prices. But even they have their limits.

“It’s still going to be fine,” said the 27-year-old employee. That is, if prices remain at around 500 yen.”

(dollar = 128.65 yen)

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Additional reporting by Akiko Okamoto, Elaine Laiss, and Shinji Kitamura. Editing by Jerry Doyle

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