Saturday, November 28, 2009

カウンターの向こう側に立つなんて:大つけ麺博 (Standing on the Other Side of the Counter: The Great Tsukemen Festival)

I lost exact count long ago, but I'd estimate that I've downed somewhere between 150 and 200 bowls of ramen in the last year. Miso ramen, tonkotsu ramen, shôyu ramen, shio ramen, curry ramen, spicy ramen, cheese ramen, soupless ramen, tomato ramen, kimchi ramen, too many bowls to count. But for each of those bowls, one thing has been constant - I've been sitting in front of the shop counter, eating. For all the bowls of ramen I'd eaten, I had never stood behind the counter, never been inside of a ramen shop's kitchen, never prepared a bowl of (non-instant) ramen myself. But a few weeks ago, all that changed, if only for a day.

The Great Tsukemen Exhibition had rolled into town, in which almost 30 shops show their chops at preparing tsukemen (dipping noodles) over the course of three weeks. The listed of attending shops read like a who's who of the celebrity ramen world, with top shops from Tokyo plus visitors from as far as Niigata, Tôhoku, and Fukuoka. Week three of the festival included none other than Ivan Ramen, the nation's only ramen shop run by a fast-talking New Yorker, and the employer of my buddy Keizo. Though I'd only just met Ivan, he offered Brian and I the opportunity to volunteer at the festival, helping out and getting to experience life on the line in a ramen kitchen. I foolishly forgot my camera battery that day, so much thanks to Brian for generously sharing his photos from the day - these are all his.

We showed up at Ivan's kitchen trailer at 10 AM, beshirted,betowled, and reporting for duty. The park hosting the festival didn't open until 11, but the hungry masses were chomping at the bit, and the line to get in was already a few hundred deep. "And they're off!" Aforementioned hungry masses began streaming in the gate at 11:00:00, scattering to each shop's line as they speedwalked with vigor to the day's first bowl. Within minutes, Ivan had a few dozen hungry customers waiting to eat his special limited time only "White Chicken Tsukemen."

We worked at full bore for the full day, lining up the bowls and knocking them down. There was barely a minute to take a sip of tea, let alone a break. The people need their noodles! After a bit of shuffling, I spent the first part of the day on soup pouring, bowl prep, and expediting duty, stirring the finished broth of chicken, veggies, and fruits of the sea and spooning it into the never ending flow of plastic bowls moving through the kitchen. From there I made sure each bowl was in order, wiping edges, rearranging toppings, and moving the bowls to the final station for extra toppings and service.

In addition to the standard soup and noodles, customers could add on soft-roasted garlic, roasted tomatoes, and luscious soft-boiled eggs, lovingly schlepped by Keizo and company on public transportation to the festival site. The masses knew what was good for them, because five hundred of Ivan's famous tomatoes were gone in a matter of hours.

I spent the second part of the day preparing the salad and arranging the basic toppings on the noodles. Hear the noodle boiler's call, throw in mizuna greens and chopped onions accordingly, toss, season, add just a hint of dressing, then be ready to put the salad and chicken on each serving of thick wheat noodles just as they're laid into the bowl. If you time it right you can have the toppings ready to go just as the noodles are pulled from the boiling water. Too fast or too slow and you've got a bottleneck on your hands. There were seven of us working that day, and I really came to understand what a team effort the preparation of ramen is. Each person has their own job, and every last one contributes to getting the noodles to the customer as fast as possible. When things go smoothly, it's a pretty amazing feeling.

Sometimes I would get in the zone, finding the perfect rhythm and feeling everything but the preparation of the bowl fall away. Everything that is, except the bumping strains of oldies and dance numbers being piped in over the radio. Other times the pace slowed a bit and I got the chance to chat with Ivan, Keizo, Brian, and the rest of the team, as well as survey the room to see for myself everything that goes into a bowl of delicious ramen. But there are some secrets to running a ramen shop that can't leave the kitchen.

So, just what were we making? Here it is, our beautiful bowl. I finally got to try it for myself when break time rolled around in the mid afternoon, sucking down the dark wheat blended noodles and smooth, thick chicken soup. Granted I'm a bit biased, but I sure dug it! I spent the rest of my break surveying the happy throngs and marveling at how much happiness a bowl of noodles can bring to so many people. I also caught a glimpse of the reknowned "Ramen Demon" Sano Minoru, who even cracked a smile through his famously stony exterior. Sano's was easily the most popular shop of the set, with noodle fans queuing up three hours to try his bowl. After a few stretching exercises it was time to get back to work...but not before gruzzling a free bowl from Yondaime Keisuke.

Then it was back to work, pushing through to the end of the festival at 9 PM. Things slowed a little bit, but the hunger of the people of Tokyo is tough to sate. When we counted up tickets at the end of the day, the total came to 1210 bowls served. That's 120 bowls an hour; 2 bowls a minute for ten hours straight. I had a blast working in the kitchen, and can't remember the last time standing for ten hours straight felt so good. Preparing ramen is labor, and I still had it easy, only working a single day, and not having to show up at the shop at 5 AM to begin boiling and prep.

When I went out to do a final set of stretches in the evening, the head cook of Tsubame's Ramen Jun turned to me and asked, "What's your day job, kid?" Devoting oneself to a life of ramen is devoting oneself to a life of hard work. Having donned the towel and sweated in the kitchen for just a single day, I gained a new level of respect for every past, present, and aspiring ramen cook. It may only take a few minutes to slurp a bowl, but hours, days, years, and lots of work (and hopefully more than a little love) went into that bowl.

After cleaning up and shutting down for the day it was nearly ten PM. All that was left for me was to drink a few beers and get a good night's sleep, but I knew the rest of the team would be back at it early tomorrow morning. Before going our separate ways, Keizo, Brian, Ivan, and I posed for a commemorative shot. Four men, brought together by a love of noodles...and soup. Ever since the festival, I've looked at each shop a bit differently, approached each move of the cook and each bowl with a new eye (and tongue). What can I say, I love the stuff. A big thanks to Ivan for giving me this amazing experience!


It was a drizzly evening and I was strolling through Shinjuku, headed south to go see a long anticipated performance by the one, the only, the spectacular, the fabulous Gallantique Kazue. I had got to know Kazue through drinking at his bar, but had yet to see him at his finest, dressed in the full regalia of a breathy 1970s style lounge chanteuse and serenading his fans with sultry pop standards. On stage, Kazue is all class and pizzazz, but at heart he's a ramen loving son of Fukuoka, and nary a visit to his bar goes by without a lament of the difficulty of finding a truly transcendent bowl of Hakata style tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen in Tokyo.

As should be clear by now, I eat a lot of ramen. I eat a lot of extremely delicious ramen, and some pretty mediocre ramen, and I eat plenty of ramen somewhere between the two poles. And yet, however many hundred bowls in, there's a certain kind of satisfaction that I can only glean from a certain kind of ramen. That satisfaction, of course, is the pure comforting pleasure of a smelly bowl of Hakata ramen. There's nothing quite like noodles in rendered pork marrow, and in honor of Hakata boy Kazue, I decided to scratch that itch in his honor.

The day's site of scratching would be Goten, which had long been on my radar as a potential candidate for a solid bowl. Located along the main thoroughfare of Meiji-dôri, I had been smelling Goten for months every time I passed by, and as any Hakata ramen fan knows, a pungent stench is a near sure sign of a tasty bowl.

Though a simple counter in structure, Goten goes above and beyond the call of duty of a standard ramen shop, offering not just plenty of noodles, but a full menu of pub-style favorites. Though a big menu can be the kiss of death for a ramen shop, Goten's has the internal consistency of booze-paired snacks (and the accompanying distilled spirits) from the southern island of Kyushu.

The ramen menu itself is almost comically long, though the variations lie fully in the toppings and additions, as all are based off the same classic melted pork marrow base. Tempted as I was by "Indian-style ramen" and "Thai-style ramen", I went with the menu item sure to make my pores emit an even more pungent smell - Kimchi and garlic.

And then you can't forget the spicy pickled mustard greens, the sweet crimson pickled ginger, and the fresh ground sesame seeds. The perfect storm of strong and smelly, just how I like it. I can't put my finger on it, but something about Goten's bowl just had more soul than your average bowl of tonkotsu, a kind of raw feeling that more expertly crafted bowls like Ippûdô's lack. I don't know if it would be good enough for Gallantique Kazue, but it was good enough for me and then some.

The noodles were available in an impressive array of al dente degrees, and I ordered mine "harigane" ("wiry"), which means popped in and out of the boiling water for a mere two seconds. And of course I had to go and call for a kaedama (noodle refill). The only downside to Goten is the price - 700 yen is a bit steep for a basic Hakata bowl, especially when most toppings clock in at 200 yen a pop. At least you get what you pay for.

But that wasn't enough. I wouldn't stop until I made myself sick. One more menu item was calling out to me, the cryptic sounding MTOC - Mentai Takana Omu Chahan. Translation - fried rice with mustard greens topped with an egg and doused in cod roe mayonnaise. This is basically my perfect food of all time. I was so satiated, so satisfied, so fucking full.

All that was left to do was thank the cooks profusely on the way out. Oh, and sip whiskey in a dark cabaret while listening to a crossdresing singer sing the hits.

Friday, November 27, 2009

ラー博ルポ、その四:支那そばや とその他 (Shinyokohama Ramen Museum! Part 4! Shinasobaya and all the rest!)

After letting the booze settle, T and I figured we had just barely enough room in our stomachs left for one more mini bowl, provided we make it a light one. The candidate was clear - the legendary Shinasobaya.

You might say that the new wave of high end ramen started with one man - Sano Minoru. Sano is the feared and revered "Ramen Demon", and his shop Shinasobaya was one of the first to remake and repackage ramen as a classy gourmet food. In fact, Sano envisioned the rupture between his bowl and that of a standard ramen shop's so great that he no longer felt the name "ramen" could act as an appropriate nomenclature for his culinary creation, and he reached back into the prewar imperial period to resuscitate the moniker of "Shina Soba" - a term referring to Chinese noodles that today carries more than a bit of negative racial overtone.

After founding Shinasobaya in Yokohama in 1986, Sano wasted no time in building his own legend. He told of eating ramen while still in the womb, of a family so poor that they could only afford to eat ramen once a year, of beatings from a drunk father that inspired him to become a success, preparing his first bowl of ramen while still a middle schooler and starting his career as a chef just after high school. He earned the nickname "Ramen Nazi" for banning conversation, cell phones, smoking, and perfume in his restaurant, as well as for his legendary temper. Naturally, it didn't take him long at all to become a celebrity, a kind of Gordon Ramsey figure who periodically appeared on television to shout down younger cooks.

To be honest, I entered Shinasobaya ready to hate it. I knew the reputation, and felt less than excited to buy into a bowl brewed up by an asshole who named his restaurant after an ethnic slur. What can I say, I like to root for the underdog, and Sano is as big a dog as they come, perhaps the single most famous ramen cook in Japan, along with tsukemen inventor Yamagishi Kazuo. We took our seats inside what was not a ramen shop but an old-fashioned soba shop, designed in dark wood with tinkling jazz playing on the stereo.

A few minutes later it arrived, the famous bowl that revolutionized the ramen world nearly 25 years ago. It looked so simple, nothing more than straight noodles in brown soy broth topped with a single sheet of seaweed, a single slice of pork, a few onions, and a few cuts of bamboo. And then I took a sip.

All my preconceptions, my ill will, my doubts vanished. This was a truly delicious bowl of ramen. The soup was so light yet so flavorful, subtly smooth with the taste of chicken, seaweed, and different kinds of seafood all of the highest quality. Shinasobaya is nothing other than on par with the finest foods money can buy. Though I've eaten bowls with more punch, more spirit, and more raw flavor, it's difficult to imagine how the simple shôyu soup could ever be elevated higher than this.

Then the noodles. If you look carefully in the previous pic, you can see that the noodles are not carelessly tangled in the center of the bowl, but instead folded and laid perfectly flat and horizontally parallel. What this means is that with each grasp of your chopsticks you can pull up exactly the portion you want, and each slurp is impossibly smooth, feeling almost like a wheat waterfall flowing in reverse. My hat goes off to the Ramen Demon.

After slurping every last drop of soup in the bowl, we headed back...back to the future. A sign by the stairs marks the way out as a return to the "mirai", the present as future leaving behind the perfectly maintained world of imaginary 1958 Japan. Farewell to eternal sunset and faded signs, and hello to the bright flourescent lights and conspicuous consumption of 2009.

Upstairs is the gift shop, jam packed with prepackaged gift boxes and bowls of semi-raw ramen from the nation's famous shops to prepare at home. Ramen trinkets of all kinds abounded, from keychains to souvenir bowls and spoons, to cell phone decorations and shirts. One thing missing however, was books - I was hoping to find a few new pieces of ramen-related literature, or at least guides, but reading material was not available.

The upstairs area also contains a few proper museum displays - in addition to the ramen chronology (detailed in post two), there are diagrams and cutaways of ramen pushcarts, bowls, utensils, and the like. What kind of ramen detritus will archaeologists of our own future unearth?

Perhaps most interesting of all, however, was the final museum area, featuring a tourist display area on the town of Karatsu in the almost comically backwater rural prefecture of Saga. Domestic tourism is a flagging industry in Japan, and the countryside is rapidly depopulating as the young decamp for cities, leaving provincial towns to rot. Many municipalities do anything they can to attract visitors and interest, and this apparently includes putting in a bid to get your town featured in a corner of the ramen museum.

Karatsu is so obscure that it (gasp!) doesn't even have it's own local specialty ramen style. Which means it's up to none other than Sano Minoru to make one up for them. Sano takes on the role of "Ramen Producer", visiting seaside Karatsu and devising a high-end shio (salt) ramen inspired by the ocean to "become" the local specialty dish of this little known burg.

No less than Sano's own personal salt collection is on display, featuring dozens of varieties spanning from sources as broad as the Himalayas, the Iranian plains, the Mongolian flats, the South China Sea, and beyond. Though I have yet to eat at Muramasa, the result of this collaboration between prefectural post station, producer, and museum, I think the concept is rather fascinating in it's own way - get the nationally reknowned tourist site and TV personality to help devise a way to bring attention to your town. Internal capital colonization at work, spurred on by the endless need to distinguish oneself amidst the fray.

Satiated, we stepped out into the night, passing over the red and yellow rug dotted with swirls that evoke that classic ramen topping, the naruto fishcake. My first visit to the ramen museum provided not just plenty of food, but plenty of food for thought.

I said "Namaste" to Ramen Cat and headed for the train. See you soon, Shinyokohama Raumen Museum! Next time I'll do five bowls!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

ラー博ルポ、その三:こむらさき (Shinyokohama Raumen Museum! Part 3! Komurasaki!)

The long-awaited (?!) part three of ramen museum coverage! It's been a hectic couple of weeks, with plenty of noodles being slurped, but little time to post. But there's a backlog of bowls building, so hold on to your chopsticks and get ready for a pot's worth of pork soup postings!

Two bowls down, I was halfway there, and I was livin' on a lot more than just a prayer - namely, beer and noodles. Next up was Komurasaki, representing the ramen of Kumamoto prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu. Kumamoto ramen has come to be a favorite style of mine, with it's medium thin straight white noodles soaked in a rustic tonkotsu (pork bone) broth topped with lots of garlic. Komurasaki is one of the granddaddies of the style, dating all the way back to 1954.

Now, when you think of the word "komurasaki" (little purple), it might call to mind the name "wakamurasaki" (young lavender), book five of the Tale of Genji and poetic epithet for Genji's most beloved (and youngest) bride. Right? Yeah, just kidding about that one. Komurasaki's ramen ain't no refined courtly chow, it's a down home bowl of creamy melted meats accompanied with plenty of pickled vegetables.

Besides the standard menma (bamboo shoots) and scallions, Komurasaki's bowl contains the near mandatory Kumamoto topping of soft yet crunchy shreds of wood ear mushroom (kikurage - "tree jellyfish!"). But rather than feature a dark layer of the mâyu, the burnt resin of garlic cooked in sesame oil), Komurasaki's tang comes from a dusting of dried, fried and crumbled garlic cloves that slowly melt into the soup.

In classic Kumamoto fashion, the noodles are a bit thicker and softer than those of next door neighbor Hakata ramen, almost resembling, uh, cheap spaghetti. To be perfectly honest, this bowl didn't really do it for me. The soup tasted a bit thin and weak, even with the garlic. Komurasaki's bowl reminded me the ramen at Keika, another old school Kumamoto joint that left me underwhelmed. Though I respect the adherence to the local tradition, I like my pork soup with a bit more punch, like the similarly styled ramen at Higo Noren in Shinjuku. Of all the bowls I ate that day, Komurasaki's was the most underwhelming, but you know what? That's OK. It's the exception that proves the rule and allows you to truly appreciate the greatness of all the other bowls at the museum.

And it didn't hurt that the extra side of pickled mustard greens (takana) were some of the best I've ever had.

T and I decided to take a break before challenging bowl number four, plunking ourselves down in the middle of the museum's central pavilion and taking in the atmosphere, as well as a couple of cold drinks. When immersing yourself in the late 1950s, the beverage of choice is of course Hoppy, the concotion of distilled barley spirits and malt syrup loved by decades of old men, and me.

Just in case you want something *other* than ramen to put in your mouth, stalls sell old timey snacks like fried sweet bread, popsicles, and something called "Ramen Korokke" - a potato croquette packed with shreds of all your standard ramen toppings, from fish cakes to bamboo shoots. You can also choose to subject yourself to bizarre soda flavors like kimchi, and while my inner bizarre beverage hound was tempted, I decided to keep my appetite intact.

As we sat and watched the ramenathoners line 'em up and knock 'em down at the shooting gallery, T and I took a look at who else was milling around the museum. While the ramen museum is certainly a tourist destination, it was surprising what a large percentage of the clientele had come from out of town. Tour book toting Taiwanese tour groups picked their next shop, as confused looking Thai vacationers tried to figure out which buttons to press to bring out their next bowl. At least one track-suited high school athletic team from the countryside excitedly swept through, and we realized what a smart idea it was to build the museum right near a bullet train station - that way everyone passing through can swing by for dinner before hopping their train home.

An hour or so later our (increasingly protruding) bellies had caught their second wind, and we sprung to our feet to make our way to the last bowl of the day...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

アイバン ラーメン (Ivan Ramen)

This would probably be a good opportunity to give my proper shout out to a main man in the Tokyo ramen world - Ivan Orkin, head of the inimitable Ivan Ramen. Not only has he given my boy Keizo a chance to follow his dream of becoming a ramen cook, he cooks a pretty mean (ok, really fucking good) bowl of ramen himself. Both Keizo and Brian had paid multiple visits to Ivan, but for any number of circumstances, I had never been. This state of affairs would not stand, man.

Ivan Ramen first opened a few years ago, when veteran chef, noodle lover, and Japan man Ivan Orkin moved back to Tokyo to become the first American to run his own proper ramen shop in Japan. The road was apparently as long as winding as a noodle, but there is no doubt that Ivan has arrived. It's hard to argue in the contrary when you've got...

...your own line of instant noodles sold in convenience stores nationwide. Ivan's been in about every media outlet you could imagine - TV, magazines, panel discussions with other top ramen cooks, the whole kitten caboodle. He's even written a book telling his story, which I have yet to read, so I won't be able to do justice to the Ivan odyssey. For now let's leave it at the fact that this is the best bowl of noodles cooked by a former Deadhead, college Japanese major, trained French chef, Prince-listening, F-bomb dropping Brooklynite. Ivan's a man with a strong philosophy and strong opinions, and is one hell of a dude to shoot the shit with between slurps.

So just what does one slurp at Ivan Ramen? You might start with the shio (salt), a light but complex chicken soup that goes down easy. But there's a lot going on in this seemingly simple soup, and I don't have the training to explicate the spices in this well-balanced bowl. Ivan's is not a bowl that will leave you holding your belly and rueing the three day's worth of oil you just downed. Quoth the main man: "Food should taste good and leave you feeling good." Seemingly obvious words, but it's another thing to put them into practice this well.

Then there's the toppings. If you make it to Ivan, do not skimp on the toppings. Ivan's French training comes out in the fat slice of roasted tomato atop the soup, and once sweet and smoky.

And I don't even want to know how many weeks it took to perfect those eggs, the insides of which are so Platonically gooey. I'm going to refrain from any off-color cracks about the merging of white and yellow. Woops! As for the noodles, they are made quite literally in house, on a shop-owned machine in the attic, which is a refreshing break from all the recent shops that source their slurps from the popular Mikawaya Seimen noodle factory. In addition to the shio, Ivan also dishes out a strong but light shôyu (soy sauce) soup that might be even better, in addition to the even more inventive chili and garlic mazemen (soupless noodles) that I'll no doubt try on a future visit.

So here's me and Ivan, a couple of neurotic Jews who love their noodles. There's a lot more to this story, but stay tuned for that in the next post!

Monday, November 9, 2009

ケイゾウの来日!と、その歓迎会 (Welcoming Party for Keizo)

There has been a preponderance of radio silence on the Waseda Ramen front of late - there's been a lot going on, with several friends visiting from out of town. I've still been doing plenty of eating (the backlog is ten bowls deep!), but it's been tough to find time to put the posts online. I'm enjoying the hell out of having so many friends come to visit in Japan, but the arrival of one of those pals is particularly ramen related. I haven't even finished writing up the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum yet, but I gotta give that a pause for some breaking news.

My buddy and fellow blogger Keizo recently arrived on these shores for good, and he brought big dreams with him. In the classic ramen master tradition, he has abandoned his well-salaried office job to follow his dream and fulfill his calling in life - cooking noodles. I first met Keizo and Brian a few months back, and we've been noodling knuckleheads ever since.

Keizo is now an employee of the estimable Ivan Ramen, the western Tokyo shop famous for it's western head cook, transplanted New Yorker Ivan Orkin. There's a full post on my first visit to Ivan's shop coming down the pike, but suffice to say for now that he is one cool dude who makes one mean bowl of ramen. And from here on out those bowls will be prepared in part by my homie Keizo! A big thanks to Ivan for giving a good man a great opportunity.

But first things first! A welcoming party was in order, so we headed out to hit Keizo's favorite jams - wine, beer, and tapas at Spain Bar in Sasazuka, followed by a bowl at BASANOVA. I gotta say, the man has good taste.

There's only one thing better than a bowl of BASANOVA's spicy and creamy green curry ramen...

...and that's three bowls of BASANOVA's ramen, lined up with three cold beers!

Let the next phase of our crazy ramen life begin! Welcome Keizo, and ganbare!