Saturday, January 30, 2010

ようこそ、ニューヨークタイムズ紙の読者たち! (Welcome New York Times Readers!)

A big hello to everyone who's found this blog through the Frugal Traveler Matt Gross' recent Tokyo ramen rundown in the New York Times! And for those regular readers who have no idea what I'm talking about, the excellent article can be found here: One Noodle at a Time in Tokyo. Unfortunately, I was out of town when Matt was here researching the article, but my good buddies Brian over at Ramen Adventures and Keizo at Go Ramen did a bang up job making sure he got the most superb slurps possible while touring Tokyo. The world is starting to realize that ramen is so much more than just "noodles in soup", and it's great to see none other than The Gray Lady get her pages splattered with noodle grease.

Like so many of us, I came to know ramen via the instant stuff at the supermarket, but when I first visited Japan as an exchange student I fell in love with ramen all over again. Fast forward a few years and I'm now a graduate student at Columbia writing a dissertation on modern Japanese literature. Before I came to Tokyo this time around, a friend dared me to eat at all the ramen shops that lined the street leading to the library where I do my research. I took up the challenge and began this blog as Waseda Ramen, cataloging my attempts to eat at the 100 or so shops in my neighborhood. The scope expanded, it became a downright obsession, and now I have *almost* as many ramen-related books on my shelf as Japanese literary anthologies. But if my adviser is reading this, don't worry, dissertation chapter two is underway!

Matt's article does a great job discussing the noodles that criss-cross the streets of Tokyo, but the best part of living in the largest megalopolis on Earth is that there's always a new shop to discover! By some estimates, a new ramen shop opens every single day somewhere in metropolitan Tokyo, and my fellow ramen bloggers and I always have our noses out, our mouths open, and our ears perked to listen for the sound of slurping. I don't have the picture-taking prowess of Ramen Adventures, nor can I give an insider perspective like Go Ramen, but with Ramenate! I like to serve up a lot of background, shop history, funny personal stories, ramen-related cultural commentary and criticism along with the noodles.

Enough chit-chat, eh? I thought to celebrate the occasion I'd do a quick rundown of some of my all-time favorite shops and old posts that give some perspectives on the truly amazing depth and breadth of "noodles in soup!" You already know the shops in the article are good, so here are a few more favorites:

For the meanest bowl of miso (classical division): Sapporo Junren

For the meanest bowl of miso (new wave division): Kururi

For the best bowl of porky tonkotsu eaten in a red-light district: Shinjuku Hitotsubo

For a battle with the most infamous bowl in town: Ramen Jiro

For the fatty fat fattiest bowl out of town: Tsubame-Sanjo Ramen

For enough habaneros to make you see stars: Yagura-tei

For a spicy red bowl fit for Genghis Khan: Moko Tanmen Nakamoto

For ramen without a speck of soup in sight: Bubka

For ramen eaten in the glow of late night neon: Nagi Golden Gai

For ramen that will take you on a time slip: Milk Hall Sakaeya

For ramen that helps you get your veggies: Heibon

For a brief history of ramen in Japan: The Yokohama Raumen Museum

For an archaeological expedition to the origin of the noodle: Ramen on the Silk Road

For an account of what it's like to spend one day on the other side of the counter: The Great Tsukemen Festival

I always love hearing about new noodle finds, so post comments and tell me about some of your favorite bowls in Japan, the US, or anywhere in the world! And if you're in town drop me a line to say hi - I may not always be able to make it out (I do have that dissertation to write...) but maybe we can grab a bowl sometime. If you'd like to contact me directly, my email is nshockey at gmail dot com . There are more bowls of ramen than there are soup stains on my clothes...and that's saying something, so don't stop slurping!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

ラーミュンネーション イン 韓国、その一 (Ramyunating in Korea, Part 1)

Obviously, I've spent some time in Japan. And if you've read some of the older posts I put up, you know that I've spent some time in China as well. But for all my pan-Pacific panderings, I had never been to Korea before, until last week. It was a pretty wild trip, one that involved fake electric chairs, humans in raccoon costumes, 1960s psych rock rarities, post-apocalyptic islands, piles of dead monkfish, heated floors, beached North Korean submarines, and, uh, too much rotgut soju alcohol. Oh right, plus RAMYUN!

On my first day in Seoul, I fulfilled a lifelong dream - to go to Lotte World. Like Korean Disneyland but less so, Lotte World is a place I had wanted to visit since I was seven years old and a girl in my 2nd grade class stood up to give her summer vacation report and said: "This summer, I went to South Korea to see my family. We went to Lotte World. It was awesome." And last week, Lotte World (you may know the Lotte corporation from their moderately popular hamburger chain Lotteria) made one man's dreams come true. The only thing that could make the day better I even need to say it?

There are actually tons of places to get Japanese-style ramen in Seoul. It's definitely hot right now, and new ramen places are opening up all the time. I thought about trying out the Korean take on my favorite J-noodles, but deterred by bad memories of would-be ramen in mainland China, decided to take a pass. I wanted noodles how they do in the K - I wanted ramyun! Forunately, my pal A knew just where to take me. Open 24 hours, this place in Seoul's Sinchon district is known locally as "hangover ramen" since it's mega spice quotient is supposed to bust even the toughest day after blues.

I don't know if the proprietress herself runs the ship all 24 hours, but I didn't see anyone else around. I wouldn't be surprised if she sleeps in the room behind the shop - she hasn't looked as young or thin as in this photo in quite some time, methinks.

I don't want to ruffle the feathers of any Korean readers, but I couldn't help shake the feeling that so much in Korea reminded me of either Japan or China. This shop was firmly in the China column, with that great local hole in the wall noodle haunt atmosphere a far cry from the chic counters in Japan. See the pan on the right side of the photo? That's half the kitchen...

...and this is the other half. What kind of ramyun can one cook on this little counter top?

The instant kind! Yep, "ramyun" is about as far from "jikaseimen" (homemade noodles) as you can get. A strong contender for Korean national dish, the spicy Shin Ramyun and its dehydrated brick of noodles are what goes into every bowl. Now, I love Shin Ramyun, and it's probably thanks to the stuff that I ended up the noodle freak I am now. But you're probably wondering - why go to a restaurant to eat instant noodles? I thought we finally had reached a time where people realized that ramen was so much more than the dry stuff? Because no one you know can trick out and transform a bowl of instant noodles like this.

The not-so-little old lady stirs up the soup then tosses in some clams, bean sprouts, kimchi, maybe a bit of lard, plenty of spices...and lots and lots and lots of sliced green chilis. My pal A was taken with trepidation before deciding to take the plunge into this atomic bowl.

On a cold winter's day, not much else can warm your insides like a piping hot bowl of soup stuffed with capsaicin. On the whole, my experience was that Korean food wasn't *that* spicy, but this soup was an exception. Definitely the spiciest thing I'd had in a while, though perhaps not achieving the pure pain and punishment of the "cosmic" miso ramen at Yagura-tei.

And the noodles? Scoff away, but these were boiled just right, not too soft, not too hard. They may not be fresh off the noodle machine, but they have the added benefit of hitting that nostalgic comfort foot pleasure receptor deep in the brian. Ivan Ramen may make some of the best noodles I've ever had, but I didn't eat Ivan's noodles 3 times a week when I was 11 years old.

These nameless noodles were so good that I called for a bowl of rice to dump in and polish off the rest of the spicy broth, chomping almost every last pepper. I feared for the safety of my lower half, but don't worry, these noodles never made it all the way down to my GI tract...

Too bad these noodles can't cure a hangover you haven't gotten yet!

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Quick Check In from the Road...

Posts have been a bit sporadic of late, but have no fear fellow ramenmenandwomen! I'm currently in the midst of a short trip to South Korea, and regular posting will resume soon. I chose to pass on trying any K-style renditions of Japanese "ramen", but I did have a few tasty bowls of Korean ramyun!

They do stuff here with packaged noodles that would blow your minds (...and tastebuds...and lower intestines!) I'll post those up when I get back, but if you can't wait to expand your own noodle, why not check out a couple old posts about past noodling adventures elsewhere in Asia?

-Journey to the Heartland of the Noodle in Muslim Xinjiang!

-Drool over the Knife-Cut Noodles of Shanxi!

-Experience Total Noodle Overload in Ningxia!

-Gasp in Horror at the Slop Served on Mainland Chinese Airlines!

See y'all soon!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

斑鳩 (Ikaruga)

You may have heard that Japanese people are hella good at writing poetry. Haikus and what have you. I do my research on prose fiction and media studies, so I am in no position to confirm or deny that assessment. I do know enough to tell you, however, that in classical poetry, some of the most important poetic tropes and images are seasonal motifs such as flowers, plants, and birds.

As with poetry, so goes ramen. What could sound more appetizing than a meal at Ikaruga - "Masked Hawfinch"?

Granted, they say the poetry is what's lost in translation, but why would one of the best and most popular shops in Tokyo name itself after an obscure avian?

It just so happens that the reason why the Ikaruga fowl is such a resonant poetic symbol is because it shares its name with the Ikaruga district of the ancient capital of Nara, home to some of the most important sites in Japanese history.

Shôtoku Taishi, the semi-legendary prince said to have introduced Buddhism to Japan from Korea is a giant in historically significant stature, and he's the one that founded Ikaruga Temple, which is now Hôryûji Temple, reliquary of some of the most priceless artifacts of Japanese art and early scriptures. Ikaruga was built, and Japan would never be the same.

But does the same go for Ikaruga, the ramen shop? Me and 25 of my closest friends huddled in the cold one winter evening to find out. Ikaruga won top honors on the 2006 edition of the TV Champion program, a sure way to gain instant fame. The reputation of Ikaruga as a top-flight shop (I couldn't tell you if the Masked Hawfinch is migratory, but you know what I mean) later that year when it won the magazine Tokyo Weekly's "Ramen of the Year" award in the shôyu (soy sauce soup) division.

Located in Kudanshita, just a stone's throw from the Imperial Palace, Ikaruga has become canonical, and has a line longer than that of "unbroken" line of Japan's Emperors. Inside, it's a relaxing atmosphere, and they have customer service down pat.

And here's the famous bowl. Shôyu may it be, it's like no soy sauce ramen I've ever seen or tasted before. The thick noodles sit in a creamy white broth that looks more like a classic tonkotsu (pork marrow) soup with just the right amount of oil. Ikaruga's bowl is one of the most amazingly complex and well-balanced I've ever tasted - this is truly gourmet food. In reality, Ikaruga dishes out their own variety of the ever popular "W" (double) soup style - here it's mild, smooth porky tonkotsu with soy tare (flavor essence) blended with a seafood broth made from the highest quality katsuo (skipjack tuna) and konbu seaweed from the Sea of Okhotsk. And I'm sure there are a few secret ingredients thrown in as well.

What's that slimy green stuff on top? It's tororo konbu, a type of fine algae. I'd never seen it before and ordered it as an extra topping, but I think I might skip it next time. Interesting as it was, it was a bit too...well, algaey for me. Still it added to the overall impression of Ikaruga's as ramen you can eat nowhere else.

Every bite was savored. Every smooth sip sucked down. The egg was one of the most flavorful I've ever had. The noodles perfectly chewy. And no matter how much I rolled that creamy soup around in my mouth I kept finding new accents in it. And yet, as much as is going in there, it's oh so satisfying. This was a truly masterful bowl of ramen.

You best believe this was good to the last drop. One of the best bowls I've ever had, and well worth the wait.

As well-crafted as one of the 7th century Buddhist masterpieces found in its namesake temple, this is one for the ages.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

麺彩房 (Mensaibo)

My neighborhood of Arai Yakushi isn't exactly known as a ramen mecca. In fact, it isn't exactly known at all, considering how many confused looks I get when I tell people where I live. But if you take a look around, we've got a good little grip of solid shops - the original location of tomato ramen RYOMA, a branch of Ganko, the storied station-front shop Yakushi Ôban, and a couple more.

Another of the best known is Mensaibô, a pretty straightforward new school seafood and pork "W" (double) soup shop whose star has been rising. The original location of Mensaibô is right here in Yakushi, but they've recently opened two or three other locations around Tokyo, turning into a bit of a mini-chain in just the last few months.

Inside, you've got pretty standard darkish interior, dark wood chairs, tables and open space in addition to the counter. There are even tatami seats in the back for family dining. This is a ramen shop that anyone can feel comfortable grabbing lunch at on their way to or from picking up groceries at the LIFE supermarket (yes, the name of the supermarket is "life") next door.

The tsukemen here supersede the ramen in popularity, and it had been a while since I had some tasty tsukemen, so I figured I'd go with those. Again, pretty straightforward - a big pile of extra thick noodles served on a fancy ceramic tray...

...and a lightish brown, vinegary, and sweet bowl of soup for dipping in the classic Taishôken mode. With about 99 percent of tsukemen shops, you know exactly what to expect, and it's this. Fat noodles and lots of them, a mild seafood broth with just a hint of spice, the same taste you can get at any other tsukemen place. I'd had this bowl before, at Himawari, at Yasubee, at Benten, at any other of the bazillion tsukemen shops that serve basically this precise dish. This is what everyone wants to eat all the time, apparently.

Then it hit me. Tsukemen isn't really competing with ramen. It's competing with soba. All those people going into shops to eat their identical tsukemen bowls weren't ramen fans who switched teams; they were the type you'd usually find at a soba or udon shop for lunch, getting the simple yet tasty, unchallenging yet satisfying bowl of noodles that you find at every other soba or udon shop. But tsukemen is a bit more fun, a bit richer in taste, a bit more interesting than your dad's musty old soba. And on the shop side, it doesn't hurt that tsukemen customers turn tables faster than ramen slurpers do. Or that it's easier to make and costs less to produce. Or that there's a tried and true model to follow. Hence the popularity of tsukemen. Totally tasty, totally satisfying, but at the same time, I think I'm good on this stuff for a while. There are so many more exciting bowls waiting out there!

Monday, January 11, 2010

らーめん一兆 (Ramen Iccho)

I had just polished off a fatty boom batty bowl of Ramen Jirô in Ogikubo, then drank some of the best beer I ever did taste following my buddy Junior Ken's stompin' blues show with the impressive Samm Bennett. But when Ken and company suggested a quick bowl before last train, who was I to say no?

One of Ken's favorite local shops in his hood of Asagaya is Ichô, and his picks thus far had been excellent, taking me to Kôkaiya and Seiya on past outings. We had tried to eat at Ichô on a few other occasions, but the master's got a bad back and the shop tends to be closed at weird hours. Today the apprentice was behind the counter, so we were in luck.

It was quite the party atmosphere inside, being a few days before the New Years holidays, and a couple of rounds of lime sour cocktails went around. So much for that last train...

I got the kuro goma tantanmen (Chinese-style noodles in black sesame soup), and it was just the thing for absorbing the booze in the belly. If you're giving me black sesame anything, it doesn't take a lot to get me on board. The big cuts of bok choy were great, especially since when you eat as much ramen as I do, you don't tend to get all your veggies. Do onions count?

The soup was sweet with sesame, but a bit overly salty. Ken suspects that the young trainee doesn't have quite the same balanced holistic vision of the bowl that the regular head cook does. My tastebuds were past differentiation at this point. Maybe not a gourmet slurp, but the good slurp is the one that gives you what you need, and my body was craving sodium.

These guys didn't seem too disappointed either. Here's to hoping the master's back heals!