Showing posts with label instant. Show all posts
Showing posts with label instant. Show all posts

Saturday, February 20, 2010

ラミューネーション イン 韓国、その二 (Ramyunating in Korea, Part Two)

A couple of weeks back, I posted an update about a bowl of ramyun gruzzled on my recent trip to Korea. I had fully intended to make another post about my other bowl of ramen on the continent, but then there was that whole thing about being featured in the New York Times. I figured it would probably be unbecoming for all the new visitors to show up on the site and only see posts about instant noodles in Korea, rather than ramen shops in Tokyo, so I put off the second half of the trip report...until now!

After leaving Seoul (a day later than originally planned...I'd like to thank the third worst hangover of my entire life), I headed to the southeasternmost corner of the Korean peninsula, to a town called Mokpo, from which I caught a boat oat to the remote offshore islands of Heuksando and Hongdo.

Needless to say, this part of Korea is a very different world from the megalopolis a half day's bus and boat ride away. When Ramenate goes on vacation, he heads to remote fishing villages in the dead of winter, folks. My vacation this time last year was to Manchuria. What can I say, I get bored quick on sunny beaches.

Despite being part of a maritime nature preserve, Heuksando and Hongdo aren't exactly scenic in the traditional sense, or at least not pristine sense. Which, of course, makes them much more interesting. I can look at pretty rocks anywhere, but how often do you get to experience what one Korean friend of mine called "Escape from Bum Island?" After watching a lot of stingrays and monkfish auctioned off to seafood merchants, I befriended a vacationing couple who helped me find some grub, which is not an easy task in this part of the world, at least, not in the off season.

We traveled from Heuksando further into the sea, to the even more remote island of Hongdo, which seemed to be sort of like the Korean island equivalent of Mad Max. I don't want to give a bad impression about the place - I met all kinds of nice people on this godforsaken rock that harkened images of postapocalpytic end times. I know you didn't sign up for a travelogue here, but I feel like I need to give some context for the second most far flung bowl of ramen I've ever eaten.

I was dozing on the heated floor of my hotel room when my new friends knocked on my door making the East Asia-wide gesture for dinnertime - miming chopsticks shoveling rice into your mouth. We wandered out into the near pitch black down to the pier.

Fortunately, the inside of the vinyl lean-to was kept nice and warm thanks to a small space heater, a chubby proprietress, and plenty of alcohol. Warm enough that halfway through our meal an 80 year old man wandered in for dinner in his bare feet.

The shop specialized in sashimi, raw cuts of obscure shellfish that I couldn't begin to name. I think there was probably some abalone in there, but otherwise, your guess as to the original identity of these life forms is as good as mine. Unlike in Japan, where soy sauce is the standard, most people in Korea dip their seafood in chili paste, garlic, and sesame oil, which is fine by me.

But weird and possibly still alive shellfish parts do not a full meal make, so it didn't take too many glasses of beer until we ordered a piping warm bowl of ramyun. Actually, we ordered a whole pot, brought to our table in situ. I opted for the provided styrofoam bowl...

...but my buddy showed me how they do it "Korean countryside style" and started heaping noodles onto the metal lid. We both slurped away for all we were worth, to keep warm, to absorb the soju in our bellies, to risk offending the fishermen at the next table. Oh yeah, and because it was totally delicious. Did I mention that the homemade kimchi was also killer?

This was a piping hot bowl just like mom used to make. Literally - my love for ramen took me to Shin Ramyun early on. Going through the comment thread on the recent NYT article, there seems to be a bit of back and forth about how much ramen is just "about the food", how much is about the search, and so on. You can't think about the experience of a meal without thinking about where you ate it, and who you ate it with, and no bowl in Tokyo can taste quite like instant noodles slurped in a shack on a rock in the middle of the Yellow Sea.

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!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

特別報告:らーめん缶@マイホーム (Special Report: Canned Ramen, At My House

So, between the cold weather and the near total lack of restaurants open for business, I decided to just stay in for dinner tonight. To be more specific, I decided it would be a good (or at least not completely terrible) idea to crack open the two canned ramens that I picked up last week. I first heard about canned ramen while reading an article about Akihabara, Tokyo's anime nerd and computer geek neighborhood - apparently canned food items (that is, cans of things one does not often think of as cannable) caught on among the otaku in Akiba a couple of years ago, and have become something of a popular tourist souvenir.

I didn't feel like dropping 420 yen to get some no doubt gross canned pork marrow soup, though I was a bit tempted by the Habanero ramen on the bottom row. Still, I took a couple of pictures and took a pass.

Fast-forward to a couple of weeks later - I'm at Tokyu Hands department store with my cousin and cans of ramen are on sale for a mere 100 yen a shot. This was an offer too good to pass up, or at least, an offer that made it seem like less of a total waste of money. For the sake of the blog, for the sake of research, I decided to give it a shot. I don't really have any interest in doing instant noodle coverage, but canned ramen was just too weird to pass up. So I grabbed a couple of cans, one each of miso and shôyû, taking a pass on the tonkotsu, which was not on sale.

The "Hakata ramen" was over 600 yen for the can, which actually makes it more expensive than a bowl at a real ramen shop, though I do have to give them props for including an second mini can with a kaedama (second helping) of noodles. In any case, I took a couple of the 100 yen cans home and decided to crack them tonight.

The main question that was on my mind was "Is this going to be pretty gross or really gross?" There was no chance that these canned noodles would be good, but would they at least be edible? I took a quick trip to the convenience store to grab some beers in case the answer to that question was no. I decided to start with the shôyû flavor. The label on the can warned me that "There may be a white lump floating in the soup; this is congealed fat, do not be alarmed." Umm, gross. I'm glad that I read the label, because I was that much less surprised when I opened the can to see this:

Indeed, there was a big lump of pure fat bobbing in the can. I tossed it, but not before some got stuck to the mini foldable fork that came with the can; it proved disconcertingly hard to get unstuck - ever handled pure processed fat before? I had originally thought about eating straight from the can to get the pure unadulterated experience, but in the end chickened out and dumped the stuff in a bowl and nuked it.

I say "stuff" because really, this can't be called ramen. No, it literally can't be called ramen - the "noodles" are actually thin threads of konnyaku, a jelly made from a yam-like plant also known as "devil's tongue." Regular noodles made out of things like egg and wheat would absorb the soup and end up a soggy mess, so the "developer" of this stuff came up with the yam jam solution. What these noodles really were was "shirataki", the thin strands of konnyaku found in oden stew. For what it's worth, other ingredients in the soup include rice flower, mirin (cooking sake), soy sauce, pork lard, sugar, salt, fish extract, ginger, garlic, spices, sesame, vegetable oil, apple vinegar, konbu seaweed, amino acid, and artificial coloring. But honestly, that makes it sound tastier than it is. There were also a few menma (bamboo shoots) floating in there, for what it's worth.

The soup was I guess like soy sauce, kind of, if you close your eyes - not totally unpalatable, but in no way tasty. It was more like eating really bad oden - the only thing that made it seem even remotely like ramen was the presence of the bamboo shoots. I guess it's the kind of thing that you might eat on a camping trip, after having hiked all day and just needing calories. The serving size was thankfully small, but I decided to go ahead and crack the miso can to just get this experiment over with.

To the eye, the miso was a bit more unpleasant-looking. Since miso is a paste, the sediment had filtered out a little bit and there were particles floating around, in addition to a (this time browner) hunk of fat that went down my toilet. This can also included a rather dog food-esque hunk of pork that I also sent to sleep with the fishes:

The miso was maybe a little bit better-tasting - it might have had a little more flavor, but it might also have been that my tastebuds died due to all the chemicals in the first can. I picked up the noodles with the mini-fork and did my best to drink as little of the soup as possible.

Writing this report is making me relive the experience all over again, and to be perfectly honest, remembering it all in detail is making me feel a bit sick to my stomach. I'm not sure if I'm more disgusted with society for inventing this, or with myself for actually eating it. In any case, I'm very glad that I only spent 200 yen on these atrocities. I'd eat them if I was wandering in the woods, but I can't imagine many things (if any thing) that I would choose these over. Plenty of stores have plenty of cans of this "ramen" for sale, so I wonder if anyone might it? Or do the same cans just get passed around as gag gifts? Only time will tell...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

思い出の麺、その一:失われた麺を求めて (Ramenmories I: Rememberances of Noodles Past)

All this writing about noodles makes me think about my first ramen experiences. Like most all Americans, my first encounter with ramen was with the packaged, instant Top Ramen. I remember at some point late in elementary school going over to a friend's house and having his mom prepare the classic Top Ramen Oriental flavor. About all I remember is that those were some delicious noodles, perfectly suited to the elementary schoolers' taste - soft, salty, unchallenging in every way...but with just a hint of exoticism. I talked my mom into keeping the kitchen stocked with Top Ramen, though only the Oriental Flavor - by dint of not being "Shrimp," "Chicken," or "Beef" I figured it was close enough to vegetarian. It was something of a special treat, as being "all chemicals" my mom was reluctant to serve it to me too often.

Never could I have imagined that some day I would be living a mere ten minute bike ride from the Nissin corporate headquarters. Come to think of it, I should see if they do tours. As I grew older, I became able to cook ramen at home myself, and by the time I was in high school, I had developed a kind of "ramen" I am now ashamed to have eaten - "green tea ramen." Concerned about the negative effect of aforementioned chemicals on my health, I took to the custom of boiling the noodles and then serving them in green tea instead of the soup. Never again.

At some point I switched allegiance from Top Ramen to the Korean-style Shin Ramyun, which was my main squeeze all through college. I liked the extra spiciness, I liked the little cubes of unidentifiable quasi-vegetable matter. I experimented with other brands like Sapporo, and some obscure ones I found at the Chinese supermarket, but Shin Ramyun was my number one. By that point, my cooking skills had "developed" to the point where I realized that a little bit of extra work could turn a crappy package into a pretty solid little meal. I would cut up some green onions, toss in an egg, maybe stir fry some tofu as a topping and enjoy my ramen. By that point I had spent a year studying in Japan and had eaten plenty of "real" ramen, but my Shin Ramyun still hit the spot at home.

However, my relationship with Shin Ramyun had a tragic end. I remember being home at my parents house during a break from school and finding a package of Shin Ramyun in the pantry. I cooked it up and after taking the first bite realized something was amiss. I checked the package only to discover that the the noodles were 2 years past the expiration date; I had always figured that ramen never goes bad, but this is not the case. The noodles tasted awful and stale, the soup clumpy. Ever since, I've never been able to see Shin Ramyun, or instant ramen at all, the same way. Maybe I'll feel differently next time I get back to the states and start jonesing for noodles...