Ramen + Sushi = bliss

Ikura Nigiri and spicy #ramen for dinner #sushi #food #foodporn

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I feel like I’ve gotten my bliss back in the past week or so. After we left Korea last February and made our last stop (for a while) in Japan, we kinda let our foodie adventure track around the other side of the globe. I’ve always been partial to the foods of Asia, though, and Japanese food has, for the most part, been what I’ve considered the most refined cuisine on the planet. Aside from a great  ramen shop in New York (Yasha Ramen, Columbus between 107 & 108th Streets) I have made very little effort to eat Japanese. Since moving to San Antonio I’ve been even more reluctant because how good could it really be in a sleepy backwater of only 2,000,000 people?

The answer is…pretty good.  We’ve visited a Japanese restaurant across the highway from our house a couple of times now. It’s a “chain” with another location in one of the nicer areas of town, and they do the whole teppanyaki thing. I have a sneaking suspicion that it might be owned by a Korean family, but I can’t put my finger on it. Anyway, last Friday we decided to live it up, so we went over and I decided I’d try the ramen.

The noodles were curly. I’m pretty sure that’s a telltale sign of an instant noodle, but seriously not that many ramen shops make their own noodles in house anyway. The broth was a spicy, fish-based mix that was really rather rich. I mean, it wasn’t tonkatsu ramen, but it wasn’t pretending to be, either. The tempura shrimp sticking out of the bowl was delicious. Not overcooked, not soggy, wonderful. All in all, I’d say it was worth the price I paid. I find it amazing that just a little taste of a country I’ve been (and remain) in love with can immediately transport my brain far away, but I guess the hot sake probably helped with that, too.

Not only did I order ramen, but I also ordered one serving of my absolute favorite piece of sushi, ikura. Ikura are the large, beautiful eggs of a salmon. Often you’ll find these set atop rice in sortof a maki/nigiri hybrid thing (I think it’s nigiri, but the nori is there to hold it all together.) Ikura pop in your mouth like little bubbles and wash your taste buds in the taste of the most beautiful ocean you could picture in your mind’s eye. Were I to become a salmon farmer, I think I’d just use my salmon for their eggs and let them live as long as possible…after all, why kill the fish that produce such tasty children little eggs?

This whole thing has me inspired. Inspired to make ramen. Good ramen. Instant ramen. Bad ramen. I’m planning on sharing the whole process with you, good or bad, but for now, know why it’s on my mind.

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Shichimi – Is it the world’s finest condiment?

Okay, so yeah, I’m putting up two “S” posts. Let me tell you why. I thought about San Antonio first. I love San Antonio, but it’s not something that really inspires me to take to the internets and blow out multiple stanzas of beautiful prose. I grew up in this city, I love this city, but the things I think are the most positive about the city are freaking mundane. There’s no need for me to work too hard to convince you that San Antonio is a great place to be. It’s not New York, or Hong Kong, or any place truly exotic. I mean, it’s certainly a cooler place than Oklahoma City or something. Anyway, back on topic. There is an “S” topic that will inspire me to spew out a vomitous amount of excited jibber jabber. It’s shichimi.

Repeat after me, “SHICHIMI”

Carolyn and I really enjoyed eating in the cheap sukiyas and ramenyas in Japan. Where else could you get a bowl of paper thin beef on rice, or super hearty, fresh ramen noodles for less than $10? No, neither dish is really something that you would get at Le Bernardin or Morimoto, or even freaking Benihana. These are basic, staple meals that keep the stomachs of Japan full. I was listening to a man on NPR’s The Splendid Table talk about Japanese food and how it’s simple and the quality is simply determined by intent. Cheap food in Japan is freaking DELICIOUS. Their intent is to take the utmost pride in what you eat, whether it’s 400 yen or 4,000 yen.

Anyhow, at the cheap Japanese restaurant table you’re likely to find bright pink pickled ginger, a few different dark sauces, definitely shoyuand I’m not really sure but probably also ponzu and a sweetened shoyu. Next to these is a squeeze bottle filled with an orange mystery powder. That’s shichimi, and that my friend, is gold. Your dish of say, sukiyaki will arrive with slightly dry beef, sauteed onions, and rice. It’s up to you to dress it as you wish. I usually add a little shoyu for moisture, a bunch of shichimi for spice and savoriness, and pickled ginger. I learned that by watching the other patrons (when in doubt, copy a local.)

Let me try to describe my first experience with shichimi in a way that doesn’t sound like contrived erotica. I had a bowl of sukiyaki, it was good. I put shichimi on top, and suddenly it had heat, umami, and a curious blend of other flavors that were familiar, but not familiar together. I knew I liked it right away, it was no pain/pleasure thing like assam laksa in Malaysia. It was just good. I had no idea what the powder was, and my knowledge of katakana isn’t good enough to read the label. This was in Osaka, in September, and I was too shy to ask in my poor excuse for Japanese what this magical blend of spice was. Well, when we returned in February to Tokyo, I asked the nice little lady at the sukiya in my most polite and friendly tone of voice while pointing to the bottle, “Onaigashimas? Kore wa desu ka?” And she said shichimi. I looked that up on the internet right away and learned something that made sense in retrospect.

In Japanese shichi means “seven.” Shichimi togarashi means “seven flavor chili pepper.” According to wikipedia, it commonly includes the following seven ingredients:

  • coarse ground red chili pepper
  • ground sansho (click here for an explanation)
  • roasted orange peel (weird flavor that makes sense once you know it’s there)
  • black sesame seed (plainly visible)
  • white sesame seed (plainly visible)
  • hemp seed
  • ground ginger
  • nori

Really, there’s nothing too exotic here, except for maybe the sansho. It’s all about the mix and balance of flavors. Shichimi displays the thing I love the most about Japanese cuisine. Without any truly remarkable ingredients, some soul who was searching for a perfect blend of flavors, spices, textures, and umami. I can’t imagine how long it took them to put the blend together, much less get the proportions right, but whoever it was must have toiled for a significant period of time to make it all work…and boy oh boy, does it work.

To answer my own question, is shichimi the world’s finest condiment? Absolutely yes. I would put this shichimi on everything if I could.

Japan on my mind

Japan’s on my mind today. Our visits to Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo opened my eyes to the idea that a place can in fact be just as cool as you think it’s going to be. The super clean streets, the colorful signs, loud music, and glowing neon are all just as you’d imagine they’d be. I guess Japan has always been on my mind, though.

Introduction to Japan: Nintendo

My introduction to Japan as a concept came at the age of six or seven, along with the Christmas gift of a Nintendo Entertainment System. I always thought the people in the games and the streets seemed a little bit strange because they didn’t look like the people and streets at home. Walk around in Japan a bit though and you find that “hey, this is like an HD version of Final Fight. Strange, right? It seems a little dorky, but I’m pretty sure it’s just the general Japanese aesthetic that was wired into my brain by 8-bit game developers years ago that makes Japan seem a little bit familiar.

Geishas at Sensoji Temple - Tokyo, Japan

These ladies train for years to attain perfection at entertainment.

Land of the Rising Sun? Land of the Super-intense people.

One thing I think anyone could admire about Japan is the intensity of its people. Food is basically always delicious. If you go to a ramen-ya with an open kitchen you can see how freaking exacting the chef is when he prepares your $10 bowl of noodles. Go to the Baskin Robbins and watch as the ice-cream guy makes perfect scoops of a flavor for you. Buy a silk-screen print at a temple market, and you’ll see the fastest, nicest, most perfect gift wrapping job you can imagine. In Japan it seems that you run into characters like Jiro from Get Jiro everywhere. People intent  on perfection. This is great news if you love to eat.

tonkatsu ramen with black garlic puree

Perfection in the form of a bowl of noodles: tonkatsu ramen

ikura nigiri

A perfect ikura nigiri.

Oh yeah, also the food.

The food in Japan is an exercise in the perfect balance. Not just flavor, but texture, color, and even temperature. Everything must be served a certain way, and everything is served a certain way. Flavors are at once distinct and delicate, and chefs spend years developing their skills on one razor thin type of food. You can literally taste the pride in the food. Pride tastes good.

It might be a while before we make it back to Japan, but I think Japan will remain on my mind forever. It’s a super interesting country with a great cuisine and the most gentle but intense people I can imagine.

Three Days in Tokyo – Akihabara, Shibuya, and Shinjuku

Geishas at Sensoji Temple - Tokyo, Japan

As we walked towards the subway station we stumbled upon an event with the Tokyo Fire Department and these two Geisha at Sensoji Temple’s main gate.

Our second full day in Tokyo started with some unfinished business. We needed two things, a solar-powered sushi chef bobble head (Yes, for real. Yes, this was for my benefit and not Carolyn’s. Yes, I have a ridiculous huge collection of kitsch. Don’t judge me.) Near the gate of Sensoji temple there was some sort of ruckus, and being the curious nosy busybodies we are we needed to have a look. At the gate was a unite of the Tokyo Fire Department posing behind a banner with two geisha. This time we were ready and had cameras out of bags. Photos ensued. Even in the middle of an open space, these ladies are quite good at avoiding a photo.

Akihabara – because best buy isn’t big enough

Akihabara Electric City prize dispensers - Tokyo, Japan

These cute little surprise-bubble machines lined both sides of an aisle at a shop in Akihabara Electric City.

The first stop of the day was Akihabara Electric City. We didn’t really have any good reason to come here, as there was absolutely no room for any electronics in our bags. The true reason we came here was to experience Tokyo’s premier electronics market. Holy cow. Akihabara does electronics right. We stopped by the wall of quarter-toy machines (except instead of a quarter it was 200 yen, that’s what, $3 or so?) and picked a few machines to get some surprises for our nieces and nephew and my kitsch collection. After a quick look around, it was off to our next stop.

Shibuya, Shi, shi, Shibuya – ROLL CALL!

Shibuya Scramble Crossing - The World Ends With You

The scramble crossing in Shibuya as presented in “The World Ends With You.”

Shibuya scramble crossing - Tokyo, Japan

The Shibuya scramble crossing, where a giant wave of humanity crashes against the storefronts every 20 seconds.

Shibuya - Tokyo, Japan

Shibuya, Tokyo’s fashion district.

Shibuya is a place I was familiar with far before we visited Tokyo as it’s the setting of Square Enix’s The World Ends With You. As you can see from the top picture, they feature the scramble crossing that is kind of the main intersection of the area pretty extensively in the game, in real life it’s pretty similar, just way way way more densely populated. We checked out Shibuya 109 to have a look at some of the hard styling locals of Shibuya, had some nice ice cream, and oh yeah. LUNCH.

Tonkatsu Ramen – the best noodles in asia because I say so.

tonkatsu ramen with black garlic puree

Carolyn decided to fancy up her tonkatsu ramen with a black garlic swirl. It was, of course, delicious.

tonkatsu ramen - Tokyo, Japan

Tonkatsu ramen is probably my favorite Japanese food. It’s thick, hearty, and doesn’t leave you feeling like a total pig (even though you’ve essentially eaten a whole pig in the bowl.)

For lunch we stopped into a ramen-ya in Shibuya that specialized in tonkotsu ramen. I don’t even know how to start to describe tonkatsu ramen and how much I love it, so prepare for word-vomit. Tonkatsu ramen is served in a thick, meaty pork broth that I’m pretty sure has marrow in it somewhere. The flavor is rich, like the creamiest pan gravy you’ve ever tasted. The noodles have a little bit of a chewy texture, and the meat is served falling-apart tender. A bowl of this will set you back about 800 yen, but it’s worth every single solitary individual yen coin to have a bowl of this set down in front of you. A squirt of soy sauce and a little puff of shichimi set the whole thing like a fission reaction of flavor and texture that sends me into umami heaven. End word vomit.

Shinjuku – Skyscrapers and another video game setting

Shinjuku Skyscrapers - Tokyo Japan

The skyscrapers of Shinjuku are some of the tallest buildings in the city.

Kabukicho Gate - Tokyo Japan

We searched for about an hour for this electric gate at the entrance to Kabukicho, the real life counterpart to the fictional Kamurocho from the Yakuza video games.

Shinjuku is an area of skyscrapers, shopping, food, lights, sounds, and entertainment. Our main objective was to visit the Kabukicho area. As with Shibuya, I was already kind of familiar with Kabukicho as it’s the real life counterpart to Sega’s Kamurocho from the Yakuza series. It sparkled just as much as I thought it would. It’s also where we found dinner.

Sushi in Shinjuku, or how to really overdo it.

nigiri zushi platter - tokyo japan

This is what I ordered for dinner. “Oops.”

nigiri zushi - tokyo japan

A close up view of the nigiri platter I ordered in Kabukicho…note the extra uni. Oops.

We found a sushi-ya in Kabukicho and saw that they had an affordable plate of nigiri in the window, so of course sushi was the dinner plan. I really really wanted to be sure to get a piece of uni (sea urchin roe). All of the chefs on television make it look like it’s the best foodgasm you could possibly have, and it was pretty expensive at between 400-500 yen per piece. I had to try it. When we sat down, the menu was conspicuously missing the less expensive order of nigiri I saw in the window. The server came over and showed us how to work the electronic ordering machine, and I had him help me add an uni, because there seemed to be no uni in the picture. A few minutes later a beautiful platter of nigiri arrived, and lo and behold it had TWO pieces of uni. Well, nothing went to waste, and the uni was good. I don’t really think I’m a huge uni lover that will be talking about how amazing it is on TV or anything, but it was pretty good stuff.

Sumida River - Tokyo, Japan

Boat traffic on the Sumida River in Asakusa.

At the end of the day we stopped in for a beer at the Asahi brewery and hung out next to the Sumida River for a while. Cherry blossoms were blooming on the trees behind us (but it was after dark and the camera just wouldn’t catch it right, but it did catch the boat traffic on the river pretty well.

The next morning we packed up, checked out of the Smile Hotel and went out to do just a bit of shopping before our long flight back to New York. Our stay in Tokyo was short, but it was certainly plenty sweet. Tokyo is a delicious, vibrant, and chaotic place to visit and you can’t really do it justice in three days, but if you’ve got a layover you’d be doing yourself a real disservice to just stay in Narita and order room service.

 

 

Three days in Tokyo – Touchdown

Leaving Korea was a bear. We packed all of our bags, tied up our loose ends, and got our final bills taken care of on our last day at school. I walked out of the front door of the school, unceremoniously, with just a “have a good life” from the administration office and a plane ticket to Tokyo, basically. Once Carolyn got home we headed over to the cafe to check bank accounts and transfer money out of the country, and then had a really nice dinner with our friends. They were kind enough to help us get our bags to the subway station and we headed down to the bus depot to wait for our 1:00am ride to Incheon International Airport.

Overnight bus rides are a two sided sword. They remove the need and cost of a hotel room. They give you a warm (and in Korea probably too warm) place to sleep for a few hours. They scare the crap out of you (sometimes). They make it easy to deal with bags. They’re probably not the best option for a good night’s rest, though. We got to the airport at about 4:40 and couldn’t check in until about six. There was no sleep. We waited with some friends and planned to meet them inside security after check in, but we were in different terminals, so that was that for goodbyes. We had a flight to catch, you know, to take us to Tokyo.

When we arrived at Narita everything worked out as planned. We dropped off our biggest bags at the baggage storage counter, bought tickets on the Sky Access train to Asakusa, and talked to the tourism counter to see what resources they had for us to use. We climbed onto the train and somehow managed to stay awake for the 57 minute ride to Asakusa. When we arrived we found the elevator, tried to orient ourselves, and headed up the street towards the Asakusa Smile Hotel. Check-in was easy and fast, but we were d e a d tired by this point. We barely got the bags in the door of the room before we both passed out on the bed.

We woke up at about 8:30pm, and we were hungry. I stopped at the counter and tried in my best Japanese to ask where the nearest ramen shop was, “Ramen-ya doko desu ka?” and the girl at the counter replied in perfect English (with a California accent) “oh, you want a noodle shop. There’s one down the street.” So we headed out to find this noodle shop that may or may not be open at this time of day. Luckily it was open for business.

Tokyo, Japan: ramen with butter

We didn’t realize we ordered ramen with butter, but hey, what the hell?

Tokyo, Japan: Ramen with onion and corn

This bowl of noodles didn’t have any butter, but it was still 100% delicious.

From our previous visit to Japan, we knew that we should order and pay at the machine at the front of the shop, but we were having a hard time getting the options we wanted to line up. We watched another patron make an order, followed suit, and just randomly selected options, handed our cards to the chef, and waited. It was fun to watch the chef do his thing. Exacting movements, precision everywhere, and a fierce look on the chef himself made me think “yeah, we’re in Japan alright.”  When he brought over the two bowls he said “BUTTER?!” as in “WHO ORDERED THE BUTTER?” We had no idea that we ordered anything with butter, but there was a pat of butter floating in the noodles. It was Carolyn’s as it was a bit spicier. The other bowl was filled with white onion and corn. It was all delicious, and the noodles were nice and fresh. They had a great texture, just slightly chewy, but not underdone. Ramen in Japan will make you rethink the instant noodles you’re familiar with at home, ya know?

Tokyo, Japan: Tokyo Sky Tree.

The Tokyo Sky Tree dominates the skyline of Asakusa.

After dinner we decided to go out for a walk, and found that we had a great view of the Tokyo Sky Tree. The Tokyo Sky Tree is the tallest building in Tokyo, and one of the tallest (if not the tallest) free standing towers in the world. It has a very interesting shape and construction. At night it’s a great sight to see because it’s lit up in colorful lights. While we were in town it was blue and violet, depending on the night. We were still tired, though, and decided to head back towards the Smile Hotel to get some rest so we could enjoy our first full day in Tokyo.

Tokyo, Japan: Asakusa Streets at Night

Asakusa is a bit of a quiet neighborhood, but it lights up at night.

Asakusa seemed pretty quiet, and didn’t have the flashing lights and noise and masses of people that we expected of Tokyo, but there were still plenty of businesses lit up in the dark to feast our eyes upon. After a quiet walk back to the hotel we settled down and slept like the dead for the rest of the night.

 

My top 12 foods of 2012

Penang Curry with Duck

Spicy, but not too spicy.

Penang Curry – Thailand

 

The most amazing bowl of ramen ever.

Thick and hearty with amazingly tender meat.

Hakata Ramen – Japan

 

Carolyn's chicken with cashews

Spicy, sweet, and nutty.

Phad Kai Med Mamuang (Cashew Chicken) – Thailand

 

Chicken Rice - Southeast Asian Soul Food

Rich flavors with a bit of spicy, sweet, and sour.

Chicken Rice – Malaysia

 

Jolly, jovial, yakitori chef!

Umami.

Yakitori – Japan

 

Carolyn's phad Thai noodles.

Sweet and savory.

Phad Thai – Thailand

 

sushi

Fresh from the ocean.

Sushi – Japan

 

Assam Laksa, or AWESOME Laksa?

Dark, fishy, mysterious.

Assam Laksa – Malaysia

 

Doenjang Jjigae - Korean soybean paste stew

Doenjang Jjigae – Korean soybean paste stew

Doenjang Jjigae – Korea

 

Udon and Sukiyaki from a nondescript little Sukiya in Namba

Cheap and delicious.

Udon – Japan (left); Sukiyaki – Japan (right)

 

Massaman Curry

Hearty, filling, and easy on the stomach.

Massaman Curry – Thailand

The world is delicious: Five countries, five favorite foods

We left the United States in February, 2011 and over the course of the almost two years we’ve been in Asia we’ve eaten a lot of things. It’s basically impossible to try and pick a favorite for each place we’ve been, but I’m going to try and do that right now to let you imagine what our taste buds have experienced over the past couple of years. A few of these are staple foods that the local people in each locale eat all the time because they’re damn cheap and tasty, and I think that’s always a good place to start when exploring a cuisine.

된장 찌개 Doenjang jigae - Hello Coo by avlxyz, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  avlxyz 

Korea: Doenjang Jjigae (soybean paste stew)

My pick for Korea is doenjang jjigae, a cheap, hearty stew of fermented soybean paste, tofu, cucumber, and probably kimchi. Why not the awesome super fun Korean Barbecue you might have imagined? Well, because when we go out for Korean barbecue the thing we enjoy the most is the doenjang jjigae they serve when our meat is halfway gone. It’s spicy, it has a deep flavor with a hint of acid, and it’s what I crave on those Korean winter nights. It’s delicious, spicy, and something you can only get in Korea, or maybe in a Korean restaurant at home (we’re sure as hell going to find a place to get it or figure out how to make it after we get home.)

nasi goreng

Nasi Goreng – my taste of Indonesia

Indonesia: Nasi Goreng

Indonesia screams nasi goreng to me. It’s simple, hearty, dirt cheap, and tastes great. Imagine if you will fried rice, sambal, and bok choi stir fried together, perhaps with prawns or an egg, and served with shrimp crackers. Using the shrimp cracker, you scoop up as much rice as the cracker can hold, and put the whole thing in your mouth. It’s a satisfying way to eat (you know, with your hands), and this is a dish I’ve only had in Indonesia. Just thinking about how it tasted right now I’m imagining the cool breeze blowing through the palm trees and the fields of rice making that beautiful “whooosh” sound as the blades slap together. Damn. Now I want some Nasi Goreng and a bintang beer.

My Penang curry with chicken

Thailand: Penang Curry

My choice for Thailand is kind of ironic, since it’s named for an island in Malaysia. Oops. Penang Curry is basically a Thai Red Curry with peanuts. You wouldn’t imagine that a few peanuts could change the flavor of a curry so much, I mean, there’s more strong flavors swimming around in a curry than you can count on one hand. Lemongrass, red chili, galangal, and Thai shallot aren’t weak flavors by any means, you wouldn’t think that peanuts would make a difference, but they really, really change the hell out of the profile of the dish. Thinking of a curry like this and the smell of the fresh slices of red chili on top sharply focusing your olfactory system on the mess of flavors you’re about to slop over some rice makes me want to lay down on a beach like you wouldn’t believe. I’d take any beach in Southern Thailand right now, thank you very much.

Assam Laksa

Malaysia: Assam Laksa

According to Anthony Bourdain’s wonderful television program, Laksa comes from Kuching, Malaysia, but I’ve only had it just outside the airport in Kuala Lumpur. I’m not really sure what was in it. I’m guessing there was beef, fish sauce, chilis, and I really have no clue what else. This is a dish that made me feel dirty, but in a good way, because my taste buds were horrified at first, then submitted to the dark magic in the hell broth that was dark as night. Before leaving the U.S. I would have simply been too afraid to try it. Boy am I happy we did. If we go to Malaysia this winter I’m going to eat the shit out of some Laksa.

The most amazing bowl of ramen ever.

The most amazing bowl of ramen ever.

Japan: Ramen

I bet you thought I’d pick sushi for Japan, didn’t you? Well, no. The most magical thing I ate in Japan wasn’t the beautiful, beautiful sushi we had in Osaka. It wasn’t the amazing yakitori we purchased from a street vendor in Kyoto. It wasn’t the fresh takoyaki pulled off of the grill on Dotonbori. It was a bowl of ramen we had across the street from the place we would later get takoyaki on Dotonbori. This was the most amazing soup of any kind I’ve ever had in or around my mouth. It was stunning. The depth of its savory, porky flavor was unreachable. I felt like my brain was being sucked into the bowl with every sip of broth. The noodles were fresh, and the whole thing was hearty. You could probably cut the broth with a knife, it was that thick. I’m afraid that barring a return to Dotonbori, I will never have a bowl of ramen so amazing again.

There you have it, five countries, and five foods. For me these will always be the flavors of their respective countries, some pungent, some mild, some perfectly balanced, some so far out of balance that they take you on a trip to a place you’ve never been before. Food is pretty magical like that.