Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Noodling Around

Golden Week is on us, and with not a lot of cash in the bank for a proper vacation, we've had to look closer to home for some fun in Yokohama.

We started the week with a summons from la Migra to come and pick up our newly changed visas. Why they asked us to come during the middle of Golden Week is beyond imagining. Signs littered the Immigration building begging people to prepare for overseas travel in advance and not come to the office in the days leading up to the holiday sniffing around for exit permits for their visas. It was a lesson in delivering the right message at the right time - once people had dragged themselves to the bitter end of the Minato Mirai line, brandishing airline tickets and alien cards, they would not be denied, no matter how politely worded the paper posters. We joined the queuing hordes of frosted blonde Russian dancers tottering on platforms; the Filipina nannies with other people's children; and the tall French businessmen in trench coats mentally firing their personal assistants.
A brisk 40 minutes later, having been demoted from the rank of "Professor" to "Specialist in Humanities/ International Services" we decided a small snack was in order, to gain the strength needed to push on to lunch. We took a brief detour through Yokohama's Chinatown, which was clogged with tour groups and uni students down on a day trip from Tokyo. Never being one to miss out on any opportunity for a steamed pork bun, I picked the cutest shop - one specializing in panda-themed items. I have to assume it wasn't panda inside, but pork; the logistics of panda breeding being sufficiently difficult to discourage large-scale panda herds for meat production.

It was good, anyway, but provided no competition for my top-three most delicious pork bun list. (Pork buns from Singapore and Hong Kong top this list.)

But anyway, the day wasn't for Chinese food, it was for that most Japanese of Japanese food, the food most commonly associated with Japan after sushi: Ramen.

Well, actually.....

When I first arrived in Japan, I noticed almost right away that signs for ramen shops were written in Katakana, the alphabet that the Japanese save for words of foreign origin. What did this imply? I wondered. I shocked several Japanese people by asking. "Ramen, of course," I was informed, "is Chinese. Why? Do foreigners think it's Japanese?"

Er, Yes.

In fact, I could hardly bear to tell them, what the average Canadian assumes is ramen is more correctly called instant ramen, much beloved of the younger male set in Japan, and generally consumed in convenience stores that have hot water kettles on the boil constantly for just such a purpose. Instant ramen is ubiquitous in Asia, from the heart and (heart-rate) stirring Shin-Ramyeon of Korea to the Mie Goreng packs so beloved in Indonesia. It's really a separate dish that deserves a post of its own, but since I hate it so much, I couldn't bear to. Please read more here, if you like.

Ramen, real ramen, is made with fresh broth, maybe made with fish stock, or pork bone stock, or miso stock, depending where it's made, and the noodles are fresh wheat noodles, enriched with egg. It's served with a variety of toppings - some meat, like char siu (barbecued pork), a boiled egg, pickled bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, shredded green onion, and slices of kamaboko (fish sausage).

Ramen has been a sort of go-to food for us when eating out in Japan, as it's filling, relatively cheap (around 600-900 yen buys you an almost-impossible-to-finish bowl), and most shops have you purchase a ticket from a vending machine with pictures, making ordering a snap. We knew we loved ramen, but wanted to solidify our knowledge about it - we needed to know our shio from our miso; if butter and corn were acceptable to us; and whether we liked our noodles katame or not. There was only one place to go: The Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum.

Set up like a 1960s-era downtown, the museum has a eight ramen restaurants of various styles. The top floor has a smallish gift shop where must-have souvenirs like porcelain Cup Noodle cups, kamaboko key chains, and mystifyingly ugly kewpie dolls-dressed as bears-dressed as maids (helpfully labelled as "popular in Akihabara Maid Cafes"). Then you descend into the "neighbourhood" and choose your shop.

Fortunately for us, the shops all offered a mini size for around 500 yen. After a careful reading of the museum's brochure, we decided to focus on two kinds; miso style from Sapporo, and Kumamoto style, from Kyushu.

Our first bowl was from Komurasaki, and was in the Kumamoto style. It had a tonkotsu broth, meaning stock made from boiled pork and chicken bones. The noodles were thin and round; not curly, and it was topped with cloud ear mushrooms, bean sprouts and char siu pork. It was garnished with grilled garlic chips. At the first taste, the broth was a little bland and unassertive, but as the bowl progressed, the garlic melted into the broth to form an intensely garlicky soup - but not sharply garlic - more of a strong, mellow garlicness. We were off to a great start.

The second bowl was at Keyaki, a shop from the Susukino area of Sapporo. It had a miso broth, curly noodles, and a substantive topping of vegetables including steamed carrots, cabbage, shredded green onion, and mushrooms. It had ground pork, rather than the standard char siu, and also a few flakes of red pepper, which together made an attractive multicolour tangle on the top of the bowl. The bowl itself belied its "mini" status, and was as big as my head. I was in trouble. The first taste of the broth (I always taste the broth first, taking my cue from Tampopo) yielded an incredibly rich, ginger-scented mouthful. The ground pork fragmented nicely into the soup, meaning that instead of saving the meat for one delightful bite, as is normally the case, I got a taste of it in almost every spoonful. The vegetables were also a welcome addition, adding a lighter touch to what is often a bowl full of grease and carbohydrates. The chef's vision, that each bowlful be "...an a la carte dish that appeals to the five senses..." was realized, and I found myself finishing my bowl and Peter's as well.

With that, we bid the streets of the "shitamachi" goodbye, and took the elevator up to the first floor. I realized that we had given short-shrift to more traditional styles of ramen, and that we had missed the shop offering ramen with "...a layer of grilled lard", but the human stomach only has so much capacity, and I had already reached the dread state of pho belly; a state where too much delicious broth sloshes dangerously about your stomach, threatening to capsize anyone silly enough to attempt walking after soup. There would have to be a next time.

In the meantime, we were agreed that for broth bliss, Hakata-style was our favourite; but I felt that if I had to have ramen as a complete meal, that Sapporo-style seemed more balanced. I look forward to doing more research.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Mos Burger on the Beach

In the large multinational corporation that my husband and I work for, the region where we work is called Minami (South) Kanto. Our boss jokingly calls it Miami Kanto, and for a while I thought he was merely referring to the crime rate. My daily routine pretty much takes me on a straight line from my apartment to the train station, along a stretch of the old Tokaido highway, which, despite its historic nature, is now lined with drive-thru McDonalds and the odd Ringer Hut, but we had heard muttering there was a beach nearby.

The sky was spitting a bit of rain, and I was feeling the effects of one too many of the happy hour Gin Tonics from the Hub Pub the night before (260 yen! That's free in Tokyo!), so it was the perfect day for Peter to insist that I ride the 15k along the beach to Kamakura with him. Something about an archery contest. If you've been in a relationship long enough, you know that it's sometimes better to not argue; suffer; and be morally righteous later on. You get way better concessions that way. So I got on my 3-gear bike, shopping baskets and all, and rode off behind him.

Well, there was a beach, and it was full of incredibly fit Japanese men wandering around in skin suits pulled down around their waists. The day improved dramatically. Actually, the whole area reminded me of Bondi in Sydney, with sidewalks given over to board-waxing, and people running around with board attachment for their bicycles, and little wheeled-contraptions for pushing their boards around on. People who didn't have their own boards strolled optimistically around in board shorts - I hadn't seen so many people cram themselves into such weather-optimistic clothing since the last time I was in Canada in the summer. It couldn't have been more than 18 degrees, and yet there were people walking around in sandals.

Okay, maybe my time in Hanoi has affected my opinion about what's technically considered warm weather. But if I hear another person here tell me, "You think it's hot now - wait until the summer hits - " and I have to patiently remind them that I lived in Vietnam, thankyouverymuch, and I have a passing acquaintance with the concepts of both "hot" and "humid".....

Sorry. Where was I?

Right, lunch. About halfway down to the beach, the lure of all the beachside cafes was too much to resist, so we pulled over into the bike parking (in Japan, there's always bike parking, although my shopping bicycle looked a bit ridiculous in with all the hyper-stylish bicycles there) and hopped on to the deck of the beach-side Mos Burger.

Mos Burger, for those of you who can't be bothered to click through, is a Japanese burger chain. Their patties are a pork-beef mix, and come with innovative toppings like grated daikon and spaghetti sauce. They actually taste a lot better than they sound. Mos burger outlets have a slightly more upscale look to them than your average fast food burger place, and give you your drinks in real glasses, which I always think is a nice touch. Burgers come in baskets, tastefully wrapped, as burgers in Japan always are, in an origami of waxed paper to prevent any burger drips from getting all over you. Of course, that's where the fun is in a good burger, but you can't tell a whole country that. I was tired and a little cranky, so I staked out a claim on the deck while Peter manfully stood in line to order. Like in much of Asia, the air heating/cooling of buildings are set to seasonal timers, so that no matter the actual ambient outdoor temperature, until June, the indoors will be heated. In June, they will switch over to being cooled, until the end of October, when they will be heated again. At no time will the indoor temperature be set anywhere near "comfortable". Actually, this might explain all the shorts and sandals.

At any rate, it was far too warm to eat inside, so the deck it was. Belatedly, I realized I was in the "pet parking" and smoking zone. Somebody's golden retriever put its head in my lap, and I gave it an ear-scratch while I texted Peter my lunch order. In Japan, it's perfectly safe to leave your purse, your child, and anything else you happen to have with you, at a table in a restaurant while you go up to order. No one would dare take anything, nor move it to take the table for themselves. On the weekend, Starbucks need to have crowd wranglers and waiting areas just to get everyone seats within reasonable times. I still can't get used to that, though, so I missed the opportunity to explore the menu at length and just asked for a burger, diet coke and onion rings.

There was no diet coke (there never is! whyohwhy?), but I got my onion rings, which alone are worth the trip to Mos. Light, golden, barely carrying the weight of their tempura batter, and served, sadly without ketchup. The burger came covered with a slice of tomato and a slurry of what the British would call bolognese sauce. Who could say why? It tasted fine, and I was in no position to argue.

I didn't share a single bit, even when the retriever started drooling.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Okonomiyaki at Ebisu Gardens Place

Ignoring the looming pile of laundry in the corner, and as of yet still un-vacuumed floors, we caught a train into Tokyo looking for something to eat.

It was still heaving rain on Sunday, after a string of gloomy days that had started with a mini-typhoon last Tuesday. That meant it was a big umbrella day.

(A big umbrella day means that it's actually raining when you step outside, and thus requires a full-size umbrella. Any other day, such as one with high overcast; or banks of threatening clouds lurking over the mountains; or any time during the summer, frankly, is a small umbrella day, in which a small collapsible umbrella should be tucked into the bottom of your bag so you can get home from the train with all your papers intact. My small umbrella is green, and has an endearing frog-face on the handle that makes it less likely that I'll toss it out of my bag in an attempt to save weight. It's funny, because I can't remember even owning an umbrella at all in Canada, let alone categorizing days by the size of umbrella which might be needed. Of course, in Hanoi, I never used an umbrella at all, they were almost impossible to buy - when it rained, I just threw a plastic bag over my head and drove faster, like everyone else in the city.)

The big umbrellas came out, and we dodged puddles and scooters all the way to the station. It seemed like a good day to try out the green car on the train. For a 500-yen premium, we could ride the 45 minutes to Shinagawa station in proper seats, in noise-reduced cars designed for lulling businessmen to sleep during their morning commutes. The trip would normally be spent clinging to the rail by the window, avoiding pokes from other people's big umbrellas, and trying not to be thrown down the length of the car as we screeched from station to station - the Tokaido line drivers have all the guts and panache of the Yamanote line drivers, driving the trains like Kojira himself was after us, but with distance between the stations to build up enough speed to do actual damage. My friend Evan once described the difference between rugby and football by noting that it was length of the kill-zone that necessitated the protective equipment that football players wear. I understand this theory in more detail now.

When we pulled into Shinagawa - a large station near the bottom of the Yamanote line ring, and a Shinkansen station as well, we were well-rested and ready to go. Nimbly avoiding strings of tourists, trailing rolling suitcases behind them like unmoored ships with their anchors (I do a lot of dodging and ducking in Japan. It really requires good shoes.) we made a bee-line to Dean and Deluca. We admired the tasty deli options, Peter amused himself for a while sampling the salts at the salt bar (his favourite was a 5,000 yen container of truffle salt) and we finally settled on some pastries. Japan is currently in the grips of a scone craze, to Peter's utter delight, and he was not disappointed by his lemon scone. I deliberated a long time of the cinammon rolls, but finally settled on an almond croissant, since I rarely see them out here in the burbs.

Properly fortified, we did some stretches, and boarded the Yamanote line to go to Ebisu, one of our favourite neighborhoods in Tokyo.

Ebisu is quiet, filled with small independent restaurants, small cafes, a good used bookstore, our favourite pub for Japanese microbrews and live music, and the Ebisu Garden Place. We did a quick lap around the bookstore to stimulate our appetites and then wandered over to the Garden Place. It used to be a brewery, I think, and then was re-done as a huge shopping and dining complex, anchored at one end by the not-quite-sure-if-it's-tacky-or-camp Palace de Joel Robuchon. Peter couldn't convince me to go look, I was too worried that I'd be sucked in with a homing gun, seated at a plate of $200-truffled mashed potatoes with a pound of gold-flake butter melting on top before I knew what hit me. We had a quick look at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of photography before deciding to go to the top for lunch, before we actually got hungry.
It's impossible just to walk into a nice restaurant in Japan, especially at lunchtime, and even more especially at the weekend. By nice, I mean anything better than a McDonalds, and even at those, you have to wait for a table on Sundays in any of the busier parts of Tokyo. You'll have about a 30-45 minute wait at most places, and they kindly provide benches for this eventuality. It's best to bring a book or start thinking of Kevin Bacon movies in this situation, because if there's anything worse than waiting in a line, it's waiting in a line to eat, while being hungry and bored.

Since the restaurant was on the 38th floor, Peter left me in line to take pictures of the view. When we eventually got in, 30 minutes later, the wait was worth it, as we were seated at a bar looking out over the city towards Yokohama.

It was our first foray into okonomiyaki, which I remember fondly from Matt's Ranma videos we used to borrow - when was that, anyway? Okonomiyaki is usually described as a kind of Japanese pizza, but it seems far more like pancake - which is what it actually is. It's a savoury pancake, topped with pork, dried shrimp, cabbage, and other things - noodles, if it's from Hiroshima - or not, if it's from Osaka. People from Hiroshima will tell you that their city is famous for okonomiyaki, and it seems cruel to point out that, in fact, it's more famous for other things. I was convinced, however, and ordered a Hiroshima-style pancake, with noodles. Peter went with the delicious sounding black pork and pepper Osaka-style pancake. They come topped with okonomiyaki sauce (it's rather like hoisin) and mayonnaise, and flakes of bonito, called katsuo-bushi, that are so thin and delicate that they flutter and tremble from the pancake's heat. You're given a mean-looking paddle to stab off pieces for yourself and others, and we sampled each others liberally. I must admit that Peter's was better than mine. I prefer my pancakes to be thin and crispy, and I thought the noodles made the whole affair entirely too doughy. It was enjoyable, nevertheless, and I look forward to trying to make them at home.

When we finished, we unfolded our legs from the table, and descended to street level to consider dessert.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Thai Red Curry

Occasionally I get the urge for a dish that will burn incandescently in my mouth and bring on a sort of purgative heat that brings to mind a sweat lodge or a Russian sauna. The only thing that can satisfy this is a Thai curry. Instead of plunging into an icy lake at the end, however, I recommend plunging into an icy Singha beer.

Thai curries differ somewhat from Indian curries. In the case of many Indian curries, the heat comes from dried spices, toasted to bring out the aromatic oils, and sauteed with oil and onions to form a spicy base for meat and vegetables. Thai curries are formed on a base of fresh herbs, such as kaffir lime leaves, chilis, and roots pounded together to make a fragrant and spicy paste. Since ingredients like galangal, kaffir lime leaves and cilantro root elude me here on the Tokaido, I reach for a handy packet of Mae Ploy red curry paste. Two heaping tablespoons of this, sauteed in some oil to the point where my nose starts to water, and I start to think of Thailand, where I learned to make curry at Pim's restaurant on PhiPhi Island. According to her recipe, which I have adhered to in spirit, but not in letter, I then add about 200 grams of chicken - thigh meat is tastier, but I usually add breast as it's cheaper here. I cook the chicken until it's about half done, then I knock in a can of coconut milk, which I let simmer gently. Two tablespoons of fish sauce, two of sugar, and a squeeze of lime, and some sturdy vegetables - let's say some green beans and baby corns (fresh, or it's not worth bothering, as Pim said), or whatever's on hand really, then a low simmer until the chicken is cooked. It should be served by itself, in a bowl, like a soup. Serve the rice in another bowl, take a spoonful of rice (they don't use chopsticks for curry in Thailand!) and dip it into the curry.

I like to have a cooling salad on the side - one I enjoyed frequently in Viet Nam. It's incredibly simple - just some thinly sliced carrots and cucumber dressed in nuoc cham, with a handful of chopped cilantro thrown in for good measure.

Nuoc Cham

1 red chili, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, smashed and chopped
1/4 cup of sugar
1 biggish lime, juiced (or a lemon, in a pinch)
1 tablespoon of rice vinegar
2 tablespoons of fish sauce
1/2 cup water
salt to taste

I use warm water to help dissolve the sugar - but other than that, toss it all into a bowl and mix until the sugar has dissolved. Use it as a low-fat dressing for salads or a dipping sauce for spring or summer rolls.

The next day, I fished out some of the chicken, fried the leftover rice with some bacon and corn, and drained some of the leftover salad (now sadly devoid of carrot) for a lunch bento. I had some eggplants languishing in my cupboard, so I stir-fried them quickly with soy, garlic, and honey for a side dish. It was quite an excellent lunch.

Hanami at Odawara Castle

Well, it's that time of year again. It's 20 degrees outside, and the cherry blossoms are blooming. The traditional thing to do, of course, is head straight for your nearest 500 -year-old castle (or its twentieth century reconstruction) spread out a plastic mat, and have yourself a cherry-blossom viewing party - o-hanami.

A bento is de rigeur, even if you just get a few rice balls and a beer from the convenience store, but I don't roll like that. I picked up an imitation lacquer (read: plastic) family-size bento from my nearest Daiso 100 yen store, a bargain at 500 yen, and filled it with decidely non-Japanese goodies.

In the first box: cubed old cheddar, chicken skewers, tomatoes, blanched broccoli, and double mustard potato salad, from Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything" - it's a great recipe for a picnic, especially since it doesn't have any mayonnaise. The sharpness of the mustard goes well with the richness of the salami and beef I packed. There are also carrots cut into cherry blossom (sakura) shapes, to help evoke the season.

In the second box I packed small boiled quail's eggs, some salami from a butcher in Kamakura, more potato salad, and thinly sliced Japanese beef, wrapped around green onions and fried in butter and soy sauce. Oh boy. If you haven't tried frying things in butter and soy sauce, you don't know what you're missing.

The whole thing was washed down with ice-cold tall-tin Asahi silver cans (from the nearest conbini, of course), and while we ate, we watched the people around us. A group of teenagers staged an impromptu hip-hop dance recital; young families made short work of home-made onigiri (rice balls - or samgak gimbap for any Korea vets who are reading along) and plates of yaki soba (fried noodles) bought from carts in the park. A group of university students sat next to us, enjoying a hanami with things furnished entirely from a conbini - they sat on plastic garbage bags, eating Lotte crackers, cup noodles, and tuna mayonnaise onigiri, while drinking Onecup sake and smoking heavily. Serious seniors with serious looking, paparazzi-grade cameras and tripods set up at various angles in the park, hoping to capture the first falling petals. Two ladies tottered by in kimono and zori sandals and even the rain that was threatening didn't bother us.

On our way out of the park, we found a - a what? A happening? Who knows what was going on. This character was singing "Ooishiiii, Oiiishiii" (delicious, delicious) accompanied by several small school children with proud parents looking on.

Another typical day in Japan.