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.


Canadian Bento said...

I live in a town with 50+ museums (National Ski Museum anyone?) and not one of them dedicated to soup. Sadness.

nakji said...

That's a National scandal. There should at least be one to French Canadian Pea soup.