Friday, September 11, 2009

Ramen - Japanese Comfort Food

My last post was about saimin, and this one is about ramen. Some people may think they are one in the same, but they are distinctly different. Saimin is an evolution of the many cultural influences on a dish that in part, comes from the Japanese noodle soup ramen (the word and dish which, like many things from East Asia, has ITS origins in China). But the two dishes differ in the same way that pizza from CPK is different from pizza in Chicago.

Like many, my first experience with ramen was the red, square cellophane packages with the brand name Sapporo Ichiban. I hesitated to eat it for a long time because of what the package said it was: alimentary paste. I didn't know what that was, but it sounded awful. I would later learn that FDA regulations required this description because for something to be labeled "noodles," it would have to contain a specific list of ingredients. I guess the FDA has become more culturally enlightened, because now they are described as Japanese Style Noodles.

In any case, I learned to love these noodles cooked in a broth that was chock full of salt and MSG. Again, maybe it was because it was in the small canon of dishes my dad knew how to prepare with love. Even though my dad never lived in Hawaii, he did a local spin on ramen: he usually boiled a hot dog in the broth (it drove my mother crazy out of concerns for his health). Perhaps taking her cue, I never developed a taste for the hot dog in the broth, but ramen always reminds me of my childhood, and the simpler and loving days of home life back then.

Ramen (the word itself means a type of noodles, which is the "men" part; in different cultures, the word will be spelled "min," "mein," and "myun," all meaning noodles) is usually served in a broth made from dashi (fish stock) or meat stock. The most basic style is shio, which means just salt is added. Other flavorings for the broth include shoyu or miso, and/or ingredient additions, such as wakame (seaweed) or tanuki (tempura bits).

My wife Becky and I have long favored Ezogiku Noodle Cafe, which is a franchised ramen restaurant chain from Japan, specializing in miso ramen, using a secret recipe for the miso. It is a delicious and unpretentious bowl, with bean sprouts, a little bit of chopped pork, and kamaboko (fish cake). The restaurant has some great combination deals, which can add fried rice and gyoza, crescent shaped dumplings which in a Chinese restaurant you might call potstickers, and in a Korean restaurant you would call mandoo. Ezogiku is a great deal, especially the combinations; adding gyoza at most other ramen restaurants bumps up the price considerably.

One caveat: the franchise locations can vary in quality. I recently went to the location at University and Beretania after taking my daughters to their music classes on the University of Hawaii campus. Our server was definitely pleasant and efficient, but the cook had long hair that wasn't covered, and the restroom was cramped because of the supplies piled in there (no food, thankfully enough). A peek into the kitchen saw a couple of youth sitting in the back amongst the food and cooking utensils either playing video games or texting; they moved to a table in the restaurant when the lunch crowd died down. A counter employee returned from a break with a hotdog, which he proceeded to eat at the counter, in full view of customers (not exactly a ringing endorsement of the food). While our meal tasted fine, my daughters and I are still alive after the visit, and I didn't find any long hairs, the unprofessional atmosphere left me a bit uncomfortable, and I am unlikely to return anytime soon.

Ezogiku's Waimalu location (a couple of doors down from Shiro's Saimin Haven) is much better. The main part of the kitchen is in plain view, so you know what's happening to your food, and the staff is professional, yet local-style friendly.

Rai Rai Ramen in Kailua is actually quite good, but I don't go as much because of the rather charmless service: the staff isn't rude and the service is efficient, but it just seems like they don't seem to care whether you are there or not (kind of like another famous Kailua restaurant, but more on that in the future).

Nani-wa Ya Ramen in the food court of Ala Moana Shopping Center is okay, but the prices are rather high for a food court, and again, charmless service.

I recently tried Goma Tei, also in the Ala Moana Shopping Center, but in its own space on the makai (ocean) side where a Chinese restaurant used to be. The interior is contemporary and clean. The management shrewdly put in a 30 seat counter for quick, in and out service - very welcome in the mall where the biggest anxiety in the food court is whether or not you can find a place to sit. There are tables as well. When I was there, the restaurant had a nice number of diners to inspire hope that there was good food to be found, but there was no wait, which was a relief.

Goma Tei did not seem to have my favorite miso preparation, so I opted for tan tan ramen, which is flavored with sesame paste, and extra char siu (note: Japanese style char siu is not like the red, sweetish, chewy BBQ pork you will find in Chinese restaurants; Japanese style is very tender, natural colored and savory rolled pork). This is the first time I've had the sesame based broth and while it was okay, I found the sesame flavor to be a bit overwhelming (I apologize if this is an idiotic neophyte observation) and the broth itself a little too oily. But maybe that's because of the huge amount of char siu I was given - definitely a great deal. I also thought the service was efficient and attentive, a step up from other places I mentioned.

My L. A. friends responded to an SOS with some great suggestions for ramen around the City of Angels, but the one I want to highlight is the best ramen bowl I've ever had: Santouka Ramen, which is, believe it or not, in the food court of the Mitsuwa Marketplace, a Japanese market chain, with several locations in Southern California (I went to the Torrance location). This is authentic Japanese ramen: a subtle, but profoundly flavored broth, with perfectly made and cooked noodles which are like top quality pasta cooked al dente. This is ramen at its very best; it doesn't bang you over the head like Goma Tei, but like a Noh Theater play, once you begin reflecting on what you are eating, the realization will set in that you've been given an experience that is truly extraordinary. Santouka is so authentically Japanese that with one of the combinations, you can get natto (fermented soy beans that are either revered or reviled, depending on your opinion of the aroma)!]

Eating noodles has a measure of good luck involved as long noodles represent long life (which is why cutting noodles was and is discouraged). So live long and enjoy the pleasures of ramen!

Grace and aloha,


P. S. Some of you may go to Santouka and wonder what the fuss is about. You may shrug and say "what is the big deal?" Once again, it takes some time to reflect on the experience, and it often takes multiple experiences, truly to come to appreciate the amazing qualities of this preparation of ramen. I don't know how many times I've tasted something for the first time and either did not like it or shrugged my shoulders, but over time, developed a taste for it and have become so grateful that I was willing to be patient and discover something truly extraordinary in my life.

In a similar and much more profound way, faith and church are like that. If you experience church once, you might think, "What's the big deal?" and never go back, or become an ETC Christian (you make it to church on Easter, Thsnkgiving, and Christmas to please your parents or grandparents). When that happens, the span between visits is so long that each subsequent visit feels somewhat like the first time: a little awkward and unfamiliar, so it is distracting to the authentic experience.

So develop a taste for church and faith: visit for several weeks in a row...after awhile, you give yourself the best chance of experiencing Christ the way it is supposed to be experienced: in community with others, and sharing in something truly special. It's a taste I hope you will develop that will last a lifetime.


Krystle said...

During my time in Japan, I took advantage of my Japanese co-workers and friends asked a lot of questions. One of my favorites was "Where did tanuki ramen get its name?" Tanuki is a small animal that resembles a raccoon ( Furthermore, there is another kind of ramen called "kitsune ramen" (kitsune means fox) which is topped with aburaage (fried tofu). The generally accepted answer is that tanuki really like tempura and kitsune like aburaage.

Hope you found this interesting!

sake and food said...

To be a successful Ramen shop in Hawaii the most challenging.
First of all, there are many Japanese locals-they have been to Japan and Japanese residents from Japan in Hawaii.They know what is a good Ramen.Making a delicious Ramen means another saying,Making the dilicious Ramen broth-soup. it certainly doesn't require only plenty of MSG either artificial flavors , but needs lots of vegies and pork stock for the soup.

So far, Sadly I haven't satisfied any of them in Hawaii.