Friday, December 14, 2007
There have been many Japanese foods that I've become quite fond of, but two items that I have become a huge fan of are ramen and yakitori. I have plenty to say about yakitori, but today I'm here to talk about ramen.
I, as most Americans, used to think of ramen as that dried crap in a package that cost you 12 for a dollar if you get a good sale. I've also tried the pre-processed bowls of ramen that can be found at Asian grocery stores. As far as the crap noodles, comparing that to real ramen is similar to comparing a well seasoned, well cooked piece of fillet mignon to a McDonald's hamburger. The pre-processed bowls are closer, but still not the same as the real thing.
For clarification sake, ramen is not a Japanese dish. It originally came from China and became popular in Japan after World War II. It's popularity exploded in the 1950's, as it was cheap, filling, fairly healthy, quick, and could be tailored to almost anyone's needs. Each area of Japan has their own particular style and ingredients. Japan has quite heartily embraced this dish and it can even be seen in how it's written in the language. Japanese has a separate set of characters designed for foreign words entering into the language called katakana. Words like coffee, bus, computer, and my name are written this style. Ramen, on the other hand, is sometimes written this way, but not always. If it's written using the normal Japanese alphabet, it looks like らーめん, but using katakana it looks like ラーメン. I very often see both cases, which is a bit strange, because I can't think of anything else written using both sets of characters.
Ramen is basically noodles in some type of pork or fish broth with fresh and/or pickled vegetables and quite often an egg. It's fairly healthy, except for the large amount of sodium, and there is very little meat used, other than the bones and fat to season the broth, normally there is only a few thin slices of pork. Usually, the pork used is high quality and quite flavorful, while the vegetables add a nice crunch into the mix while enhancing the flavor. I think my favorite type of ramen would be miso, which is a bit strange because I think it's the most "Japanese" of all the ramen flavors.
The first time I tried ramen, I must admit that I was terribly underwhelmed. It wasn't quite what I was expecting, and looking back, those were tasty noodles, but the broth was not the best that I'd ever had. A few weeks later, it was storming and a friend and I wanted to do something indoors. Having heard about the Yokohama ramen museum, and having thought that the concept was a bit silly, I decided that it would make for a fun outing. Not only did this museum completely reverse my stance on the silliness of itself, but it also made me a believer in ramen. Not having a bottomless stomach, I got a chance to try two types of ramen, both of which are probably my top two bowls of ramen I've eaten. One was a miso ramen and one was katsu, or fried pork cutlet.
Since I moved to Mitaka, I've been on the hunt for a good ramen place. For me, not only is the food important, but the atmosphere and ease of ordering are almost as important. I've mentioned before about vending machine restaurants, where you buy a ticket and hand it to the register. These are quite handy for me, but if the vending machine buttons are all written in kanji and there are no pictures of the food, if I can't recognize the kanji, which is the usual case, then this isn't any better than a written, non picture menu. Atmosphere is nice too, because it's just more enjoyable to eat at a comfortable place that feels warm and welcoming. I also enjoy the feeling of history that a place has. Also, friendliness is important, as I know a lot of ramen places are run as mom and pop operations and a few mom's and pop's don't like foreigners. I don't care if I go to a place and they don't treat me special, but I am nervously expecting the time that I'm treated with hostility. In the case of friendliness, I am quite pleased with apathy.
Also, I should take a moment to talk about my opinion on taste. It's really hard to compare two ramen shops unless I get the exact same thing, and since I'm often left up to "that looks good, I'll try that", I don't know what I'm ordering until it arrives. And with something like miso, which is kind of an orange-red color, I have ordered a spicy kimchee soup instead of miso ramen on accident. Again, the overall quality can be judged, but the particulars aren't so easy to compare.
The first ramen place I went to in Mitaka was on the other side of the train station, a good 20 minutes walk from my house. They had a picture vending machine, the staff was pleasant, and the food was quite tasty. My two biggest complaints about this one is that it is a major chain and the distance. First off, the distance is obvious. On the way, I pass by or can see 5 ramen restaurants, and I know of 3 more that are closer. The chain thing is a bit bothersome too, as the whole place feels overly sterile and shiny. It's like the difference between going to your favorite neighborhood bar to getting a beer at an Applebee's, it's just not quite right. This isn't a deal breaker, as I've been back twice, but it kind of makes the 40 minutes round trip walk seem a little less worth it.
There is another shop by the train station practically on the way home. It's small, cosy, convenient, and run by people who I think live above it. It seemed quite popular too. While they had all this going for them, the ramen itself wasn't my favorite. It certainly wasn't bad, but they had an overabundance of fresh vegetables on my soup, which caused the whole bowl to be overly crunchy and sour. Also, this place was a bit overpriced.
Around the corner, there is another shop. This place was fairly big, had a nicely decorated interior, and seemed popular enough. According to my roommate, at least one staff member was apparently Korean, so they at least have an internationally minded work force. Service was generally friendly, but also a bit apathetic, which is again, quite fine. I want to go back there soon to try their miso ramen, but I wasn't overly impressed with their flavor. My roommate tells me that they have fish-bone flavored soup stock instead of the more common pork bone, which is a good reason why I wasn't so impressed.
A few days ago I was forced to go to my city ward office. The service was unprecedentedly wonderful and the staff was bending over backwards to help me out, which I truly appreciate. The location, however was about a half hour's walk from my house in the opposite direction of the train station. As I've never been that way, I took the opportunity to learn more about my neighborhood and I found a range of interesting places, including 3 ramen shops. Today was my day to try it.
I was hungry around 4, so I went to go grab some food. The first ramen shop I saw was closed, as many shops are between around 3 and 5, so I headed to the next shop. This shop was just what I was looking for.
It's a small, long shop run by an older couple. It was also quite clear that this was not a new operation and they had obviously been there for quite some time. They had a picture menu which was obviously just pictures of food taken by them, as it did not look very fancy and the food, while still looking tasty, did not by any means look perfect. Like real pictures of real food instead of photoshopped McDonald's meals. When I walked in, the older man was talking to some woman about some business deal, both of which seemed to be pleased. I ordered my ramen, which was of the Kyushu variety, and watched as he and the woman took great care in preparing my dish. I'm sure if she wanted to, this woman could have made everything with her eyes shut. I also noticed her squeezing a noodle to determine if it was done. At the same time, the man was making some fried rice and putting in a lot of effort.
The ramen was quite good. It's hard to say where it was on the spectrum of things, because it was not miso ramen, but it was quite tasty and flavorful. Also, this place had a wide variety of ramen types and several different fried rice dishes and some other Chinese food. The prices were quite good, and my meal was cheaper than a big mac meal. There is no doubt that the quality per yen was excellent at this place.
But, I think the highlight of this was the staff. Both people were really friendly, attempting to communicate despite my lack of Japanese and their English vocabulary being even more limited. I got a really warm feeling communicating with them and I felt very welcomed. Considering the price and location, I'm sure that they will see repeat business from me.
So, does this end my quest for ramen in Mitaka? I know of 8 ramen restaurants, and I've only tried half of them. The closest one, I am very curious about, but my roommate keeps telling me how bad it is, so I can live with not trying that one. I'm not sure, but as it stands, the place today is the champion.
(intro picture blatantly stolen from here via Google images)