Vegetarian Ramen

Vegetarianism is a tricky concept in Japan. The words vegetable and vegetarian get mixed up, and you’ll order a vegetarian something and it will arrive with shrimp on it. The recommended meal for many veg visitors to Tokyo is … Indian food. It is not impossible to be a vegetarian here, it is just more work. Vegetarians who are able or willing to eat dashi, a broth made from dried, fermented and smoked skipjack tuna (also known as bonito and katsuobushi) have a much easier time. As a visiting-vegetarian friend said, she didn’t realize that dishes made with dashi would be so heavy. You mean flavorful? That, my friend, would be the animal.

I eat meat but trend vegetarian, so when I find a great vegetarian anything I get excited (like this shojin ryori). This week I found vegetarian ramen.

VegeRamen Nana8

Real deal vegetarian ramen. That’s lotus root, okra, mushrooms, radish, grated daikon, tomato, onions and greens in a flavorful vegetable broth. Even the noodles are green.

VegeRamen Nana

They are made from spirulina. I don’t actually know what that is, but I trust my man James. Every year the ramen chain Kagetsu Arashi offers a vegetarian ramen as a healthy alternative to the fat-packed kind. A vegetarian friend here admitted to eating it every day for a week straight, and I assume he is still going strong. Keep it up man! They’re offering it until May!

Since it’s healthy, why not get the veggie gyoza? Vegetarians need junk food, too.

Vege gyoza

Noodles Mess With My Head

A ramen shop destroyed a dream today.

Ramen Jiro is one of Tokyo’s more famous ramen chains. The original shop is just a few minutes away from my apartment, but I have never gone in the year and half we’ve lived here.

I never wanted to wait in the shop’s long line, so I did the only sensible thing and talked about the shop like a grandmother watching the squirrels outside of her window:

“Oh, pretty good line today. That’s at least an hour and half wait.”

“Oh, it looks like they ran out of noodles today. Did they get a new cook?”

Ang normally nods, and says something sweet like, “You know, you could just go there sometime, dum dum.”

What Ang failed to understand was that I had turned Ramen Jiro into Holy Mount Ramen. I was never hungry enough to appreciate the notoriously large portions or didn’t have enough time in the afternoon to relax in a ramen-infused daze. It had to be right, which sounds ridiculous when I say it out loud, but so does any word if you say it out loud long enough. Shark. Shark. Shark. Shark.

Yesterday, everything lined up perfectly. I woke up at noon, hungover and starving – living the dream! – and decided to call it a day right there. I cleared my non-existent calendar and to-do list. “If I can put on pants, leave my apartment, and stumble to Ramen Jiro, I can count this day as a success,” I thought.

I waited in line at Ramen Jiro for over an hour. I’m pretty sure the smirks of passersby were smirks of respect and not smirks that said, “Look at those grown men standing in line for a bowl of noodles.” Still, I was feeling good about my plan, because I was having a memorable experience, and then at the end I’d get to eat delicious ramen.

The line wrapped around the tiny, triangular building. Lots of teenagers in school uniforms coming from Saturday class, and lots of adults taking full advantage of the time they are given on this earth. I was starting to get hungry by the time I got to the front of the line and I didn’t like the way the guy in front glanced back at me. To be fair to him, I don’t think he was actually looking at me, but point-counterpoint, I was ready to hunt down his family and eat all of their faces off. Maybe that was just the low blood sugar talking. Jesus, I hope it was just the low blood sugar talking.

No matter, I was finally getting to try this ramen that dominates every English language article about ramen in Tokyo. Go on, try to find an article that doesn’t mention Ramen Jiro. I’ll wait.

Let’s draw this out some more. I’ve loved ramen since my Oriental-flavored Maruchen days…Oriental-flavored! I looked past dated, possibly racist phrases for packs of dried ramen. And now I live in Tokyo, the best ramen in the world (Sorry, China). And now I’m getting to eat at the famous Ramen Jiro. I was still hungover – living the dream! – but was a happy man when I sat down.

Ramen Jiro is a tiny shop, and you have to politely shove your neighbor’s face into his soup to get to your seat. They have a reputation for big portions, garlic, and a broth that’s practically gravy. People go nuts over it.

But when I sat down, all I saw was a giant vat of gurgling gray pork mess. The ramen chef had a tub of pork meat, and would occasionally pull out a hacked-off piece of cooked pig. The fat slid down his arms. All of his fingers were heavily bandaged. I took a sip of water to stop thinking about what his fingers looked like under those grease-trapping bandages.

I love Tokyo’s ramen shops, and I’m familiar with boiling vats and grease, but Ramen Jiro looks more like a dare than a beloved shop.

Is it possible for food to be ragged? The chef set a massive bowl on the counter in front of me. Torn cabbage, torn bean sprouts and slabs of meat still clinging to other parts of the pig spilled over the sides of the bowl.

It tasted like pig. Not pork, or chashu, but the essence of pig. It was gross, and I felt gross for being there. And goddamn it, why did that guy keep looking back at me?! Uh oh, might not be low blood sugar.

I shuffled home defeated and with a cholesterol level a few points higher. The sun was starting to go down, and the night’s chill was setting in. The fat from the broth that I had gotten on my fingers started to congeal. The ramen was taking me to a dark place. Am I wrong about all the things I thought I loved? How many times have I convinced myself I liked something that was actually awful? God, my haircut is stupid.

“Is ramen stupid?” I asked myself. Just then, in the window of the convenience store I saw the newest edition of a ramen magazine I like. It was a sign. Just because one ramen shop was disappointing, it doesn’t mean I have to stop seeking out new places. Also, I have really, really small goals.

Then I had to quicken my shuffle to a stride to get home, because of pork fat physics.

Ramen Jiro: Mita 2-16-4, Minato-ku

Kyoto is for Eaters, Again

As Dan reported, our recent trip to Kyoto was livelier than expected. While wriggling fish haunt his dreams, all I can think about is this:

Parfait perfection.

Maybe we need to look at that again…

This was lunch. I’m not ashamed. I also wasn’t alone — this is what my father-in-law ordered:

We’re like two peas in a pod sweet beans in a parfait.

But let’s back up. After we arrived at Kyoto station, Dan and I used our keen instincts — we found the only restaurant with a line and stood in it — to track down some seasonal soba.

Clockwise from the top left — pickles, tempura mushrooms and green peppers, warabi (a soybean-powder-covered mochi dessert), soba noodle soup with mushrooms, tempura dipping sauce, yuba (tofu skin, a Kyoto specialty), mushroom rice (kinoko takikomi gohan), and more pickles (another Kyoto specialty).

Nishin soba, another Kyoto specialty.

After lunch we went for a hike. At the peak there was a restaurant serving beer and ice cream, of course. What do you think this shop owner’s commute is like?

When you climb a mountain and meet a guy wanting to sell you ice cream, you can’t refuse. This one was kinako.

Our weekend wasn’t all about food, I swear. We did some sightsighing, and a little more sightseeing. And then after an especially rainy afternoon, we found a charming little omurice restaurant. Maybe not the haute Kyoto cuisine my in-laws were expecting, but it was perfectly placed comfort food for a chilly evening.

And, to round out the weekend (and our waistlines), we ended with a trip to Kyoto Ramen Street.

With a belly full of noodles and a cold beer in-hand, we hopped on the shinkansen for a sleepy trip back to Tokyo. Ah, how I love Japan in the fall.

An Afternoon Stroll

On Saturday Dan and I took a stroll to Nippori in search of Yanaka Ginza.  We recently purchased a new camera and thought the quaint shopping street would be perfect for some practice shots.

But first, no afternoon stroll through Tokyo can begin without ramen:

We didn’t even make it to the train station before this stop, since this ramen-ya is in our neighborhood.  Dangerous, I know.  B1F, 1-7-9 Azabu Juban, Minato-ku  博多チムそば 麻布十番店、〒106-0045 東京都港区麻布十番1丁目7−9

On to Yanaka Ginza.  Well, almost.  To reach Yanaka Ginza we had to take the train to the JR Nippori station, which is also the home of Fabric Town:

Does anyone remember Cheapo in Minneapolis?  Oh, the hours I spent trying to look interested in used CDs while Dan click-clicked his way through new arrivals.  Apparently it’s payback time.  (You can find more info on Textile Heaven here.)  Only one hour was lost, and then it was back to our mission…

We got a little turned around, and eventually found our way across the train tracks via tunnel.  I sort of love/hate it when I’m in one of these tunnels and the train passes overhead.  Popping out the other side, we noticed people were gathering:

We’d stumbled upon Fujimizaka (meaning Fuji view slope), and joined just in time to watch the sun set over the city.  Everyone was gathered along a road that climbed up a steep hill (apparently some with better cameras than us).  If you are like me and need a little help, Fuji-san was just about here:

Finally, on with our quest.  We were looking for Yanaka Ginza, a small shopping street in northeastern Tokyo that is famous for maintaining the feel of Shitamachi, the traditional and lower class part of Edo which housed merchants and artisans in the marshy (read: humid and stinky) low part of the city.  Most of Shitamachi is gone, due to fires and wars over the years, but a few areas of Tokyo still do it right.  After some iPhone-led zig-zagging through neighborhoods, we finally arrived… and forgot to take photos.

Believe me though, it’s great.  We bought sencha 煎茶, stood in line for grilled meats, and wandered from shop window to cafe menu.  On our way home, we passed a small shrine tucked along the road:

A nice end to a lovely winter day.

Mmmm.

In the aftermath of my musings on cold-weather warmer-uppers, I found this recipe for nabe.  I haven’t tried it yet myself (only because I don’t have a suitable pot).  Anyone else willing to try it out and tell me how it goes?

If I were to make this, I think I’d chose potatoes from Group A, fish chunks, shrimp and mussels for meat, leeks (if I could find them) or a yellow onion from Group B, and all sorts of mushrooms, though especially shiitake and enoki.  Then some tofu.  From Group C I’d pick cabbage and top it off with spinach.  And I’d definitely add ramen noodles at the end.  Duh.

Can’t wait to hear what you try!