Japan Eats

Greasy Spoons (and Chopsticks): Budoka Ramen

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In the fourth of a series on the Baba-Waseda ramen belt, Nick takes his sticks to the legendary Budoka.

“Suuuuuuiiiii!”

Your guide knew he’d found his kind of place from the moment he walked through the chained-open door to stand before the simple ticket machine and was greeted by a guttural call from the dimness within.

It was a Sunday evening just as the college guys were leaving for winter vacation, but the couple of open seats available at the counter were an anomaly even then. The ten seats in the narrow space between the counter and the wall are far more often being waited for by a line out the door than empty.

I went with the chashumen and, before I even turned to sit down, the strapping youth running the shop gave a friendly shout for the specifics of my order (these being how you want the noodles and the soup). I settled in to see three young guys negotiating the tight kitchen, adding entire porcine rub cages to the giant stock pot. They all had their sleeves rolled up onto their shoulders, tightly-rolled white towels around their heads, and rectangles of wood with their names written in black marker on them hanging from their necks on strings.

At my back was a wall covered almost floor to ceiling with the business cards and expired train passes of appreciative customers (go have a look for Nick “The Sticks” Kowalski).

Budoka has a big reputation and lives up to it. The noodles were thick and slightly chewy, the toppings were copious and neatly arranged to make everything look nice, but the kicker was the soup. It was thick and meaty without being salty, which is a rare, but lovely flavor. The textures of this soup make it something you’ll want to roll it around your tongue.

This is what a bowl of ramen should be like, especially in the winter. Heavy, flavorful, and interesting. Yours truly isn’t getting any younger and fills up quicker than he used to. The young guys on the other hand gorge on the bottomless bowls of rice you can get for a pittance.

Budoka is near exit 3B of Tokyo Metro Tozai line Waseda Station, on Waseda-dori, past Genten. Turn right once you reach the top of the stairs and look on your right, it’s set back a bit from the sidewalk, less than a minute from the station.

2010: Year in Review

Marcus Lovitt looks at the culinary trends of 2010.

2010 was all about cheap eats. So called ‘B-class gourmet’ dishes became a fixture on Japanese TV screens, McDonalds Japan enjoyed record profits and shoppers bought their food in bulk from such places as Costco and Niku no Hanamasa. The reason? Japan’s ongoing economic woes. A torrent of bad news on the economic front (falling prices, massive government debt, a rapidly aging population) put The Fear into consumers. Put simply, nobody was willing to spend more than necessary eating out or at the supermarket.

Lawson's Premium Roll Cake

Lawson's Premium Roll Cake

Perhaps its to be expected that amidst all of this doom and gloom, the fantasy of eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant had enormous popular appeal. Japanese variety shows boasted that Tokyo has the most Michelin-starred, together with the most three-star-rated restaurants in the world. Needless to say, few of those watching at home could actually afford to patronize them, but their very existence was a point of pride.

What Japanese could afford were little luxuries such as Lawson’s Premium Roll Cake. Convenience store patisserie items were big news this year – the three big chains (Lawsons, FamilyMart and Seven Eleven) figuring that there was still money to be made in pre-packaged sweets.

Conversely, another bright spot for manufacturers were healthy and/or low-calorie products. This was particularly evident in the drinks market where products like black tea and non-alcoholic beer increased their share of the market.

Here’s our take on 2010, and our forecast for the coming year:

Momoya's 'edible raayu'

Momoya's 'edible raayu'

Our Top Japanese culinary trends for 2010

  • Raayu, that spicy red oil you drizzle over ramen and gyoza, hit the big time in 2010, but this time filled out with such ingredients as fried garlic, fried onion, and ground sesame seeds. First developed by Momoya, ‘edible raayu‘ was popularized by appearances on television as a way to flavor rice bowls. Like any true Japanese culinary trend, demand quickly outstripped supply and Momoya was temporarily forced to stop advertising. Other companies such as S&B Foods Inc. have since entered the market and are now making competing products.
  • B Class Gourmet: True, this one has been around a long time. However, the Fifth B-1 Grand Prix held in Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture this year really captured the public’s imagination. What is B Class Gourmet? The name refers to tasty dishes which are also inexpensive, such as Miso katsu from Nagoya, Yokote yakisoba and Atsugi Shirokoro Horumon. There’s little doubt this trend will continue in 2011.
  • The rise and rise of all things organic. Supermarkets continue to devote more and more shelf space to organic produce – particularly products grown without pesticides, aren’t genetically modified and are wheat/gluten free. Meanwhile, in wine bars (themselves something of a trend this year) so-called organic wines began to appear on the menu.
  • Roll Cakes: The popularity of the convenience store patisserie section came as a surprise to many people. However even in bad economic times, people still want a taste of luxury, even if it is from the local combini.
  • Komeko (rice flour) has traditionally been used to prepare Japanese sweets. This year it began to be used to prepare western-style bread and cakes. It is hoped that Komeko might raise the degree of Japanese self-sufficiency; the government is now promoting the use of locally produced rice flour. Many companies (Seven Eleven, FamilyMart, Lawson, even Starbucks) have begun to sell komeko, marketing it as a healthy alternative to wheat flour.
  • White taiyaki: It seemed at one point this year a taiyaki shop was going to open at every train station in metropolitan Tokyo. What appears to have set off this real estate bubble was the popularity of ‘white’ taiyaki – fish shaped pastries filled with custard. The fad wasn’t to last, however, and by the end of 2010 many of these new taiyaki-ya had already closed their doors.

Honorable mentions: The increasing popularity of tagines in Japanese homes, tomato vinegar, gourmet gelato, wine bars and cooking magazines aimed at men.

What we’d like to see in 2011

  • Vegetarian dishes: Being vegetarian in Japan (and  Tokyo in particular) is never easy. We want to see more vegan and vegetarian options on izakaya menus.
  • Cafes for breakfast: Most Japanese eat breakfast at home or skip it altogether. We’re hoping 2011 will be the year Japanese discover the independently run cafe. A decent cooked breakfast before 10 in the morning please!
  • Creative sushi: Tired of the same-old sushi at your local kaiten place? We’re hoping for more of the playful innovation that makes a visit to Nakameguro’s Koi-sushi such a lot of fun.
  • Middle Eastern food: If Japan can get over its fear of coriander, then surely chick peas and garlic shouldn’t present too much of a problem? Kebab stands notwithstanding, Japan is yet to truly embrace Middle Eastern cuisine. At the very least we want to see containers of hummus appear on supermarket shelves!

Our predictions for what will be big in 2011

  • Toronama donuts: Japan seems to have an affinity for donuts. For the first year or so of Krispy Kreme’s Japanese venture, customers braved long lines to buy a box to take home to their families. Neither baked nor fried, Toronama donuts are a combination of mousse and sponge which are served cold. The company responsible for this latest donut fad – Nagoya’s Love Sweets Antique – has now opened up shops across the country, and toronama donuts are set to take off nationwide.
  • Bread cookers, specifically machines designed to cook with Japanese rice flour (such as the Sanyo ‘Gopan’) are going to be big in 2011. ‘Go’ stands for gohan (cooked rice) and ‘pan’ for pan as in bread. Expect to see your favorite talento filling the airwaves with demonstrations of how to cook with these machines during the first half of 2011.
  • Pretzels: Anyone who has wandered past Ikebukuro station in recent weeks will have noticed the long lines outside Auntie Anne’s, the American pretzel retailer. Is this the start of something big? We think so.
  • Makgeolli, that milky looking Korean beverage, is becoming increasingly popular with young Japanese. While its unlikely to equal the recent highball craze, we think makgeolli‘s stock is rising.
  • Asian spicy nabe: Every year sees a different nabe (Japanese hotpot) craze. For the past year curry nabe and tomato nabe have led the field. We’re going to go out on a limb and predict south-east Asian flavors are going to be big in 2011.

What did you think were the biggest culinary trends of 2010? What will be big in 2011? And what would you like to see? Leave your comments below.

Greasy Spoons (and Chopsticks): Genten Ramen

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In the third of a series on the Baba-Waseda ramen belt, Nick swings by Genten.

Having found a certain atmosphere, but not the satisfying bowl he was hoping for at Merci, your humble guide turned in the opposite direction and went to Waseda-dori, where, next to exit 3B of Waseda station, he saw Genten.

Genten is a newer shop – ticket machine at the front, all bright lights, clean interior, long counter down one wall and tables at the back. Not exactly the traditional ramen shop configuration, but one that’s popular with chains.

Now, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect something special at a place whose name literally means “origin” (as in a mathematical reference point from which other things are measured). I know me some braggarts, but publicly advertising your business as that from which things should be measured is quite a boast. I took it as a challenge.

Genten is a chain, with branches all over the country and it does have its own following, but it is not top shelf.

There’s a moral: Don’t boast.

I ordered “Genten Ramen” (800 yen), which was a fair, but uninspired tonkotsu with a smattering of the usual toppings. This was the soup of a discount fast-food chain, not of ramen specialists. The noodles were thin and overcooked.

Genten gives free upgrades to large size, which is a hit with the students who go for volume above all, and has a menu made up mostly of tsukemen, which is maybe the way to go. The photos on the walls of noodles being lovingly crafted and the shaft of wheat in the logo on the door are misleading.

Next up is a legend almost next door, let’s hope that lives up to its reputation.

Genten is next to exit 3B of Tokyo Metro Tozai line Waseda Station, on Waseda-dori. Turn right once you reach the top of the stairs and look on your right.

Japan Booze Blind: Nippon Craft Beer Festival (Part III)

Christopher Pellegrini speaks with Chris Poel, Head Brewer at Baird Brewing

In the third installment of Japan Booze Blind’s interviews from the Nippon Craft Beer Festival (NCBF), we were fortunate enough to glean some thoughts from Baird’s wizard of the brew, Chris Poel.

Poel gives us a little background information on how his brewing career took shape and divulges a few details about an upcoming beer release.

Quick note: Pellegrini asks Poel about IBUs in Baird’s New Year’s release. IBUs stands for International Bittering Units and is a scale by which the relative bitterness (hoppiness) of a beer is measured. For reference, Budweiser has about 11 IBUs while Stone’s “Old Guardian Barley Wine” and Rock Art’s “Vermonster” clock in at 95 and 100, respectively.

Watch Part I.
Watch Part II.

Recipe: Goma-ae (green vegetables with sesame dressing)

Full of beans: A side salad to serve alongside any meat dish

Essentially green vegetables in a sesame dressing, Goma-ae makes an excellent appetizer or side dish served with fish or meat, rice and miso soup. You can use green beans (also known as French beans or string beans), snap beans, runner beans, spinach or shungiku (in English, garland chrysanthemum). Whichever peas or beans you choose, use those still in their pods.

Goma-ae

The sesame dressing suits many kinds of green vegetables.

Ingredients (serves 3 – 4 people)

  • 130 -150 g komatsuna (Japanese spinach)
  • 60 g string beans
  • 80 g English peas
  • 4 tablespoons of white sesame seeds
  • 1.5 tablespoons of sugar
  • 1.5 tablespoons of soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon of water

Method

Begin by stringing the beans and the English peas. Next, place a pot with 1 liter of water on the gas and bring it to the boil. Add a pinch of salt.

Place the string into the the pot and boil them for 1 minute. Now toss in the English peas and boil for a further 1 minute. Remove both from the water and soak in cold water for roughly 10 seconds so that they do not change color. Drain.

Place the well washed komatsuna into the hot water and boil for two minutes. Remove and soak in the cold water for 10 seconds, then drain by squeezing your hand down the length of the leaves. Cut into 3 cm lengths.

Toast the sesame seeds, and grind them with a mortar and pestle. When the seeds are completely ground, the add sugar, soy sauce and the tablespoon of water. Mix well.

Finally, place all of the vegetables in a bowl and mix well with the sesame dressing.

Greasy Spoons (and Chopsticks): Merci Ramen

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In the second of a series on the Baba-Waseda ramen belt, Nick settles in for a bit at Merci.

From Shichifukya, where to go, where to go? Down the road on an express route to the finish line? That ain’t never been Nick’s way.

To school, then. Leaving Shichifukuya and turning right, you can travel but a few stretches of the pins to old Merci, also on your right, not far from Waseda station.

“Old” is the key word here. For a guy like yours truly, Merci has two appealing points and one important thing to be wary of, just like a good dame.

Fancy name aside, everything about this place is straightforward, which, oddly enough, gives it a kind of subtle charm. From the white plastic katakana sign hanging over the sidewalk to the old style display case showing off dusty plastic ramen and omu-rice next to the door to the big plate glass window fronting the place – you know what you’re getting into before you even walk through the door.

So what is it that you’re getting into?

A fairly spacious, veneer-paneled, tiled room, sans the usual counter. Instead, Merci has neatly-spaced wood-grain formica tables surrounded by two to six plastic chairs each. The kitchen is in the back and has a big pass-through, like most non-ramen restaurants. The feeling that Merci was not originally a ramen shop is strong.

The menu is simple, relatively brief, and printed in black and white on the wall. Your guide went for the chashumen, which, at 630 yen, was just about the most expensive thing on the menu, including the beer, which was 530 yen for a big bottle of Super Dry.

The wait for the ramen was not long – Merci has prompt, courteous service, if not the garrulous buddy-buddy-ness of many newer, trendier noodleries, which seems to suit it’s all but 100% male, student and salaryman clientele just fine.

The crowd seemed split about two to one between small groups of students lingering over cigarettes and sports papers or manga and salarymen who bolted (their food) and bolted (for somewhere else to linger).

There was a distinct, sour old ramen shop smell, not really a pleasant odor, even if it is kind of familiar, but I soon got used to it and, unlike another place I shall later review in this space, it wasn’t enough to cause discomfort.

Before the big kerosene heater by the table had time to warm my toes, a perfectly ordinary bowl of shoyu ramen was set down next to my beer. A bit of seaweed, a bit of corn, and some pleasantly thick chasu slices topped a bowl of very ordinary noodles – neither thick nor thin, neither hard nor soft, in a bowl of very ordinary soup – salty, a little oily – no secret ingredient, no texture, no intrigue. This was not Goldilocks’s “just right” so much as eminently forgettable.

That’s not the point, though. Merci has a different crowd (and it does have a crowd, especially at lunch time). I love a place that is so very Showa. That reminds of a time before I was born, but without being retro. This is not the time of movies recounting an elderly director’s childhood, but the time of his late 30s and 40s. The time of architecture and furnishings that would be forgettable were they not so pervasive, if overshadowed these days. This is the real “delightfully tacky”, which has nothing to do with dolls pretending Mötley Crüe is going to come back for real. This is a little taste of a time not so long ago, the boom time, when there was no time decorate with taste or build to last.

Merci‘s crowd, though, seems to love different things: it’s cheap, it’s fast, there’s a basket of manga, and the staff don’t mind if you hang around for a while after you eat in the afternoon.

Merci is near Waseda station on the Tokyo Metro Tozai line. Take the elevator up, turn right out of it, go past Shichifukuya, pas the SMBC ATM, and you’ll see it on your right. Big plate glass window. Ramen from 400 yen.

Japan Booze Blind: Nippon Craft Beer Festival (Part II)

In Part II of our Nippon Craft Beer Festival (NCBF) coverage, Christopher speaks with Tomoko Sonoda, Brew Master at HarvestMoon (Ikspiari)

We’ll take Disney Sea over Land any day. Not because Sea is better–it’s just that you can’t buy beer at Land (or so we’ve been told). If you’re in the vicinity of the Disney realm out near Maihama station in Chiba Prefecture, and you’re thirsty, thankfully there’s an alternative beer option that far surpasses the macros available inside the magic kingdom. It’s called HarvestMoon.

HarvestMoon featured heavily at the Craft Beer Festival this fall, in which dozens of Japan’s finest craft beers were offered on tap to hundreds of beer enthusiasts at Sumida Riverside Hall.

In part two of JBB’s NCBF interviews, we had a chance to speak with HarvestMoon’s brewmaster, Tomoko Sonoda. Ms. Sonoda was kind enough to give us a brewer’s perspective on the challenges facing the craft beer industry in Japan. She advocates experimentation and adaptation as a way to win over new fans and help the industry grow.

Watch Part I of the video here.

Greasy Spoons (and Chopsticks): Shichifukuya Ramen

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In the first of a series on the Baba-Waseda ramen belt, Nick samples the wares at Shichifukuya.

Let it never be said that Nick’s word is not his bond. As promised, today begins our tour of the rich vein of ramen that extends from the college neighborhood of Waseda over to the home of Astro Boy, Takadanobaba. I’ll start with the highlights and add in the often older, but not always as noteworthy others afterwards.

Chashumen

Chashumen

To keep your mother happy, we begin near school, and a prestigious one at that. If you take the elevator out of Waseda station (Tozai line), turn right and walk just a bit and you’ll come to Shichifukuya, a fairly new place with the traditional-looking front and ticket machine that most new ramen shops favor these days.

Before any of that, though, the smell is going to hit you. Not like a fist, not like a dainty hand in a white glove, but like a doll jumping into your arms, only in this case, the dame is huge and it’s you being picked up.

Lovely smell. This can’t always be said, even of the best ramen, so it’s a bonus for Shichifukuya.

There’s a ticket machine outside, with a bill slot high enough that anyone who doesn’t need to duck when playing leapfrog might want to bring a taller friend to help out.

I went for the chashumen (850 yen), which was the second-most popular item according the stickers on the machine, and went inside.

Shichifukya is done out in wood, with kind of a rustic thing going on. It has the usual counter seats, but more of them than usual, as the kitchen has an L-shape. There are bigger tables at the back.

The ramen did not disappoint. The noodles were on the thick side and were good, if unremarkable in their own right (by which I mean above average in total, average for a good ramen shop).

The soup was a thick, textured miso-tonkatsu – the kind of soup it’s nice to let roll over the tongue for a while. No mere oily medium for noodles was this. The smell led to a broth that kept its end up. Large sheets of nori gave a strong marine hint to the porkstravaganza, but it was welcome.

A good start to a good tour and a solid anchor at the Eastern end of our route.

Shichifukuya is near Waseda Station on the Tokyo Metro Tozai line, across Tsurumakicho from Waseda Middle and High School. Take the elevator up, turn right out of it, go past the soup curry shop and you’ll see a black wood-fronted shop with an inviting smell that precedes its appearance on your right.

Greasy Spoons (and Chopsticks): Ryoma Ramen

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Nick Kowalski visits Ryoma in Nakano

Nicky’s back, grease-fans.

In my gustatory peregrinations, the cheap eats, tasty as they are, lead your humble interlocutor to washing them down with even cheaper Volstead Act violations, which then leads to renewed hunger and a certain old stand-by: the ramen shop.

So it is that on one recent chilly evening, I found myself at the friendly ramen atelier Ryoma, in front of Arai-Yakushimae station on the Seibu-Shinjuku line, in Nakano.

Ryoma is a classy joint in many senses of the word – when I showed up, the last two seats at the counter of this relatively spacious noodlery were filled by the proprietor and an apparently disoriented old dame who’d seen better days decades ago. He fed her, figured out where she was headed, and helped her on her way. Sense of community and all that. Good stuff.

More important to you, though dear reader, is the type of class that surrounds an inventive competitor in the increasingly tough world of good ramen.

With half a dozen counter seats and a pair of tables that comfortably seat four each facing a big, deep version of the normally long, cramped ramen kitchen, Ryoma feels a bit more open than some of its counterparts.

Ryoma has gained a certain amount fame for their Italian-esque tomato-cheese ramen, which is well worth a try.

The menu also offers new takes on old classics as well. Ryoma alternates days between shoyu (soy sauce) and shio (salt) soups, offering two versions of each: with or without katsuo. Their other step in an original direction is using thinly-sliced chicken breast as a topping.

The day I stopped by was a shio day, so I went for the signature tori-chashumen (?880) with futomen (fat noodles) in the regular shio soup.

A revelation.

Most shio soups are thin and mild – the light ramen, if you will. Not this one – it was thick and rich, full of flavor and satisfying in its own right, bringing shio to the big leagues, where good soup often carries the day. Into this lovely broth was plunged a mass of well-balanced noodles – good, chewy, and filling. Along with the nori and other usual toppings came the chicken: thinly-sliced and lightly cooked, it was still pink in the center and, thus tender and flavorful as it cooked in the soup.

Now I realize some of you may not be aware of modern food hygiene and the like and may balk at the idea of chicken being anything other than charred into a dry, tasteless husk. I also realize that, if this is you, I’m not going to change your mind about fearing a bit of pink.

Luckily, there is an easy solution – the one old Nick goes for. When you get the bowl, invert the contents.

No, not the whole thing, you jerk. Just the noodles and toppings – make them bottomings instead. The chicken goes down under the hot soup and not only cooks, but allows you save some of it for later in the bowl – a little treat.

Throughout the whole meal, I had no complaints. Beyond offering something original in the bowl and having it work, Ryoma also has possibly the most genuinely friendly service and atmosphere of any ramen shop I’ve been in, and that’s a lot.

In addition to the tomato-cheese ramen and chicken, they offer gyoza bigger than my ego and other sides as well.

Sadly, the Takadanobaba branch recently closed, but it did me to thinking of that vaunted precinct. The stretch of Waseda-dori between Takadanobaba and Waseda might be the world capital of ramen. It is to noodle fame what Hollywood is to movies or Vegas is to mediocre shameless singers.

I shall take you on a tour. Watch this space.

Ryoma is mere meters from the South exit of Arai-Yakushimae station on the Seibu-Shinjuku line. Go out the gate and turn left, before you hit the main street, you’ll see it on your right.