Japan Eats

Recipe: Buta no shogayaki (pork ginger)

A simple pork sauté that’s full of flavor

Pork ginger is Japanese comfort food, pure and simple. It’s often featured in bento lunches, as it can be prepared in advance and tastes equally good served hot or at room temperature. Best of all, its dead easy to prepare. Serve with a handful of shredded cabbage (kyabetsu no sen-giri).

Pork Ginger

Pork Ginger

Ingredients (serves 2 people)

  • 200 – 250 g pork (sliced between 1 and 1.5 mm)
  • 150 g cabbage
  • 2 tablespoons of flour
  • 20 g (1 clove) of ginger
  • 2 tablespoons of soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons of sake
  • 1 tablespoon of sugar
  • 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
  • 100 g chopped onion


Wash the cabbage leaves and remove the core. Pile the leaves together and then roll and cut into 1 mm slices. Place them in cold water for 10 minutes, and drain.

Place a frying pan on the gas table and add one tablespoon of oil. Warm on a low heat.

While heating the pan, take the slices of pork and coat them in a thin layer of flour. Now increase the heat to medium and sauté the pork until brown. Be sure that the pork strips are cooked evenly. When they are ready, take them from the pan and on a plate.

Add 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil to the pan and warm it on a low heat. Slice the onion into pieces 5 mm thick – cut against the grain. Sauté the onion until it softens and becomes translucent.

Now pour the sake, sugar, and soy into the pan. Turn up the heat to medium. Put the pork back into the pan and add the ginger. Mix and cover the pork and ginger with the sauce. Serve with sliced cabbage and a generous helping of the sauce.

Restaurant Review: Ivan Ramen (Rokakoen Station)

Christopher Pellegrini samples the noodles at Ivan Ramen

You should definitely try Orkin's roasted tomatoes (Roast Tomato Meshi).

Ramen is one of those dishes that people will travel considerable distances to consume. It’s kind of like the trouble die-hard fanboys go to when trying to get their hands on a freshly released edition of a franchise–they’ll wait in line for it. They’ll make plans days in advance to be in another part of the country just to have dibs on the best seats for the big event.

And if you understand that, then you can comprehend with reasonable accuracy the lengths to which true ramen fans will pursue their addiction. They’re as obsessive as any other foodie out there, and in many cases more so.

And while I’m not the fanboy type, I must admit that I planned nearly a week in advance to visit Ivan Ramen, a corner ramen shop less than 10 minutes on foot from Rokakoen station in Setagaya Ward (Keio Line) that is owned by American chef, Ivan Orkin.

The shop is a very simple square with an L-shaped counter and space for about 10 customers. There is nothing significant going on with the decor, and the concrete-floored kitchen space is both well-organized and spotless. The focus is clearly on the food at Ivan Ramen, and that’s how it should be.

Ivan Orkin is something of a celebrity both for successfully wedging his way into the secretive ramen world here in Japan and for doing things his own way. His ramen soup is not rammed with lard as is customary, and he makes his own noodles with a dough that utilizes three types of flour. There’s also a very strong dependence on fresh ingredients. In that sense, even though this is technically ‘B-class’ Japanese cuisine, and is often referred to as fast food, dining at Ivan Ramen does not exact as much of an attack on one’s health as ramen customarily can.

After ordering your food from a ticket machine out in the alley, diners are encouraged to find a seat and enjoy the soft music playing in the background for just a couple of minutes. Jazz was on the airwaves when we visited, and we were grateful for the attention to detail on the proprietor’s part.

The wait doesn’t last long at Ivan Ramen. Most orders will be in front of you in less than a couple of minutes. Ivan himself explained recently in the first edition of Lucky Peach that his ramen noodles take 40 seconds to boil, but we were still surprised how quickly our meals arrived.

One special currently on the menu at Ivan Ramen is the “Fresh Salad Hiyashi Chuka” which is a blend of garden

Fresh Salad Hiyashi Chuka Ramen

salad and cold soup and all with a bit of Chinese cooking thrown in for good measure. And we were pleased that we grabbed one of these (only 15 are served daily) because the freshness of the ingredients (the tomatoes are absolutely out of this world!) and the marriage of the soup and noodles led to an exceptional and filling meal.

It’s important to note that the specials change regularly, so it’s worth it to either check the restaurant’s website or make a return visit every once in a while.

We also tried the Cha-shu- Spicy Red Chili Men (noodles) and the Roast Tomoto Meshi (rice). The former features the house’s signature thin ramen noodles and a small puddle of chili soup with half of a hard-boiled egg bobbing in the shallows. The regular menu also sports several shio and shoyu-base ramen dishes, tsukemen, other sides, a ‘beer of the day’ for 400 yen, and homemade ice cream.

Ramen dishes are mostly priced between 800 and 1,000 yen with topping upgrades such as extra cha-shu- and menma costing 100 yen each. A range of rice bowls range from 200 to 800 yen and are available in two sizes.

It’s very difficult to go wrong at Ivan Ramen. We would highly recommend anything with Orkin’s roasted tomatoes in it. The preponderance of fresh and healthy ingredients in Orkin’s creations will make you rethink whether ramen is a Japanese version of fast food.

And for those who enjoy the innovation that is part and parcel with his take on ramen, then you are encouraged to visit Ivan Ramen Plus, a second shop that he opened last year.

3-24-7 Minami Karasuyama, Setagaya-ku Tokyo, 157-0062
(Rokakoen station on the Keio Line)
Ph: 03-6750-5540
Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri 5:30 PM – 10:30 PM (closed Wednesdays)
Sat, Sun and Nat’l Holidays 11:30 AM – 5:30 PM
Also closed the 4th Tuesday of every month.

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Café Review: Phonic:hoop (Shinjuku)

Far from the madding crowd… Marcus Lovitt asks why cafés like Phonic:hoop are so hard to find.

Downstairs at phonic:hoop

Downstairs at phonic:hoop

Grabbing a quick bite in Shinjuku can be frustrating, especially at lunch, when its office workers launch an all-out assault on every café and restaurant within a five-mile radius. All too frequently, the hungry café-goer is forced to wait in line and contemplate such mysteries as why Shinjuku has so little indigenous café culture. The high rent? That would seem unlikely, given that café-rich Omotesando or Shibuya actually charge more on average for a first floor retail space. A preference for big chains? Perhaps. If you’re willing to wait there’s the faux Starbucks, Excelsior, or the smoky Doutor. The much nicer Tully’s even has drinkable drip coffee.

But where are the independent cafés? Where can the harried shopper kick back with a coffee and a snack, safe in the knowledge that nobody is going to run into him or her on their way back from the condiment bar with a oversized cinnamon-dusted full-cream mochaccino?

Only ten minutes walk down busy Yasukuni-dori is Phonic:hoop, a café/bar which goes a long way toward redeeming Shinjuku for its long lines and bland chain cafés. Even better: it’s situated on two spacious floors of an office building only a short distance from Tokyo’s major department stores on Shinjuku-dori.

In front of you as you enter is the first floor bar. It’s a bright, sunny affair thanks to a series of floor to ceiling windows. To the right, a pair of vintage sofas. The high ceiling and polished concrete floor add to the feeling that you’ve stumbled into Tadao Ando’s lounge. Downstairs is more intimate, with a dozen or so non-smoking tables. Antique Singer sewing machines, piled with books and magazines, separate the tables below the stairs. It’s a lot less kitschy than it sounds.

Hanbagu with rice

Hanbagu with rice

But what makes a bigger impression is the music. It figures that any place called Phonic:hoop is going to take its tunes pretty seriously, and here it means a trippy Eno-like soundtrack which somehow never overwhelms conversation.

The lunch set menu (1000 yen) changes daily, but expect to find such things as a “beef plate”, “curry plate” and a so-called “p:h plate”. All are served with a light vegetable and egg soup. As part of the set menu, customers can choose between coffee, tea, and grapefruit juice.

While Phonic:hoop is more a licensed café than a fully-fledged restaurant, the portions are more than generous. On my first visit, I tried the curry plate, which turned out to be chicken cooked in a thick, sightly sweet sauce. While it didn’t really register on the heat index, it made great comfort food. On a subsequent visit, we ordered the “beef plate” – hanbagu with rice (pictured) and the curry. The Salisbury steak, accompanying rice and salad was more than filling. The “Vietnamese chicken curry”, meanwhile, turned out not to be very Vietnamese at all – a mild Thai-style dish that (we agreed) was delicious.

Lunch break over, it was back to the less sonorous sounds of the street with it’s shoppers, touts, and tourists.

Directions: From Shinjuku Sanchome Station, take exit C7 and walk straight ahead to Yasukunidori. Cross this street and turn right. Phonic:hoop is approximately 100 meters down, on your left.

Tel: 03-6380-6604
Sky Building. 1F
Hours: 12:00-15:00, 18:00-29:00 (weekdays) 12:00-29:00 (Saturdays) 12:00-24:00 (Sundays and holidays)

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Bar Review: Kuriya Jube (Matsumoto)

Tony Alexander samples locally-made sake in Matsumoto, Nagano.

Finding pretty good pubs and sake bars in Japan isn’t that difficult. However, finding one with a strict code, where you are asked upon entering, “Do you love sake?” by a knowledgeable bar master is rare.

Sake and sashimi

Sake and sashimi

The customers who frequent this establishment claim that the sake is their main reason for coming here, as the food menu is quite modest. The bar master is a traditionalist and maintains an austere atmosphere in his izakaya, which, to me, only adds to the allure and charm. No raucous, smoke-filled main street pub, this quiet place is located down a dimly lit street and people come here to drink the rare pricey stuff, not chatter about nonsense. It’s straight-laced and I love it that way. Kuriya Jube is at the top of a short list of places which specialize in the sake drinking experience.

The wooded interior and soft lighting make this sake pub really attractive. The whole bar counter, where I recommend sitting, is made of cedar. I love the quaint, traditional feel of the wood counters and zabuton. Even the sake cups are made of cedar, matching the bar counter and the whole mood of the place.

The key here is jizake! That’s right, the locally-brewed stuff that’s hard to get your hands on. Oftentimes, when people step into an izakaya, they get carried away with all the national sake brands they see on display and in the refrigerator. To each his own, but I measure a sake pub by how many locally-brewed sakes they have available: Stuff that you only can get there, or through a friend of a friend.

The menus here, with a long list of local and national sakes to choose from, are handwritten. On my last visit, the drinks included: Metobano Izumi and Sasa no Homare from Matsumoto and Suiro from Suwa City, as well as Yoakemae, Tatsunocho, and Shinanotsuru Tokubetsu Junmai.

The fare that evening went perfectly with our sake. There was hobo fish, which was superb and fresh, like it was just caught; deep-fried breast of chicken, lightly seasoned; fried tofu on a stick; duck – really simple, yet delicious; battered, deep-fried pork with hot sesame sauce: absolutely none of which overpowered the sake. And then there was the ichijiku goma cream made from cheese, yoghurt, and sake, which was a complete hit with the ladies.

Price range: 3,000-10,000 for two people.
No English menu available
Conveniently located about a 10 minute walk from Matsumoto Castle
Cash only
Hours: 18:00 ~ 24:00
Phone: 0263-37-9100

Japan Eats Podcast: Episode 9, “Ry observations”

We sit down with Japan Beer Times publisher Ry Beville to discuss craft beer

The Japan Eats Podcast is presented by Garrett DeOrio, Marcus Lovitt and Christopher Pellegrini. To listen, click play on the audio player below:

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In this week’s Japan Eats Podcast, Garrett DeOrio and Christopher Pellegrini are joined by craft beer evangelist, Ry Beville.

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Magazine Review: Lucky Peach, Issue 1 – Ramen

Garrett DeOrio reviews the first issue of the new food quarterly, Lucky Peach.

The first thing to know about Lucky Peach is that it is inspired and co-edited by David Chang, best known for his New York noodle bar Momofuku. (Get it? Momofuku Ando, Momofuku, Lucky Peach).

The second thing to know is that it’s a McSweeney’s joint. (Knowing that will let you know why I was all but required to call it a “joint”.)

A familiarity with either one of those things, and the extent to which you’re familiar with them, will greatly influence the way you see this welcome new quarterly.

The first issue of Lucky Peach

The first issue of Lucky Peach

(Before I go any further, Lucky Peach is co-edited by Peter Meehan, perhaps best known for his food blogging for the New York Times Magazine, and Zero Point Zero Productions, which produces the Travel Channel show Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and is doing the iPad app.)

McSweeney’s traffics in a kind of self-aware, ironic, post-modern cool; the kind that might have you drink PBR not because you’re a hipster, but because you’re making fun of PBR-drinking hipsters, while actually calling yourself a “beer snob”, but not so much that you can’t appreciate a PBR from a can now and again. Only with a lot more passing references to deep cuts.

See what I mean? If you stick with it, you will, and you’ll feel like an insider, like you know me. That’s the appeal of McSweeney’s. That’s why someone like me, who has numerous issues of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern; books by Dave Eggers, Rick Moody, Sarah Vowell, et al.; an 826 Valencia T-shirt (from like ten years ago, before everyone knew about it); and more, feels like he kind of knows what Lucky Peach is going to be when he first sees the cover.

Heck, McSweeney’s are the kind of folks who would put out a print quarterly magazine.

David Chang brought high-end ramen to America, took it further, then moved on to mixing Japanese, Korean, Southern, and more, always with an adventurous bent. He’s a master of high low-brow, while at the same time being as much artist as scientist as chef. The kind of chef who describes his chicken soup recipe as not the simple chicken soup you make for your sick “boyfriend, girlfriend, whoever”, but “still pretty goddamn easy” and is perfectly willing to write up even his complicated recipes in a clear, friendly manner, but whose recipes include Methocel™ F50 and an espuma gun and nitrous-oxide chargers (both in a recipe for puffed eggs). It’s a bit like watching Norichika Aoki take batting practice. (No? OK, Testuharu Kawakami.)

That’s who’s behind Lucky Peach, now for the magazine itself.

This premiere issue focuses on ramen and opens with a piece by Peter Meehan about his trip, with Dave Chang and a film crew, to Tokyo in January. While Chang had lived here years ago while learning to make ramen, Meehan was on his first trip and it showed. Plenty of ramen, some Chang vomiting, but not much to grab onto unless you’re a Dave Chang groupie. Travel writing by people who don’t know a place is interesting only if the writer has a particularly interesting take on things. The essay, with the quintessentially McSweeney’s title “Things Were Eaten”, does give a nice intro to some of Tokyo’s most famous noodleries, though.

The idea behind the issue – getting to know David Chang – is made perfectly clear by the next piece: Anthony Bourdain’s entertaining piece on his imaginings of the influence of three films: Tampopo, House, and The Ramen Girl.

This is followed by a collection of nifty woodcut and antique typeface posters of a few “Tokyo Ramen Gods”. Cool and all, but at this point, I was starting to get disappointed. Nothing bad so far, but nothing worth going out of the way for. Nothing worth ordering the magazine. A bit too much inside joking and back-patting and very little actual content.

Ivan Orkin saved the day with his piece about his own shop. Finally, something exciting.

Orkin’s article on his rise to fame and success in the world of ramen and his place in it provides the insider perspective so necessary to a food quarterly on the topic and is Lucky Peach‘s only item by someone actually in the business in Japan. It also benefits from the gorgeous photography of the highly sought-after Noriko Yamaguchi. (Disclosure: She’s a long-time acquaintance, but I’m not completely biased. If you live in Japan, you’ve probably seen her work and it’s probably influenced your decision to go to an exotic resort in the Maldives or to indulge in a top-notch meal at some point.)

For the hardcore ramenista, Orkin’s article sits nicely alongside a brief piece on Momofuku Ando and his achievements, “A Specificist’s Guide to the Regional Ramen of Japan”, and Harold McGee’s scientific “Outré Space” pieces “On Alkalinity and Alkaline Noodles” and “On MSG and Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” – the former fascinating because, well, I had no idea why people, including me, were wont to describe some noodles as “eggy” knowing full well that no eggs were involved; the latter because I love a good debunking explained. I get the feeling “Outré Space” is going to be a regular feature of the quarterly.

If it’s ramen you’re after (and that’s presumably the case if you’ve picked up a ramen magazine), you’ll appreciate the wealth of detailed recipes that make up much of Lucky Peach: Noodles, seven ways to do eggs – including how to slow cook them, broth, dashi, tare, uses for instant ramen, and more. There’s no shortage for the keen cook.

Also ramen-related, but less interesting, was Ruth Reichl’s brief rundown of the instant noodles, and only the noodles, she found at a market near where she lived. This is a great guide if you happen to live with Ruth Reichl and have access to the wonderful soups she says she makes for these noodles.

Also not making my cut would be Matthew Volz’s “Bigger Than You” – the illustrated story of a Japanese boy-turned-giant, who eats the world’s largest bowl of ramen. It wasn’t awful or anything, it just seemed pointless.

The last negative thing I’ll say is that the transcript of a drunken conversation in Spain among Anthony Bourdain, Dave Chang, and Wylie Dufresne on the topic of mediocrity would have made great video or audio and would have been even better in person, but is just kind of flat on the page.

On the non-ramen front were Tood Kliman’s thought-experiment of an essay “The Problem of Authenticity” and some pretty cool photos of Kay & Ray’s Potato Chips being made that accompanied a “recipe” for “Potato Chips and Oriental Dip”, which was to put the seasoning from instant ramen into sour cream and eat it with Kay & Ray’s Potato Chips: “The Best Potato Chips in the World”.

Lucky Peach closes on a strong literary note, with the well-chosen short story “The Gourmet Club” by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, possibly Japan’s greatest writer of all time. Every magazine should end with a Tanizaki story.

In short, Lucky Peach has put out a fine first issue. It’s a bowl of excellent ramen accompanied by frozen gyoza: certainly worth recommending, but maybe without the mediocre side dish. Read it, you’ll like it. Better cooks than me will be able to give it a real workout, too.

Lucky Peach: Issue 1 – Ramen
Chris Ying (Editor-in-Chief), Peter Meehan & David Chang (Editors)
176 pages. McSweeney’s Insatiables. US$10