Japan Eats

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