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

May ’10 Magazine Roundup

What’s new in Japan’s food magazines? Marcus Lovitt conducts a whirlwind tour of Japan’s culinary rags. This month: dancyu, ELLE à table, Syokuraku and Ryori Tsushin.

May's ELLE à table

May's ELLE à table

Foreign visitors to Japan frequently complain about the limited number of western breakfast options available. And let’s face it: pre-dawn sushi at Tsukiji or a bowl of soba at a train station aren’t for everyone, especially if you have young children in tow.

For those not enamored of chain coffee shops (Excelsior, Starbucks or the ever-smokey Dotour) the only options appear to be expensive hotel restaurants or to pick something up at a local bakery.

It’s an unfortunate fact that Tokyo lags behind other major cities when it comes to breakfast options. While there are plenty of great independently-owned cafes, few open before 10 or 11 am. Why? Most Japanese eat at home, or skip the meal altogether in the rush to catch that train to work.

Things may be changing, however. Much has been made of Australian chef Bill Granger’s latest venture, bills in Yokohama. Renowned for his Australian-style breakfasts, Granger has attracted a lot of attention for his focus on Aussie staples such as Eggs Benedict and buttery pancakes.

Acknowledging the western predilection for a morning dose of cholesterol, this month’s dancyu (860 yen) is all eggs, done every which way. The magazine introduces restaurants offering classic egg dishes (boiled, scrambled, fried) as well as some of their recipes (eggs Benedict, egg sandwiches, huevos a la flamenca and puddings).

Another of dancyu‘s themes is seasonal vegetables – spring cabbage, spring onion, asparagus, green peas, and tomato fruit. The magazine includes seven recipes which make the most of what’s now available in Japan’s grocery stores.

ELLE à table (720 yen), meanwhile, looks at the latest French restaurants to open in Tokyo. The editors write that since the end of 2009 Tokyoites have enjoyed an increasing number of reasonably-priced French establishments. Rents have decreased because of the recession and young chefs are finding it easier to open their own places. ELLE writes about eight casual French dining options. They also focus on 3 locations: Nishi Azabu; what ELLE calls the ‘Art East Area’ (the area around Bakurocho and Asakusabashi) and ‘Ura Ginza’ (Higashi Ginza and Shintomicho). Finally, the magazine profiles seven new restaurants renowned for the quality of their food.

Syokuraku (860 yen) fills much of its May edition with those delectable dumplings, gyoza. The editors recommend gyoza restaurants based on five categories: fried gyoza, large gyoza, crispy gyoza, boiled gyoza and gyoza served on a frying pan. The magazine also visits Utsunomiya and Hamamatsu, two Japanese cities which are famous for the dish.

Finally, this month’s Ryori tsushin (980 yen) examines ‘sake for wine lovers’. The magazine explains how to approach sake by showing a comparison between sake and wine. They also suggest restaurants which provide a high-quality sake line up as well as food. Elsewhere in the magazine is devoted to dashi. Based on the notion that dashi is one of the key elements of Japanese cooking, the editors explain how to cook this combination of konbu (kelp), katsuobushi and water. They also present six dashi-based recipes.

And also…

Otoriyose, the practice of ordering regional specialties online via sites such as Rakuten, is currently a major trend. All of this month’s magazines go out of their way to list websites where readers can purchase items such as gyoza (Syokuraku) and pâté (ELLE à table). The latter magazine even introduces a bar in Ginza (named chikappa) focused on otoriyose from Kyushu.

April ’10 Magazine Roundup

This month three of Japan’s top culinary magazines focus their attention on things Italian. Also, Dancyu tells aging ramen lovers it’s time to go back to basics and Otona no shumatsu presents yet another lengthy best-of list. Its all here in this month’s magazine roundup.

When Hollywood studios simultaneously release similar films (think Deep Impact vs Armageddon) its difficult not to suspect nervous producers spy on each other in search of original film ideas. Similarly, when three of the major Japanese food magazines decide to feature Italian cuisine on their April covers, one has to wonder if it’s more than a coincidence.

Dancyu April 2010

This month, Dancyu courts those in their 40s and 50s

This month’s Syokuraku (860 yen) features what the editors describe as “Italian food and restaurants from a man’s perspective”. They posit that Italian restaurants are not just places for dates and quiet conversation, but can be places for guys to get together and hang out. Our advice: ignore the cultural analysis and enjoy the food porn.

Ryori Tsushin (980 yen) also stretches the bounds of thematic credibility with an edition focusing on the role flour plays in Italian food. Put differently, the magazine’s editors want to discuss pasta and pizza, and to hell with that other stuff.

April’s Cuisine Kingdom (970 yen) is the last in our trio, the magazine exploring  “the Italian mode”. More cultural background than recipes, this issue covers luxury brands as well as restaurants. The editors also ask where Italian cuisine is headed.

Ramen nerds rejoice! Dancyu (850 yen) has you in its sights. The April edition of the magazine is a veritable cornucopia of ramen, specifically aimed at self-appointed ramen experts in their 40s and 50s. April’s issue features 14 ramen shops – 12 in Tokyo, 1 in Osaka and 1 in Kobe. Urging readers to go back to basics, the magazine also discusses Tokyo’s trademark soy-sauce ramen and recommends 10 restaurants in which to sample the dish.

And where would we be without another best-of list? Otona no shumatsu (580 yen) lists the magazine’s “best 102 restaurants in the past 5 years”. The editors claim to have visited some 18, 000 restaurants in the past 5 years, and to have introduced 3600 in the magazine. Of these, they write, 350 were rated highly . After what must have been much soul-searching at the Kodansha offices, they finally whittled this list down to a (curiously unrounded) 102. All were tested in secret and come recommended for taste, price and great service. They are in Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka and Nagoya.

And also…

Nakameguro is Tokyo’s version of Little Italy? So say our friends at Shokuraku. They map 25 Italian restaurants within walking distance of Nakameguro Station. Worryingly, this figure includes the local Saizeriya. What do you think? Is Nakameguro Tokyo’s answer to Mulberry Street? Leave your thoughts below in the comments.

March ‘10 Magazine Roundup

Sake, seafood and… sumo? It’s time once again to take a look at the month’s food and drink magazines.

Another month, another ambitious ‘best of list’. This time it’s Syokuraku (860 yen) with their “42 best restaurants in Tokyo”.  Dividing restaurants into 7 categories (yakitori, Japanese cuisine, tempura, shabushabu, rice bowls, tonkatsu and okonomiyaki) the magazine’s editors award marks for “the quality of food, cost performance and service”.

The March issue of Ryori Tsushin

Syokuraku takes a more radical approach toward ranking sake, doing so by comparing various types of rice wine to sumo rikishi (come on… what could be more obvious!) It’s east versus west, with the sake divided into yokozuna, ozeki, sekiwake, komusubi, maegashira and jyuyo. The magazine also features 10 Tokyo restaurants which make creative use of nihonshu.

This month’s dancyu (860 yen) continues the sake theme. The magazine introduces upcoming sake breweries in places such as Akita, Tochigi, Hiroshima and Saga. And for those who love seafood but also think cooking fish is difficult, dancyu offers a selection of quick and easy seafood recipes. Dishes include Japanese, Western and Chinese otsumami.

Coffee is flavour of the month in Cafe-Sweets (1300 yen), the editors noting that the cafe scene in Japan is rapidly becoming more sophisticated. In particular, they note that coffee schools are growing in popularity – students can take classes for beginners through to advanced. The March issue features a number of coffee schools, from industry giants Starbucks and Tully’s through to small privately-owned cafes such as Tokumitsu Coffee in Hokkaido and the mail order coffee beans shop Unir in Kyoto.

Ryori Tsushin (980 yen) meanwhile dedicates its March edition to what they are calling “The age of Women”. The editors introduce women who are active participants in the Japanese culinary scene. The magazine features restaurants where all meals and service are provided by women, those restaurants which are owned by women as well as female innovators in areas traditionally dominated by men – sausage and ham artisans, coffee roasters and pizza chefs.

The Wine Kingdom (1500 yen) offers a list of “The best 30 winter reds from Italy”. There’s also a special feature on Sauvigon Blanc and a pull-out section of the magazine introducing 50 brands of wines from Washington. The booklet has information about each winery, their products and personalities.

And also…

The March issue of dancyu sees the announcement of a sake tasting event to celebrate the magazine’s anniversary. 74 different sake breweries will present their wares at the Grand Prince Hotel, Shintakanawa on March 27th from 13:00 to 15:30. Tickets are 5000 yen per person. See the dancyu’s March issue for further details.

February ‘10 Magazine Roundup

This month it’s all about winter warmers – ramen, cream stews, okonomiyaki and winter seafood dishes. Here’s our roundup of Japan’s food magazines for February 2010.

Christel Takigawa trades the newsroom for the tatami room in this month's Otona no OFF.

Christel Takigawa trades the newsroom for the tatami room in this month's Otona no OFF.

This month’s Cuisine Kingdom (970 yen) focuses on seasonal seafood dishes. Japanese as well as international chefs explain how best to cook winter seafood using their own recipes. The magazine also interviews several Kyoto-based chefs and asks what inspires them.

Dancyu (860 yen) asks ‘where in Tokyo does one go to get the best beef or cream stew?’ The magazine’s February edition also looks at that perennial Japanese favorite, okonomiyaki. They introduce seven well-regarded okonomiyaki restaurants as well as recipes for their most popular dishes.

This month’s Syokuraku (860 yen) focuses on ramen. They nominate the ‘ten best ramen restaurants in metropolitan Tokyo’ and then the ‘top ten restaurants for various types of ramen’ (tsukemen, thick soup, etc.). There’s also a ‘top ten ramen restaurants which serve great side dishes’ and (clearly concerned they had left someone out) a ‘top ten ramen restaurants serving great drinks’.

The magazine also devotes space to the humble nabe, and suggests where Tokyoites can sample regional versions of this seasonal dish.

Tokyo Calendar (680 yen) dusts off the crystal ball to predict the year’s dining trends in the Japanese capital. The magazine nominates bistros where one dining alone can eat at a counter, Nouvelle Chinois cuisine and Shitamachi restaurants as three major trends of 2010.

Finally, dessert arrives courtesy of Ryori Tsushin (980 yen), which dedicates its February issue to sweets. Using patisserie Aigre Douce (Mejiro) as an example, the magazine’s authors make the case for sweets to be made from only the finest ingredients. The magazine also looks at traditional German sweets, noting that German confections are growing in popularity.

And also…

Nikkei’s Otona no Off (680 yen) examines the basics of Japanese etiquette. Just how does one behave when eating kaiseki? What are the rules at a tea ceremony? There are even tips on how one opens fusuma (traditional sliding doors).

January ’10 Magazine Roundup

Sushi, tapas and chocolate cake. It’s all here in our monthly roundup of Japanese food magazines.

The Jan 2010 issue of Dancyu

Tsukiji Market, anyone?

The January 2010 issue of ELLE à table (720 yen) runs with the theme “Let’s Party” and asks two caterers to produce a menu for 4 people that comes in under 5000 yen (p. 40).  Dancyu (850 yen), meanwhile, dedicates much of it’s 210 pages to sushi and sashimi. Dancyu columnist Kundo Koyama also contributes an essay on “The five best dishes of 2009″.

Syokuraku (860 yen) follows the sushi theme, looking at which wines best match Japan’s favourite finger food. Cuisine Kingdom (980 yen) leads with a ‘special feature’ entitled “Bar, Bistro, Trattoria – the secret of their popularity”. This basically turns out to be an excuse to present some exquisite food porn from the likes of Barcelona and Paris, of which we wholly approve.

It seems there’s nothing Japanese gourmands enjoy more than the whiff of French sophistication. The cover of Ku:nel’s January issue (780 yen) entices Francophile readers with an offer of a map to “the pleasant face of Paris”. Ryori tsushin (980 yen), meanwhile, introduces several new French restaurants in Japan and offers readers a onetime deal on a “special course and glass of wine”.

In addition to their “French chocolat patisserie collection”,  Cafe Sweets (1300 yen) begins 2010 with a whole lotta chocolate love. The magazine presents a number of chocolate cake recipes for readers to try.

And also…

January’s ELLE à table is the winner of Japan Eats’ coveted Bad English award, for their headline “I am big fun of Cheese”.