Chinese Ramen, Japanese Okonomyaki, and Human Hate. What’s the connex?

Yes, you read it right.  Chinese ramen, as served up in Japan.  Japanese okonomyaki, a crepe cabbage noodle pancake as down-home as American hamburger, and so TAY-STEE!  And finally, hate among us.  Stay with me, it’s a lot more promising than you think.  But first I have to take you back to where this all started, to a few months ago.

I love to draw lines between what we think we know, and the behaviors we see.  A lot of our current conceptions about behavior don’t make sense, and I enjoy pointing those out.  But they are exactly that – lines – observations – musings – and though many people find them interesting, nothing else really happens.

I do enjoy this writing business, and I guess you do, too, because you’re probably a writer as well.  I’m looking forward to seeing yours, since I’m showing you mine!  But there also has to be progress, some kind of improvement, a direction of getting better.  I, you, all of us work hard to get our words out there, into the wilds of the internet.  I want to think that all our hard work, all our hopes and well wishes amount to something.  They have to!

PART ONE

It was with this state of mind when I left the country.  It was business, but writing is always on my mind.  China was first.  And before you jump to thinking that Chinese ramen is from China, not so fast!  But to whet your appetite, here’s a picture.

Tender smoked ham, beef, super broth, and FRESH noodles!

Chinese style ramen in Tokyo, a hole-in-the-wall shop a few steps from Daimon station’s exit A3.

 

Bejing was great.  The Forbidden City, Tianamen square, some of the markets, wonderful.  We only had a few days so our visit was limited.  The atmosphere was a bit hard to take, what with pollution and a heavy-handed political presence everywhere.  Now Shanghai, that’s a city.  A bit bigger than Beijing, with way more lights, happy citizens, a better subway system and fun places to eat.  Oh, and for those who plan to visit, check out the BIG Buddha in Fenghua.  Take your walking shoes and prepare to be amazed!

China and Chinese food aren’t the point of this story.  I’ll have to tell you about the Beijing pancake (tasty) and the fried scorpions on a stick (invigorating, they say) and the wine that’s fermented with a huge snake and huge centipede (no, did NOT try it).  Japan is where our story really starts.  China was an important part of the background, but aside from a few foods, the real fun is in Japan.  [1]

If you’ve not been to Japan, I’ll do my best to describe it for you.  If you have, skip ahead, because you know I won’t be able to do it justice.  Japan is a country where public courtesy, cleanliness, and classiness are valued very highly.  Unlike the US, you won’t find their attention focused on greed and celebrity.  That’s not to say bad things don’t exist, they do, but at levels far lower than in the US or Europe.  The Japanese like things to be precise, pretty, and at the same time functional and respectful of the environment.  Japan is the only country I know where a teeny-tiny restaurant may have a rock garden or koi pond buried within, taking up the space of a table or two.  That island of peace and beauty is important to them.  In the US we’d rip it out and try to make more money.  In Japan, it’s not about the money.  And this attitude extends to their foods as well.

There are so many wonderful foods to enjoy in Japan it’s hard to know where to start.  It’s much harder when you’re in the middle of Tokyo, you’re hungry, and you don’t know where anything is!  Do I want Japanese curry (not related to India, sorry), or sushi, or sashimi, or eel (fresh or salt water?), or oysters, or something fried, or a great bowl of soup?

We passed many great restaurants one day in the vicinity of the Tokyo Prince hotel, in the shadow of the Tokyo Tower, ignoring the repeated calls of many restaurant hawkers handing out their menus and trying to entice us into their high-story restaurant.

We came to this hole in the wall, only a few meters wide.  Inside were bar stools for eight and two tables for two.  That was it.  Outside there was a line.  We liked the smell and I got in line.  My wife went to the cashier machine and punched the tickets for our choices, I had the roasted garlic ramen.

We moved up to where we could sit on two stools and  handed our tickets over.  And we watched the magic.  As a pasta fiend I’m passionate about my noodles, and these were freshly made.  They may have even been handmade because they were so roughly cut.  And deep yellow, meaning fresh wholesome eggs.  Two bundles were put into baskets and plunged into roiling hot water.  The broth was spooned from a huge cauldron into our bowls.  I’d seen him hammering away with a huge pestle inside the cauldron earlier, and when I saw the broth I knew why.  In that vessel they were cooking more meat and everything that goes with it so that we had a fresh, extremely tasty base to our soup.  Any soup connoisseur will tell you the true secret to great soup is the stock, and this was good looking stock.  Then came the sliced meat, the egg, and all the other spices and vegetables, and viola! there was our meal in front of us.  Incredible.  Wholesome, inexpensive (about ten US dollars each, not bad for downtown Tokyo!), fast, and totally devoured by yours truly in about 5 minutes.  Then I had some of my wife’s as well.  (Mine was better.)

PART TWO

A few days later we were in Hiroshima.  We always take the bullet train because it’s so much fun to speed along almost 300 kilometers an hour (over 150 miles per hour!) in something that’s so big and smooth.  Hiroshima is wonderful because of the Peace Park (site of the first atomic bomb used in Japan in 1945) but also the wonderful floating gate and temple on the island of Miyajima.  There is also many incredible foods to eat, but they are most famous for their oyster beds.  If you like oysters, you’ll LOVE Hiroshima.

Tucked away in the train station there are a few restaurants, and we luckily found one that was perfect for our needs.  We were even luckier in that we found it when we arrived, and liked it so much we ate there again when we were leaving!

Pictured here is where we sat, right at the griddle!  And it was huge, about 1 x 3 meters in size.  There’s the back of our cook, she was a fun lady and didn’t mind me making ooohing and aaahing sounds the whole time.  That’s a freshly made okonomyaki sitting there in front of me.  You can almost see the layers, so many layers, within each one.

First she starts with a kind of sourdough crepe on the griddle.  As it cooks she dumps on about two handfuls of freshly cut cabbage.  No bulk supplies here!  As that cooks down a bit she puts on some dried and friend shrimp bits, for saltiness and flavor. Then comes a little bit of shredded cheese, and on top of that are three thinly cut strips of pork.  They look like bacon, but they aren’t smoked.  At which point she presses the pork into the griddle, then slides her spatula under the crepe and flips the whole thing over!  This exposes the beautifully toasty crepe on top and starts cooking the pork directly.  At the same time she’s been cooking some ramen on the griddle as well.  Or you could have asked of udon (a thicker noodle) or some soba (a buckwheat noodle).

She then begins phase two!  She takes an egg and cracks it on the griddle.  She spreads the yolk around so that it’s broken and all cooking evenly.  On this she places spices and some veggies.  She will also start cooking whatever else you wanted on your masterpiece: ground beef, squid, more veggies, and of course, oysters!

Phase three. Once those have cooked a bit and the egg is ready, she flips over the main portion of the okonomyaki again, puts on the noodles, places the egg and all your extra goodies on top of that, and then another cook puts on the special sauce (like dark ketchup) and puts it on a plate.  Or, if you’re lucky enough to have a stool next to the griddle, slides it over to you right there!

So hot, so tasty, and so wonderful to watch and then eat.  Absolutely a great time.  For those who might be traveling to Japan, this is Hiroshima okonomyaki.  The same dish in Osaka, or Kyoto is very different.  And this dish in Tokyo, well, let’s say that you’ll be more impressed by the Chinese-style ramen.

 

Hot off the griddle in the train station!

Okonomyaki, Hiroshima style

 

PART THREE

Hungry and ready for more?  To be fair, that’s all for the food portion of today’s program.  Instead, we’ve arrived at talking about hate.  Now, how can one really ponder something as distasteful and slippery as hate, especially after indulging in such wonderful foods like these?

I have to.  I’m doing what I can to try and fight hate so that it doesn’t hurt so many people as it does today.  It’s almost always on my mind, and I have some really good ideas about how we can fight it.  But here’s the rub, no one seems interested.

I figure it’s my fault.  Like any restaurant, you create a dish and hope people like it.  The two restaurants above have crafted these foods to where they are extremely effective, even perfect.  But there’s a good chance they didn’t start that way.  Many hours and customers had to pass through those doors before they found the right combination that makes perfection.

Here’s where you can help.  What can I do to serve up a tasty meal that’s good for us to think about, but may be terrible to consider?  After all, there are many people who cringe about eating oysters, or raw fish.  But these things are delicious, and the Japanese have perfected many dishes.  How can I do the same?  Let me know your thoughts.

Sincerely yours – Tusok

 

Notes and Disclaimers:

[1]  For my Chinese friends, don’t get upset!  The China portion of my trip included more business entertainment, and when I’m with vendors and colleagues it’s important to let them lead the culinary crusade.  There was Peking Duck and Shangai Dumplings and several of those delicious Beijing Pancakes, but overall most of the meals were standard business settings.  You know the kind, where a huge table with a huge turntable gets filled with a hundred different dishes NONE of which I know the name of.  Several staff are always hovering about your private room and they keep filling your tea or drink (no, no NO snake wine please!) and the dishes don’t stop coming until you can’t eat any more.  There were TOOOOO many of those meals!  But we had such gracious hosts.

 

 

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