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.

 

 

Pizza Personalities

Who doesn’t love pizza? [1]

A while ago Jon Stewart went on the rampage, putting New York style pizza up against Chicago.  I’ve also heard others ranting about Italian pizzas.  Let’s consider this; what can pizza teach us about local behavior?

Starting at the beginning, Italy is considered the birthplace of pizza.  Maybe.  But the Europeans are epicures, and they flaunt fresh ingredients and moderation, so it’s no wonder their pizzas are made fresh, wood-fired, and focus on crust with accents of other ingredients.  Yum.

Here in the USA pizza may have its true origins, as a large-scale food that’s easy to prepare.  Its ingredients were mass-produced ahead of time.  Serving was easy, didn’t require utensils, and you could eat it for breakfast.

This large floppy version is best typified by the New York style, a form that New Yorkers argue is their own.  You can slice it, roll it, and serve quite a few people with it.  As part of their effort to possess this version of pizza, they no longer call it only pizza, instead it is “pie.” [2]

Finally we come to the american city where they invented the skyscraper, reshape their coastline to make parks, lift their buildings when they flood, and reversed the flow of their river when it suited them.  This is Chicago.

They embraced the pizza to an extent found nowhere else.  You can get all versions of pizza here that you can get anywhere else, except one.  And that one version is Deep Dish Pizza (henceforth DDP).

To some, DDP is an extreme that borders on the obscene.  But Chicago did not invent DDP as an extreme; instead it was a carefully crafted feast to be enjoyed locally, without fanfare.  There is an elegance in its execution, whether it’s made for 2 people or 16.

The DDP is an orgy of fragrance, flavor, and textures.  You can have your crispy ingredients on top.  You can have an oodle of melty cheese, you can have thin slices of sausage, or the entire sausage!  You can have a thin and crispy crust, or a thick and spongy crust – possibly even at the same time!

Finally, what does our pizza party tell us here?  That the Italians are confident in their abilities, they stick with their values, and consistently make a fine pizza.  That Americans know what they will settle for, mass produced mediocrity, convenience and cost.  New Yorkers?  That they are willing to brand almost anything their own, with passion.  And Chicago?  No fear, and no bravado.  Do they make mistakes?  Yes; it’s very possible to get a poorly made DDP in Chicago.  But it’s almost impossible to get a decent DDP outside of Chicago.

Now excuse me.  I need to find me a slice!

 

[1] Full disclosure here.  I love love love pizza!  And I can’t accept the possibility that someone somewhere may not.  In all fairness, I prefer any type of great pizza, but I think you know where this article may be headed.

[2] Pie?  Doesn’t this confuse things with such American staples as Apple pie and Pumpkin pie?  But that’s New York for you.  They’ve never had a true Apple or Pumpkin tradition, so their “pie” is all their own.  Sad.

 

Pizza Personalities

Pizza Personalities

Who doesn’t love pizza? [1]

A while ago Jon Stewart went on the rampage, putting New York style pizza up against Chicago.  I’ve also heard others ranting about Italian pizzas.  Let’s consider this; what can pizza teach us about local behavior?

Starting at the beginning, Italy is considered the birthplace of pizza.  Maybe.  But the Europeans are epicures, and they flaunt fresh ingredients and moderation, so it’s no wonder their pizzas are made fresh, wood-fired, and focus on crust with accents of other ingredients.  Yum.

Here in the USA pizza may have its true origins, as a large-scale food that’s easy to prepare.  Its ingredients were mass-produced ahead of time.  Serving was easy, didn’t require utensils, and you could eat it for breakfast.

This large floppy version is best typified by the New York style, a form that New Yorkers argue is their own.  You can slice it, roll it, and serve quite a few people with it.  As part of their effort to possess this version of pizza, they no longer call it only pizza, instead it is “pie.” [2]

Finally we come to the american city where they invented the skyscraper, reshape their coastline to make parks, lift their buildings when they flood, and reversed the flow of their river when it suited them.  This is Chicago.

They embraced the pizza to an extent found nowhere else.  You can get all versions of pizza here that you can get anywhere else, except one.  And that one version is Deep Dish Pizza (henceforth DDP).

To some, DDP is an extreme that borders on the obscene.  But Chicago did not invent DDP as an extreme; instead it was a carefully crafted feast to be enjoyed locally, without fanfare.  There is an elegance in its execution, whether it’s made for 2 people or 16.

The DDP is an orgy of fragrance, flavor, and textures.  You can have your crispy ingredients on top.  You can have an oodle of melty cheese, you can have thin slices of sausage, or the entire sausage!  You can have a thin and crispy crust, or a thick and spongy crust – possibly even at the same time!

Finally, what does our pizza party tell us here?  That the Italians are confident in their abilities, they stick with their values, and consistently make a fine pizza.  That Americans know what they will settle for, mass produced mediocrity, convenience and cost.  New Yorkers?  That they are willing to brand almost anything their own, with passion.  And Chicago?  No fear, and no bravado.  Do they make mistakes?  Yes; it’s very possible to get a poorly made DDP in Chicago.  But it’s almost impossible to get a decent DDP outside of Chicago.

Now excuse me.  I need to find me a slice!

[1] Full disclosure here.  I love love love pizza!  And I can’t accept the possibility that someone somewhere may not.  In all fairness, I prefer any type of great pizza, but I think you know where this article may be headed.

[2] Pie?  Doesn’t this confuse things with such American staples as Apple pie and Pumpkin pie?  But that’s New York for you.  They’ve never had a true Apple or Pumpkin tradition, so their “pie” is all their own.  Sad.

 

Listening to Sauce

Legend has it that the Gods of Olympus ate nothing but ambrosia, a heavenly food that mortals would never reach.  Today’s “ambrosia” consists of a few nuts, raisins, and maybe the chocolate morsel or two.  Ambrosia?  Food of the gods?  More like food of the chipmunks!

No, I’m convinced that those gods were eating tomato sauce.  Not any tomato sauce, but with onions, garlic, sausage, mushrooms, some cheese, and the lightest eggiest pasta ever.  That’s why they were so sleepy after meals!

It was recently announced that the Ragu and Bertolli brands were being sold by Unilever to a Japanese firm, Miskan.  Good for them, paying 3.5 times sales!  And with sales of 600 million in the US, that’s a lot of ambrosia.  But what does this say about behavior, and what can the sauce tell us?

Plenty, we only have to learn how to listen!  For instance, at my local high-end grocery store, there are 26 “facings” of these brands on the shelf.  There are probably 200 other facings of competitive tomato sauce, but I’m not worried about them.  Let’s listen to the Ragu.

For Ragu to make 600 million a year in sales, that means each of those 26 facings has to generate almost 23 million each!  That’s a lot of tomatoes!  Here’s where the listening comes in.

How does the Ragu do next to the Prego?  Are they generating 23 million per facing?  Perhaps the company that arranges things on the shelf for the grocery store is doing a better job for Prego than for Ragu!  Let’s compare their sales per facing for the amount of advertising they are doing, also per facing.

Or let’s think time lapse; what if there was a camera that took a picture at midnight every day?  And all we looked at was the distribution of tomato sauce in every frame.  Would we see the Ragu slowly grow over time?  Or would there be a see-saw battle between the Prego and Ragu?

Next time you’re at the grocery, and you’re thinking of eating like a god, think of tomato sauce. Then stand in front of the entire display, and listen.

What are they saying to you?

 

Frying Dolma

Dolma, dohlma, dolmades, rolled grape leaves.  Whatever you want to call them, properly made, they are gosh darn tasty!  Grandma made them at my house when I was a kid.  She’d make me help her pick the youngest newest grape leaves off the vines around our house.  Then she’d steam the leaves, make the filling, prep the rice, and work the whole long day filling up the big pot with the rolled leaves.

As a kid I didn’t think much of them.  My parents MADE me eat them.  Yuck.  So THAT’s what catsup was for.  I can remember them pretty well, though.  And I know, now, that she had a gift.  Incredible taste, perfect leaves, tender, yet firm enough so they don’t fall apart when you take a bite.  I miss you grandma!  And as good as I’ve seen all over the world, including some of my dearest relatives, no one comes close to what Grandma Z could do.

Here’s the catch.  Go to a restaurant today, order stuffed grape leaves, and you’ll get something tough and tasteless.  Yuck.  But this time it’s yucky for all the right reasons.

Enter science!  We have invented molecular gastronomy, the ability to dissect our food molecule by molecule and recreate it so that it tickles our tongues and fondles our fancy to the highest degree.

Which is where the fryer comes in.  As Americans we love to fry everything, anyway.  Entire turkeys.  Ice cream.  Oreo cookies.  PB&J sandwiches.  Even sticks of butter.  But a chance encounter with a partially fried dolma made me realize that here was something that could really enhance the dish!  For whatever reason, the dolma I received at a famous restaurant had been partially fried – and the normally tough leave was tender, crisp!  That part of the dolma held together perfectly.  The taste, well, they could work on that some more.  But the leaf was key.

Which brings us to why I write this in the first place.  What is it that drives us to create new taste sensations?  Why is it so important to try and create a better dolma?  And why, for goodness sake, is it so important to keep frying everything?

As we advance and improve, we seem to strive for even greater or more exotic taste sensations.  But what does this say about our behavior?  And what does our understanding of behavior say about our taste buds of the future?

Excuse me now.  All this talk of food is making me hungry!