Global Lap 2014 (The Ramen Experience)

 It gets me fired up when I see people going all out to be their best, and that's a common sight in Japanese kitchens. Each and every time you step into a restaurant you can expect at the very least well-prepared, visually pleasing food. At best you can expect your fu*king mind to be blown. Lemme take you through what it's like to eat a bowl of ramen in Japan.

Waiting in line for Miso Ramen in Hokkaido. Some folks queue 90 minutes or more. Sounds absurd until you take your first spoonful.

Once you've decided on and arrived at your ramen destination, step inside and look out for the vending machine. Here you'll find a mess of 20-30 square plastic buttons with the different bowls and side dishes on offer. Abram usually translated for me, but if you're solo and struggling just howl and someone will magically scurry over from the shadows to provide you with assistance. Or just play ramen roulette. I hear the top left button is a pretty good bet.  Make your selection, insert Yen (usually between 600-900 [$6-$9]), take your ticket and bring it over to the counter. From there the chef will pick it up and get to work on your order. Patience.

Eating out in Japan is actually a better value than many believe. There's absolutely no tipping, no tax and no 4% healthy S.F. surcharge! Plus you don't have to deal with annoying servers trying to push that second bottle of Barolo on your table. They let you be.

Most ramen bowls start with a chicken and/or pork bone base. This is the structure. The foundation. The soul of the bowl. These bones simmer with various aromatics for hours and hours until the flavor is lovingly extracted from the animal carcasses. A variation on the basic ramen broth is Tonkotsu, which gets it's opaque, milky appearance due to vigorous boiling of pork bones on high heat for several hours until the insides are liquified.

 South in Kyushu where the famed Kurobuta (black pig) is farmed, you'll find rich bowls of Tonkotsu. Kurobuta pigs live off sweet potatoes, so the meat is incredibly clean and tender.

So far we've made ourselves chicken soup, or brodo or caldo or whatever you may call it. Delicious, but we can't call it ramen broth. The distinctly Japanese stamp comes from all the other oceanic goodies chefs use to infuse the broth. Kombu (edible kelp), katsuoboshi (dried, fermented and smoked skipjack tuna), niboshi (dried baby sardines) and dried horse mackerel are a few of the most common flavorings. You're essentially combining the fishy, briny, slightly smokey flavors of dashi with a robust bone stock to create fantastic depth. From there the soups can go in many directions; add a soy and mirin sauce called tare for shoyu ramen, sea salt for shio ramen or miso paste for a Sapporo style bowl. These final additions are usually added to each bowl to order, customizing a large pot of broth into several tantalizing varieties.

 When the ingredients from China's Sichuan province are placed in the hands of Japanese ramen chefs you get Tan Tan Mian. To me it's the best of both worlds. Highly addictive tingle from the sichuan peppercorns, creaminess from the sesame base but with a firmer noodle and distinctly Japanese presentation.

Abram stressed that ramen is one of the few Japanese food where there is no wrong. While sushi, tempura and tonkatsu have typical preparation techniques and ingredients, ramen is a relatively new phenomenon in Japan so there's no established protocol for construction. That 8 inch bowl is the personal playground for these young chefs, and they are free to do as they please within these ceramic confines. With ramen, like all great soups of the world, it's really about putting tons of love into your base broth. No matter how spectacular your toppings and noodles are, if your broth is watery or lacking that punch- customers will not return. Survival of the fittest.

Pots for heating up individual servings of ramen broth. This particular shop used a tonkotsu and mackerel bone base. Most exquisite.

There's something truly entertaining about sitting in front of an open kitchen and watching food preparation. If there's a spot at the bar, I'm there. In foreign countries it's that much more interesting because there's that extra element of intrigue due to unidentifiable ingredients and the inevitable language barrier. I'm a firm believer food tastes better when you're spoken to in a language you don't understand. There are no expectations. No yelp! hype. Usually you know little of the specifics of what you're about to eat, but as you look around to see a restaurant full of satisfied faces quietly mowing down their tsukemen, you realize it really doesn't matter.

In Sapporo, Miso ramen is what you'll be eating. I love the mouthfeel and umami miso provides. This bowl got a little grating of ginger on top for some pop.

In America, ramen shops aren't as ubiquitous as Japan so the places are usually newer and more formal. You go out for ramen as a part of a meal. In Japan ramen is a fast food, and while many obsessive freaks set aside a large portion of their day to wait in line for something incredible, it's also something to grab on a quick lunch break or before heading out for a night of brews and karaoke. From placing your order in the ticket vending machine to downing your last mouthful of broth it's usually a 10-15 minute affair (line pending of course!). There isn't much lingering or chatting or texting or dillydallying or cappuccino sipping. Receive your bowl, snap photo, and get after it. Once you're done you get your ass out, as there's usually a hungry patron waiting to grab your seat.

Rolled pork bellies (chasu) simmering in Tare. This is one of the most common toppings for a bowl of ramen.

While the broth almost always leaves the biggest impact, noodles and toppings need to hold their own. Traditionally, ramen noodles are made with kansui, an alkaline solution (containing sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate) that give them their signature 'al dente' firm texture. A soft noodle in Japan is a deal breaker. Try to order ramen 'to go' and tell me what type of look the chef gives you. Toppings can vary widely but regularly include some sort of pork product. Chashu is rolled pork belly thats been simmered for a good while until it breaks down a bit but still retains it's shape. One of my favorite ramen shops took the tender slices of fatty pork and charred them a mini grill before laying them on top of the noodles. Even after all these years you know I love me some char.

One classic, please.

Even with all the exciting contemporary ramen permutations there's still something to be said for old school Tokyo Ramen. It's a Shoyu base with a couple tender slices of chashu, bamboo shoots, a boiled marinated egg, spinach and seaweed. Straightforward honest flavors, and a broth that's light enough for you to finish without heart palpitations.

"Bowls of Ramen are like snowflakes."

-Ramen Beast

Stay Experimental.

Global Lap 2014 (Words with the Ramen Beast)

Over my 2 1/2 years in Vietnam I grew accustomed to incredible 75 cent lunches and $5 hotel rooms. Icy beers at street side restaurants were 50 cents and a full service haircut with a straight edge shave wouldn't even take $1 from your pocket. I knew all the prices. I bargained for pennies. Even trips throughout Southeast Asia could be done cheap as chips with Air Asia and Cebu Pacific. The thought of spending in one evening as much as I'd ration for a week in Southeast Asia seemed crazy. I think differently now. While this guy still appreciates a good value and hates nothing more than getting taken- certain experiences comes with a price. The Japan experience certainly isn't one for shoestringers, but as an avid enthusiast of Asian cuisine I had absolutely no excuse. It was time.

Yakitori. Deceptively simple. Yet so much more.

Slivers of mysterious fish drape themselves over perfectly cooked grains of rice that force you to reconsider your opinion on the humble grain. Kurobuta pork chops laced with silky fat that dissolves on the tongue. A level of customer service so above and beyond any other destination in the world it's almost difficult to comprehend. The well known quest for perfection by the Japanese leads to some transcendent bites. Flavors and freshness you wouldn't believe until you tasted. Chefs leave their restaurant to bow to you after a meal. Hotel managers walk through winter's bitter bite in order to personally escort you to your destination. It's truly another world.

There's much more than much to talk about, so let's kick off Japan with an interview with the Ramen Beast, Abram Plaut (Instragram: eiburamu). This Bay Area native has been living in Tokyo for over ten years and I was lucky enough to stay with him and snack on everything the city has on offer. The guy eats absolutely everything- from lamb brains to fugu sperm sac to late night convenience store miso clam soup (top-notch hangover prevention) so we're a natural pairing for eating explorations. He's also a bit of a local food celebrity, with a weekly column in Japanese Playboy and regular appearances on television.

While Abram is game to take down most any land or sea creature, without a doubt his area of expertise and extreme dedication is ramen. Hold up. Just so we're clear- not the ramen you find sealed in plastic with dehydrated spices for 79 cents at Foods Co. Real Japanese Ramen.  We're talking about fresh, springy alkaline noodles. 15 hour broths. Tare simmered pork belly. Char-grilled spring onions. Layers upon layers of flavor. Japan's fast food and like nothing else on this planet.

Talk to me Ramen Beast.

What are the core elements of ramen?

There are basically three elements; soup, noodles and topping, although the variations are endless within. I think with traditional Chinese ramen, it's usually a simple one dimensional soup. It's a cheap food, and I don't think they've ever taken it to the level they do in Japan. You have miso, shoyu, shio and tonkotsu broth bases to start. Then theres tsukemen [dry ramen noodles with a concentrated broth on the side for dipping] which adds a totally new dimension. Then theres all the combinations of noodles and toppings. Even with the eggs it's a carefully calculated science; how long to cook them, cool them and marinate them. These are just the eggs! Japanese people are obsessed with perfection and I think it's that which has elevated the ramen in Japan more so than anywhere else in the world.

 A bowl of Kagoshima style Tonkotsu Ramen with crispy garlic. This bowl started off with a ladle of rendered animal fat before the broth and noodles were added. Vegetarians, go away.

Do you remember the bowl that started it for you?

I was studying abroad in Tokyo the summer between my junior and senior year in college. It also happened to be the year of the world cup in Japan! The very first ramen shop I went to was right next to my dorm. It was a miso ramen shop and it was fucking awesome and the gyoza was awesome. I must have eaten there 10 times in the 3 weeks I stayed at the dorm. Even years later I come back and I still think it's great. I think I lucked out, because if my first bowl wasn't legit like it was I might not be into ramen crazy like I am now. Also, after the summer semester finished I had a homestay with a Japanese man from Arizona. He showed me a late night spot serving Ramen until 5 am. Tonkotsu shoyu. You get your bowl and eat it on the street. After that I knew I wanted to live in Japan, I just didn't know 2 years would turn into 10.

What makes a good bowl of ramen great?

Impact. It's all about impact. Something that pops. For me the most important part of the bowl is the broth- the soup. It's the very first thing I taste. When you sip it, and it gives you that 'OH! Wasn't expecting that!'- that's what I'm talking about. My favorite bowls are the ones where you eat all the noodles and all the toppings, and there's still some soup left and you cant help yourself to finish the whole bowl and just crush it. A lot of ramen bowls aren't meant for you to drink all the broth, but my favorite bowls beg for you to finish.

Biggest ramen shop no-no?

Theres two main things. I don't give a fuck about decor or how the restaurant looks, as long as they put care into the soup and what they're doing. Maybe the guy is handling cash and handling noodles. Not ideal but I can live with that. As long as they are dedicated to their craft. When I walk into a place and it looks and feels like the staff is only working a part time job, going through the motions, and you can tell that the chef is just getting paid a salary and isn't the owner- these are all bad signs. In any of the chain shops that is gonna be the case. The ramen shops that have just one outlet, it's gonna be the main guy running the show. I cringe a little bit when I ask someone their favorite ramen shop and they tell me a chain shop.

How many bowls of ramen did you take down in 2013?


Prediction for 2014?

Depends on how much time I spend in this country (Abram travels quite a bit). If I'm in Japan I'm dedicated. I'm definitely planning on crushing 150 minimum- maybe 200.

Side of tender Chashu with bean sprouts and negi.

What's the craziest ramen you've had?

Probably pineapple ramen. Shop name is pa pa pa pa pine! It's a pineapple-themed ramen shop. One location serving hot shoyu ramen or a chilled alternative.

Do you feel your ramen knowledge and experience is both a blessing and a curse?

It's a curse in the sense that now I can't enjoy bowls that I definitely would have enjoyed a long time ago. If it isn't a cut above the rest it's one and done. No need to come back. It's a little cruel, a little harsh. I'm like a fucking snob, honestly. Theres so many shops I need to get to. But ya know, it's kinda fun cause the search is a lot of what makes it cause the search never ends. It's a curse but it's great to always be able to try new ramen.

What's the main problem with ramen outside of Japan?

I feel it's a combination of many things. The number one problem is outsourcing and ingredient availability. There's a few important components for noodles. The water is different abroad. It's hard to duplicate the noodles. It's difficult to get the best niboshi (dried anchovies) in the States. Also, there haven't been any pros who've tried to do their thing abroad. It's only gotten competitive recently. Up until now the demand has been higher than the supply. It's inevitable the ramen quality will go up. Ramen shops are opening quickly, the good ones will weed out the bad ones.

もつ そば- Wagyu Intestine Tsukemen in Kyoto. With Tsukemen you can expect a bowl of room temperature noodles with a separate bowl of broth- usually much saltier and more concentrated in flavor than typical ramen broth. Supreme indulgence.

Talk about current Ramen trends in Tokyo.

Five years ago it was tonkotsu and fish based broths. Then tsukemen started to blow up. Trends are constantly changing, especially in a city like Tokyo with endless ramen options. In my opinion though, when you're looking for the next rush, that extra kick- tsukemen is the new ramen. For the hardcore ramen junkies, it's the next level.

Last supper ramen

The soup at Oyaji Ramen (Machida) is my #1 Miso Ramen soup in Japan.  Maybe there are a couple of bowls that I would say from top to bottom are better but something about that soup at Oyaji is just incredible to me.  The noodles are pretty good, the toppings average, but the soup brings me back again and again.

If you were a bowl of ramen what would you be? 

Something memorable and unique and great.

Stay Beastly.

Global Lap 2014 (Intro)

74 days, 18 train rides, 17 flights and 3 continents equaling 1 westward lap around this world. From SFO back to SFO- the scenic route.

My journey started with stints in Taiwan and Hong Kong. I've been to these spots before but  still have some friends there begging for my company so I decided to do a little Oriental island hop before the main event. Those first 8 days are still a haze. Anyone who's sipped spirits in Hong Kong knows what I'm talking about. I was feeling the physical after-effects for quite some time but it was without a doubt a power-packed start to my trek.

I've let my gripes be known when it comes to Taiwanese food, but there are a handful of dishes I'd happily devoir over and over again when given the chance. 凉面 [Liang Mian = 'cold noodles'] is one of those. Chilled wheat noodles with a garlicky, spicy, sweetish sesame sauce. Occasionally you'll see a bit of shredded omelet and/or carrots on a plate of Liang Mian but this Zhongshan district vendor kept it clean. A perfect plateful for a balmy Asian afternoon. The lady enthusiastically gave me the recipe, a cookie and refused to let me pay for the noodles. If only it worked like that in Europe.

I'm not alone when I say that 燒鴨 [Roast Duck] in Hong Kong (like Pizza in Naples or a Juicy Lucy in the Twin Cities) just feels like something you should be eating. Oh, I ate. The salty ginger scallion sauce improves anything it touches. As does rendered duck fat.

Join me as I encircle the globe- eating everything within arm's reach in pursuit of that perfect bite. It's out there.

Stay Global.

Enter Sri

For the latter portion of our trip the three of us decided to take a quick break from the Republic of India and hop off to a neighboring island. At this point we weren’t necessarily over Indian grub (well, Kagwa perhaps) but a change was most definitely welcomed. There's only some much roti and chicken fry the bowels can take. Enter Sri Lanka. We winged down via Spice Jet- quite possibly Asia’s worst airline. Anyways, we made it. New country, new people, new landscapes and new bites.

A young Sri Lankan corn peddler.

 A fishmonger showing off his yellowfin offering. This fish be everywhere.

Tuna features prominently in the cuisine of this teardrop nation. Usually cooked in either a green or red ‘curry’, chunks of tuna are served with rice and an addictive condiment called pol sambola. More on this shredded coconut sensation later.

Fresh tuna is also boiled, smoked and sun dried to make a product called Maldive dried fish, which is used to season and flavor countless local dishes. Think of it as Sri Lanka’s fish sauce.

Pol Sambola. 

It’s a condiment, but it may very well be the most delicious thing in Sri Lanka. Peep preparation technique: Freshly shaved coconut is hand-pounded in a mortar and pestle with chilis and shallots. Fresh lime juice and flaked Maldive dried fish are added and the whole mess is pan fried in coconut oil for a few minutes until it crisps up just a touch. For fresh coconut connoisseurs such as myself, this stuff is heaven. The coconut has a splendid natural sweetness that plays well with the other spicy, salty elements.

No utensils necessary.

Plastic lining. Just like your grandma's couch.

When you've had your tuna fix, try sampling some Kothu Roti. It isn't hard to find, just follow your ears. All across the island at night you can hear the telling sounds of metal slapping metal- a cook chopping fresh roti with mixed vegetables (cabbage, carrots, onions) eggs and a protein of your choice. A national favorite, many Kothu Roti spots are open until the wee hours to satisfy the night owl locals. Unfortunately, both times I ate this dish I wanted to like it more than I actually did. Tasted like a southeast asian stoner mashup- only problem was I wasn't stoned. Perhaps I should have done like the islanders and indulged in healthy amounts of pre-meal Arrack to lubricate the buds.

A fisherman and his beloved Arrack.

Arrack: Fermented and distilled coconut palm flower sap.

Strength: 67 proof

Price: ~$5 bottle

Aroma: Butterscotch & Vanilla

Taste: Watered down rum- in a good way.

Stay Tipsy.

Ingestible India (Part IV)

When I used to think Indian food, gravy-based plates like Rogan Josh (Braised Lamb), Palak Paneer and Murgh Makani came to mind. Or perhaps various meats charred in a tandoor with some puffy garlic naan. Generally the Indian food we eat at restaurants in the U.S. is Northern style. The south does it different. Cream and curd thickened curries are replaced with thinner renditions, flavored with chilis and fresh coconut milk. In Kerala, oceanic creatures are eaten daily and hand-tossed flaky roti paratha and steamed appum are the breads of choice.

Anchovies: one of the most under appreciated fish in the sea.

 Gobi Manchurian. An Indian adaptation of Chinese style sweet and sour- said to have been originally developed by Chinese immigrants living in Kolkata. Cornflour breaded Cauliflower is fried and tossed in a sticky spicy glaze. Indian vegan pub grub.

 The beloved Dosa, here served with a coconut chutney and a ramekin of ghee (clarified butter). The batter is typically made from rice and skinned black gram. It's left to ferment overnight- creating that characteristic tangy flavor similar to San Francisco sourdough- yet more addictive. Yeah, I said it.

Typical Kerala style lunch. Heat level: medium high. Always some paratha on hand to sop up that oily, heavily spiced gravy.

 Mark Twain's long lost cousin cooking up some paratha and omelets on a tava. Shirtless cooking is fairly commonplace in India. The chef should be comfortable in his domain. I'd definitely go topless if I could. The 'stache is real by the way. I asked.

Fun fact: Kerala actually translates to "Land of the Coconut Trees", and produces around 45% of the India's tree-hangers. Few countries I've been to thrived in front of the camera like these folks. Smiles a plenty in the subcontinent. Unfortunately, the coconuts generally paled in comparison to places like Bến Tre or even neighboring Sri Lanka. Still beats out the canned stuff by light years.

Stay Streetside.


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