Sunday, January 31, 2010

Tokyo Ramen Map

The Frugal Traveler of the NY Times recently wrote a piece about ramen in Tokyo. The article and accompanying slideshow are mouthwatering. He also put together a Google map of some ramen shops in the city.

View Tokyo's Ramen Shops in a larger map

I have been on a bit of a ramen kick since coming back from Vietnam. One thing I've learned is that the ramen egg is really important to me. It has to be a slow cooked egg so that the yolk is creamy and yummy. I had a hardboiled egg in a bowl this week and it just really ruined things for me. David Chang has a great little write up in his Momofuku cookbook about slow cooked eggs in Japan. You should buy his book if not for the recipes, for the interesting stories.

Kobe Cuisine :: Sobameishi, Kobe and Coffee

Kobe is awesome. Most people know Kobe because of their famous beef. If I were going to be reincarnated in my next life, I wouldn't mind coming back as a cow in Kobe. Of course, while we were in town, we had some steak - at a place called STEAK LAND. I mean, if you're going to name your restaurant Steak Land, I'm obviously going to eat there. It was good and we had the obligatory Kobe beef set but the true highlight of our trip to Kobe was trying Sobameishi, a mix of fried rice and yakisoba that is a specialty of Kobe.

Sobameishi is really filling and cheap so it is really popular with young people in Kobe. We got a recommendation from the hotel to try a small shop called KAZAMATSURI. The shop is run by a very nice family and they serve yakisoba, sobameishi and okonomiyaki. Sobameishi tastes a lot like yakisoba because of the sauce, but the texture is stick to your ribs good, especially since Kobe is pretty cold in January. We woke up the next morning jonesing for more, so we went back for another meal at lunch.

Kobe has a lot of cute cafes with a very European feel. It was one of the first cities in Japan to open up to westerners. I think another reason for the strong cafe culture is because one of Japan's largest coffee manufacturers is based in Kobe, Ueshima Coffee Company, or UCC. UCC introduced the now ubiquitous canned coffee to Japan. There is not better 3pm pick me up than a piping hot canned coffee out of a vending machine.

Our final great find in Kobe is actually a shop that is based in Nara but since we discovered it in Kobe, I'm giving them full credit. Floresta Donuts (awful name -- doesn't it sound like a sleep medication?!) are made with all natural and local ingredients. The wife and husband owners wanted to make donuts that they could give their kids and feel good about it. I'm not actually so worried about the nutritional value of my donuts, but these suckers are REALLY GOOD. They sold me on the free sample of the plain donut -- they have a great texture and inventive flavors. Thankfully, there is a Floresta shop in Setagaya in Tokyo. (And yes, those are my feet holding up my can of UCC Coffee in the background)

Oh yeah, and then there was this thing which I don't have much to say about other than that it was really yummy and we found it at a nondescript bakery under the train station. 

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Thanks Sylvia!

After we got back from Vietnam, we took a post-vacation vacation to Osaka and Kobe. During this trip, I discovered a fun little Japanese ritual -- the stamp rally. I was going to write about it, but my friend Sylvia, author of the travel blog Somewhere the Sun is Rising, just threw up an in-depth look into the stamp rally. So instead of writing about it, I'm sending you over to her lovely blog. So shoo! Go! Vamos! Geh weg!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Monkies and Mochi

Shimura's Zoo is a popular Japanese TV show which stars the lovable and talented chimpanzee, Pan-kun. The shows usually involve Pan-kun going on adventures with his bulldog friend James and his also adorable owner.

Mochi is glutinous rice cakes. During the New Year, families get together to make mochi from scratch in a tradition called Mochitsuki. I came across a mochi party in December and it looked like a lot of fun, but also a lot of hard work.

So what do the two have in common? Nothing really, but here is a cute video of Pan-kun making mochi with Ms. Universe (the transexual edition) Ai Haruna. If you are bored at work, I suggest googling Pan-kun's other adventures - notably, the one with the magician and the one where he uses the Tokyo Metro with James.

Dad's Favorite :: Com Tam

Going along with the nuoc mam theme, here is a simple but popular rice dish we had in Saigon, com tam. Com Tam is broken jasmine rice with a pork chop. It is usually eaten with pickled jicama and carrots, a dollop of scallion oil and a not so appetizing sounding pork skin salad -- don't let the name fool you, it's quite tasty. The small bowl on the right is the nuoc mam sauce that is spooned over the pork and rice.

Com Tam means "broken rice" but it is synonymous with this pork dish. The rice used really is broken - they are the grains of rice that have broken into tinier pieces through processing and transport. The pork's marinade is very sweet, so it works well with the saltiness of the nuoc mam although a fellow Australian diner disagreed. She asked the waitress for some soy sauce which made me cringe with anger and embarrassment. Sigh.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Banh Cuon Machine :: Breakfast of Champions

I mentioned in my last Vietnam post that all of my favorite Vietnamese dishes are ones that are either dipped or doused in nuoc mam, the most common sauce in Vietnamese cooking. Banh Cuon is one of those dishes and while we were in Hanoi, we were lucky enough to have a family run Banh Cuon shop right across the street from our hotel. I was totally mesmerized by these ladies' skills and even more mesmerized by the fresh steamed rolls they were dishing out. The filling is made of ground pork and mushrooms and topped with crunchy fried shallots and shrimp powder. They also made an egg filled roll which I have never seen before. We tried one, but I think the original filling is the best.

In the states, banh cuon is served with a side of nuoc mam but here, they had their own sauce made of a mix of pork broth, lime juice and fish sauce. I was a little skeptical given my love for nuoc mam, but their sauce was bangin'. As you can see above, we polished off quite a few plates during our 3 day stay in Hanoi and made quite an impression on the owners. You know it was a really good meal when I don't have a "before" picture of the dish because I was too excited to start eating.

Not that many people read my blog, but I was lucky enough to get my first comment from a stranger. The Ravenous Couple has a great blog about Vietnamese cooking and they recently posted a recipe for Banh Cuon.

Toraya Cafe :: Classy Japanese Sweets and Tea

Keeping with the Japanese theme, I stopped by Toraya Cafe in Roppongi for some tea and sweets. Toraya serves Japanese sweets and yummy teas. I ordered the Kuzu Purin a la Mode. Kuzu is a white bean paste and a la mode in this case means a dollop of the best whipped cream I have ever tasted. Goes nicely with my Chrysanthemem (?) tea. Purin 「プリン」by the way is the Japanese word for Pudding. Purin is a childhood favorite in Japan and is more like a creamier flan than the JELL-O variety we eat in the US.

Toraya Cafe, Roppongi Hills
Roppongi Hills Residence-B 1F 6-12-2 Roppongi-keyakizakadori
Roppongi Station (Hibiya, Oedo)

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My Lunch :: January 22nd :: Sakura Shokudou

One of my goals for 2010 is to eat a little healthier. It's not really about vanity as so much health - I suspect my current diet is to blame for my low energy and overall feeling of blarg. It's silly that I live in Japan and don't eat more fish. It's more of a mental thing than anything else - I didn't like it at all as a kid but as and adult, I find that I'm more tolerant and even sometimes enthusiastic for fish and seafood. It still doesn't hold a candle up to pork in my book (NOTHING EVER WILL) but it's a whole lot healthier for me.
Today I had a classic Japanese dish, Saba Miso - mackeral in a miso sauce at Sakura Shokudou in Roppongi Hills. It was nummy especially with the many sides it came with - tsukemono (pickles), miso soup, green salad with corn and potato salad.

Sakura Shokudou
Publish Post

Roppongi Hills North Tower, B1F
Roppongi Station (Hibiya, Oedo)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Asian Pancakes and Crepes :: Banh Xeo and Okonomiyaki

Banh Xeo is a southern specialty, more specifically a Saigon specialty. I asked a young girl in Nha Trang, a southern beach town, if there was a place we could get Banh Xeo and she straight laughed in my face. Banh Xeo is a savory crepe (a nod to the French) made with coconut milk and is eaten wrapped in lettuce and dipped in fish sauce. The most popular filling is shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. Banh Xeo may seem like a simple dish, but it really does have to be cooked perfectly to be truly appreciated -- it must be crispy on the edges and the batter should be light and fully cooked. I realized on this latest trip that my favorite Vietnamese dishes are the ones in which you either dip or douse the main course with nuoc mam, fish sauce mixed with vinegar, sugar, lime and chili peppers and Banh Xeo definitely fits the bill. I guess I'm a little addicted to that salty, tangy flavor.
There is a Vietnamese restaurant in my neighborhood in Tokyo that serves Banh Xeo and they market it as the Vietnamese Okonomiyaki. I found this to be pretty funny, but it does kind of fit the description. Okonomiyaki means "the things you like, grilled" -- ok, rough translation but that sort of gets the point across. It's a grilled pancake and the batter is mixed with all sorts of crazy things - squid, octopus, shrimp, cheese, pork, kimchi -- the list goes on. It is then topped with seaweed powder and mayo. Mmm...sounds good right?! I had my first Okonomiyaki last weekend in Kobe and it was DERICIOUS. I think the key to liking Okonomiyaki is to actually order the things you like. We opted or corn, cheese, spring onion and bacon. While we may have gotten a good laugh from the old lady that ran the joint, we absolutely loved our creation, so much so that we went back the next day and had it for lunch.

So there you have it folks - pancakes and crepes, Asian style.

My Lunch :: January 19th :: Cinagro Kitchen + Market

Omotesando (the fancier shopping street near Harajuku) isn't really known for food. I always have a hard time trying to find a good mid-shop food stop but today I stumbled upon Cinagro Kitchen + Market in the basement of the building that houses the MoMa store. It is an organic cafe and market and they offer a great lunch deal. I had a cured ham, parm and avocado sandwich on fresh baked wheat bread and it included a yummy mushroom soup and a trip to their salad bar. Awful music, but that's
to be expected in Tokyo. My lunch plus an iced coffee came out to ¥1,050 - about $12! Not bad!

Cinagro Kitchen + Market
GYRE Building, B1F, 5-10-1 Jinguame
Omotesando Station (Chiyoda, Hanzomon, Ginza) or Meiji-Jingumae Station (Chiyoda, Fukutoshin)

Monday, January 18, 2010

Chuc Mung Nem Moi! :: Happy Lunar New Year!

The timing of our trip was pretty perfect. Tet, Vietnam's Lunar Year celebrations, kicks off in early February but preparations for Tet start weeks before. There are many special Tet treats such as Banh Trung - a grilled sticky rice cake filled with pork and sweet beans and wrapped in a banana leaf. Dip it in some sugar and you've got yourself a tasty little treat. Sounds kind of gnarly, I know, but it is really tasty. My parents make Banh Trung every year for Tet and it is a really special treat for us. In the picture above, this woman is selling Banh Trung that you can grill yourself at home. My mom showed me this special young rice called com. She said that we were really lucky to be able to try it because young rice is only available during certain times of the year; dependent on the harvest schedule. It is somewhat of a Vietnamese delicacy. Lucky me! The rice is very aromatic - it smells a little like sweet perfume and has a chewy texture that I really liked.

Bun Bo Hue

When people talk about Vietnamese food, no doubt Pho, spring rolls and banh mi are the top three dishes that come up. Yes, these things are popular in Vietnam, but it seems that to Vietnamese people, Bun Bo Hue is truly a coveted dish. For some crazy reason, I had never had Bun Bo Hue before this trip and after trying it, it makes me super sad that I have been deprived of this wonderful dish for so long!

Bun Bo Hue is a mildy spicy pho-like soup that originates from, duh, Hue. The central region of Vietnam is often forgot. My mom says they're kind of invisible in the minds of Northerner's and Southerners but that's hard for me to believe since Bun Bo Hue shops were well represented in both Saigon and Hanoi. I tried my first bowl in Nha Trang, which is also known for making good Bun Bo Hue. It has a very strong lemongrass flavor and for you meat lovers, there are slices of tender beef and a whole pork shank in each serving. The noodles are thick rice noodles...similar to Udon noodles. Not my favorite, but with such a flavorable broth, I could care less what kind of noodles they use. Just like with Pho, you get a plate of fresh herbs and veggies to add to your hot bowl of soup. Throw in some bean sprouts, cilantro and a squeeze of lime and you're ready to go.

A tip about eating Vietnamese soups :: Because the broths are made from stewed bones, it is always best to eat soups like Pho and Bun Bo Hue in the morning when the broth is fresh and strong. As the day goes on, restaurants add water to the broth and you lose a lot of the flavor.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

I went to Vietnam!

One of the perks of living in Japan, for me at least, is it's proximity to my homeland Vietnam. I have been twice before, the first time when I was about 9 (1994?) and then again in college (2003?). This was my first trip to Vietnam without the complete guidance of my parents (ok....soooort of) which was both exciting and scary. Our trip started in HCMC/Saigon, 5 days in beachy Nha Trang, 3 days in Hanoi with a 1 day trip to Halong Bay, then back to Saigon for a day and a half. My mom and sister were also visiting VN so we fit in a fair amount of family time too, which is always A-Ok with me. Aside from seeing a dead body on the street (bike accident), a cooked dog (in the North...which is still common) and a bout of killer food poisoning, the trip was perfect.

I'll get to the food in some other posts, but this being my third trip in 15 years, I wanted to share some thoughts about how the country is changing...from my perspective at least. The first time I went to Vietnam, I was pretty young which was kind of a blessing. Vietnam was still trying to rebuild itself and it's people. Viet Kieu, Vietnamese people who have left the country, like my parents, were coming back to the country for the first time since they left. Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City was an absolute zoo. Eager families waiting to be reunited with their loved ones waited in a frenzy outside the baggage terminal. For my sister and I, this was the first taste of Vietnam. Oppressive humidity and lots and lots of hysterical Vietnamese people crushed up against a barricades. I remember the streets being stuffed with mopeds and it being hard to breath. Humidity plus ground level pollution - lethal combination. We made our trek to Soc Trang, my mom's hometown, a small village in the south near Can Tho. It was a very long trip but we got to see the country side - the colorful floating villages, The Mekong Delta and the people. Our western fashion clearly stuck out as we were hounded by child and senior beggars the whole trip. I met my grandmother for the first and last time on this trip which is most memorable to me because she is the only grandparent I have ever known. She bought me ice cream with condensed milk on top everyday (kem) and I enjoyed just sitting around hearing her talk to my mom, even though I had no idea what she was saying at the time. My cousins who had stayed in Vietnam were happy people and living a cushy life - 4 story house, a garage full of mopeds, with maids and cooks at their disposal. What I know now is that this isn't the portrait of your average Vietnamese family. Our family was and still is very lucky.

My second trip came in college, again with my parents, but not with my sister. I was eager to go back now that I was an enlightened and supposedly educated adult. This was a very different trip. In need of a real vacation, I begged my parents to take me to the beach town they had been bragging about for years, Nha Trang. Flights to Vietnam were cheaper now since more airlines were adding it to their international routes and tourism was growing. Saigon was a little glitzier this time around - mopeds were still overcrowding the streets but there were still a lot of new things to see. European style cafe's, big chain hotels and cleaner streets. Saigon looked like any other big city...sort of. We took the reunification express to Nha Trang. Holy jesus, it was slow it was about a day and a half to get to Nha Trang, which is a 45 minute flight from Saigon. But again, we got to see some country side views and I'm glad to have had the experience. This train won't be around for much longer. Vietnam Railways with some aid from Japan, is building a high-speed rail line with Shinkansen (bullet train) technology connecting HCMC and Hanoi that will cut down the travel time to around 5 hours. It currently takes about 36 hours. Yikes! Nha Trang was mind blowing. I had no idea beaches like these existed in Vietnam. I thought it was just another made up story my dad told us to make Vietnam sound cool! We stayed at the nicest resort in town, the Ana Mandara. LUXORY! It felt a little wrong to stay in a place so nice, in a country where people made less than $100 a day, but at the same time I welcomed the idea of westerner's coming to VN to see that it is a lot more than a war. There was so much development happening on the main street, Tran Phu. I remember wondering what it would look like a few year's time. (Foreshadowing...)

Fast forward to the present. Here I am in Tokyo, unpacked from my latest trip. It was an invigorating trip that made me really feel proud of my heritage. The streets are cleaner and the people are friendlier. The airports were calm - no barricades out front anymore. Saigon was a little quieter (if you can believe it!) and trendy cafe's and boutique hotels lined the streets. You could tell that many Vietnamese were coming back home after year's living in the West and were setting up restaurants and businesses in the city. The standard of service is much higher in the fancier areas, but even in the markets, things just seem to be a little calmer. One of the biggest changes I noticed was the lack of street beggars. Sure, we got a few people trying to sell us lotto tickets, but there just weren't as many gaunt children running around trying to get their hand on a dollar. When we did see kids, they were usually in a school uniform grabbing an after school snack. That's a good sign. Nha Trang has changed a lot as well. We once again stayed at the Ana Mandara but ventured out into town as much as possible. The main tourist area in Nha Trang was...kind of disappointing. It's overrun by cheesy western bars offering pizza and hamburgers. Some of the smaller hotels with names like the "Seaview" no longer had sea views because the new Novotel was erected right in front of their building, blocking their view. It's only natural that these things happen and I don't mean to sound cynical about the westernization of Nha Trang or Vietnam in general because in many ways, it is a really good thing, but I can't help but feel a bit sad and embarrassed that local business people are being pushed out by Australian, Swedish and American chains.

Up to Hanoi for the first time ever. What an experience! My dad's family is originally from the North so I was really happy to finally see what it is all about. We had been warned that the North and South are very different and that showed in almost every interaction we had. The northern accent is pretty much unrecognizable for me. I don't speak Vietnamese, but I can understand about 70% of what is being said. With the Northern accent, my comprehension takes a dive down to about 10%. Northerners are more buttoned up than Southerners - even the cyclo drivers wear blazers. No pajama parties up here! (In the south, most women wear pajama looking outfits called Ao Ba Ba) I guess the most critical thing I have to say about Hanoi is that it is colder, both in temperature and attitude. It's not a very smiley town and service with a smile is very rare. I don't take it personally, but people in Hanoi are just very serious and cold. That aside, I really liked Hanoi. I think I like it more as a city than Saigon because of all the historical preservation. It is a very charming city and I hope more people get a chance to see what it has to offer.

There are so many images from my trips that stick in my mind but from experience, many tend to fade as time goes by. That's the great thing about food - you always remember the food and the food will always lead you back to those fond memories of when you first had that dish. I always associate ice cream with condensed milk with my first trip to Vietnam, and Nem Nuong with Nha Trang. When I lived in New York, every once in a while I'd pass a hot dog vendor burning his pretzels and the smell would take me right back to a busy corner in Saigon where the sidewalks were filled with street food. So now that I've shared my memories with you...on to the food!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Kamukura Ramen :: New Year's Dinner

Most Asian cultures believe that eating noodles on New Year's brings you longevity and Japan is no different. Traditionally, soba noodles are eaten on the New Year's Eve but we opted for ramen noodles instead. We stumbledupon a poster of Wentworth Miller of Prison Break (huge in Japan) outside Kamukura ramen shop in Shibuya and had our last meal and beers of 2009.
あけまして おめでとう ございます‼

The giant menu and ticket machine is outside of the shop. They have lots of different iterations of their veggie broth ramen, but I would stick to their recommendations such as the negi/cha siu ramen pictured above. I like this place because their ramen doesn't weigh you down and knock you out like tonkotsu and hakata varieties. Lots of seats and hardly ever a wait, it's a great fall back if you can't find anything easy in super busy Shibuya. Other locations in Shinjuku and Ikebukuro.

Kamukura Ramen
29-4 Udagawacho
Shibuya Station (JR, Marunouchi, Ginza, Hanzomon)

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