thinking about japanese food right now

an izakaya in minato-ku

some weeks ago my friend mar called up to ask me if i’ve eaten in little tokyo, and my response was typically me: mar, i said, i’ve eaten in tokyo. i went to japan during the cherry blossom festival in 2011, and that short stay changed my opinion of japanese food. there was a time that i would be happy to visit tokyo tokyo for a beef bowl, but ever since i returned from my short visit, my taste buds have suddenly become hypercritical of anything that pretends to be japanese. my suddenly fastidious palate may be blamed solely on my hosts. ava and brian are themselves very picky eaters, and they made sure that i sampled the best of japanese cuisine. and unfortunately for me, my tongue remembers. unfortunate, i say, because these days, i am difficult to please.

a ramen restaurant in roponggi

nevertheless, a less sarcastic reply to mar’s question should have been yes, i have actually eaten in little tokyo, which is a complex of small japanese restaurants between amorsolo and chino roces in makati city. if you’ve never been to tokyo it would be quick not to mistake the place for an actual backalley in the japanese capital with its dimly-lit corridors and noisy air. were it not for the filipino spoken by the wait staff and the obvious lack of that piercing pitch when they greet you welcome!, it just might look like some part of tokyo, what with all the japanese who blow copious amounts of smoke to the makati air you find there.

mar and i had an okonomiyaki (which is some kind of japanese pizza but with noodles -- essentially, pasta -- as toppings, and a bed of cabbage and egg as the crust) and chicken wings at kagura. if your knowledge of japan is limited to what you see in popular culture, then yes, you might think the restaurant’s lack of a central theme, its small, spartan space, the plain-shirted cooks, and the giggling waitresses took too many pages from a dated japanese movie, it is because some scenes in tokyo look like they were staged for a movie. but i digress.

at tsukiji in tokyo

this post is really about japanese food. my main source of news is twitter, which means unless i actually click links to read about a news item, my knowledge of current events is limited to short titles that fit into the 140 characters that are allowed. so i don’t know much about the european food scandal involving horse meat. i don’t know if the issue has to do with cost -- that horse meat is cheaper -- or one about health -- that horse meat tastes awful and is bad for you, but my experience with horse meat is very different.

after half a day walking around yodabashi camera in akihabara, brian and i went to have lunch at a restaurant where you place your orders through a vending machine. lucky for me brian’s japanese is as good as anyone’s in tokyo and that the machine had actual pictures, so it didn’t take me long to decide. the vendo spits out a coupon which you hand to the unsmiling cook who does not make eye contact with you and in a few moments (probably earlier than you expected) he slides your bowl on the counter. now i was very happy with my bowl of beef curry but brian was unconsolable. he apologized for the food there and promised that we would eat at a proper izakaya that evening. and we did. what he ordered was horse sashimi.

i’ll be honest that i wasn’t exactly licking my chops when he told me what it was. but given my adventures with food, this wasn’t so difficult a challenge, but i didn’t know what to expect -- i was unsure if i would enjoy it. but one slice of the red, succulent meat was all it took for me to conclude that my expectations may not have been high, since the result was nowhere near what i had imagined. i liked it. i liked it very much. it was tender, and had a subtle sweet flavor to it. brian was actually not surprised; he knew it was good. expensive, but very good. so yes, i am unaware why horse meat-tainted food has become an issue. it’s that i don’t even know why food producers would throw in horse meat into the mix; as far as i know, horses aren’t primarily raised for food.

really good ramen doesn't have to look very pretty -- you close your eyes and you're in noodle heaven

another japanese dish that’s been ruined for me is ramen. i’ll come clean and admit that prior to visiting japan, the only ramen i’ve had are the one’s made by nissin’s, and it’s not such an exaggeration that i would prefer lucky me pancit canton over it any time, but after having two of the best bowls of ramen in the space of two days has convinced me that you haven’t had ramen unless you’ve had it in japan. but not just any restaurant in japan. it has to be a really good ramen place, the kinds that serve JPY 1,500 bowls.

a bowl of the rare tantarmen at ukkokei

ava and brian swear by one ramen place near their roponggi district apartment: ippudo. and although i haven’t had many bowls of ramen prior to that evening (hence the unfairness of my sweeping comparison), i’ve had many bad bowls afterwards. i’ve tried many ramen restaurants here in manila and have largely gone home unimpressed. ukkokei has had marginal success with me -- i’m satisfied with it to go as far as recommending that ava and brian visit it. i hope i don’t disappoint them, when they do find the time to go there.

last week ava and brian paid me a visit to check on my fractured state and to drop off some omiyagi. they brought me two instant ramen bowls from 7-11. but not just any instant ramen, but nissin’s crack at ippudo. brian described the process for me: soak the noodles, meat and vegetables in boiling water for 3 minutes, place the other condiments over the closed lid, and enjoy a piping hot bowl of ramen. i have to admit that it’s the best ramen i’ve had that came in an easy-cook version. i’ll take this anytime over lucky me, or even most of the ones you find at the asian section of your neighborhood grocery.

this is the 2nd omiyage that the gohs brought me this year. about a month ago when they first came for a brief visit, brian grabbed a box of instant ramen from the airport’s gift center, and i’ve enjoyed making myself some bowls of noodles. it’s just noodles, ginger, and paste in the pack, so it gave me an opportunity to be creative. i suddenly looked up “how to make ramen eggs” on google and rummaged supermarket racks for mirin and sake, but although the noodles are of really good quality, the soup has been lacking in the flavor i’ve come to associate with ramen, i’m happy to make them. the preparation for this bowl is a little more complicated: you boil the noodles for a few minutes, drain them, throw away the water where you’ve boiled the noodles, and mix them in a bowl with a fresh batch of hot water.

i mix these with some naruto (it's the white, starburst-shaped discs with pink swirls) i came across at a japenese grocery, seaweed i just happen to have, green onions, and the ajitsuke, which is better than the one i had at ramen x, shinjuku in little tokyo, and this ramen place along macapagal avenue i visited after the bastille day in sofitel. what’s good about this is that i could actually prepare most of the ingredients at home, bring them to the office pantry, and just pour myself a bowl of hot water, and have a hearty lunch!

little tokyo in makati

so i've been thinking about japan and japanese food right now. it's not just a craving to go back. this entry has been wanting to be written. it was exactly two years ago when i started preparing for my trip to japan, and save for a few facebook posts and twitter updates, i never really got to writing about it. maybe this means i should. i have to.