Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Ms. Koizumi Loves Ramen Noodles -- A Parable of Obsession

Ramen may not be the noblest of noodle soups, as I'm never shy about opining, but I have to admit it's got a lore you can't ignore -- and I am not immune. I've got a duly purchased copy of the landmark movie Tampopo, several ramen-themed T-shirts including four from Uniqlo's recent line, and I recently subscribed to Crunchyroll for long enough to keep up with an anime series about ramen love.

The series in question, Ms. Koizumi Loves Ramen Noodles (Rāmen Daisuki Koizumi-san) is about a mysterious and beautiful transfer student at a Tokyo high school who attracts the attention of her peers, especially other girls (boys apparently feel intimidated by her). Koizumi-san (her given name is never revealed) is very distant, one might even think autistic, and shuns all social contacts except in the context of eating ramen. She rebuffs all solicitations of friendship or companionship, though when the rquest is to follow her into the ramen shop she is headed to at the moment, she responds with "I don't care" or "Do what you like."  Once seated at a ramen bar, however, she will sort of open up, robotically spouting her vast knowledge of ramen styles, ramen ingredients, and ramen shops.

The main problem with the series is that there is no real plot.  There is a glimmer of hope for one, halfway through the series when the boyish Yuu, who has a mad girl crush on Ms. Koizumi, finds her fainted on the street from hunger while waiting for a ramen shop to open. Yuu carries Koizumi-san to her apartment and revives her by cooking a variety of ramen-like soups of her own creation for her. Ms. Koiozumi expresses her admiration for Yuu's creativity, and we hope for a romance to blossom, but no such luck. Once her ramen withdrawal pains are gone, she becomes the ice queen once again.

What you will find in this series is what amonts to an animated tutorial on the state of ramen in Japan today, tailored to novice and intermediate ramen-heads alike.  How about some euglena ramen? Or ramen that has a blizzard of fat back shaved into it?

 You can now watch the entire series for free on Crunchyroll, There are three segments to each half-hour episode, so you may find as many as three different ramen styles covered in a single episode.  The list of episodes will give you an idea of what you are in for:

  • Episode 1 – Garlic With Extra Vegetables / Maayu / Rich 
  • Episode 2 – Hokkyoku / K-K-K-K-Koizumi-san 
  • Episode 3 – Saimin / Flavor Concentration Counter / Instant Noodles 
  • Episode 4 – Western Restaurant / Red or White / Convenience Store 
  • Episode 5 – Tomato Ramen / Euglena / Huge Line 
  • Episode 6 – Morning Ramen / Hiyashi / Museum 
  • Episode 7 – Nationwide 
  • Episode 8 – Local Instant Noodles / Iekei 
  • Episode 9 – Mountain / Pork Guy / Back Fat 
  • Episode 10 – Ramen With Unknown Flavor / Conveyor Belt Ramen / Accepting Challenge 
  • Episode 11 – Tasty Ramen / Osaka 
  • Episode 12 – Nagoya / Reunion 

I once read of a (possibly apocryphal) Japanese proverb thst reads "People suffering from the same disease have much to talk about."  Whoever penned that may have had rameniacs in mind.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Cambodian Legend: Dhmen Jay And [Not Exactly] The World's First Noodles

Source: Khmer Forums

If you know me, you know that I will shine my little light into the deepest recesses of the World Wide Web looking for useful insights into noodles. .  You won't be surprised, therefor, that I found an interesting and informative piece on Cambodian noodles on, which bills itself as "the leading place for civil discussion of the center-right and beyond."

The very civil post I found by member "LC", simply headlined as "The World's First Noodles," recounts in detail the life of a legendary Cambodian "trickster" (hmm...), Dhmen Jay, a young man who lived at the start of the Common Era in Nokor Phnom, the first unified Khmer kingdom (AD 100-500).  To make a long story short, he was exiled to China, got himself in and out of trouble and eventually left China wealthy for having introduced noodles to China.

Any claim for Mr. Dhmen to have invented noodles 2000 years ago, of course bumps up against science, since archaeologists have found a 4,000 year old bowl of noodles in Qinghai Province, China. It's possible, I suppose, he may have come up with the World's First Rice Noodles, or the World's First Fermented Rice Noodles to be specific,  though to demo the making of such noodles he woiuld have to have traveled with more equipment than a rock band, judging from the must-see video in the middle of this post.

After dispensing with the legend of Dhmen Jay, poster LC provided some truly useful info about Khmer noodles:

"The world’s first noodles or not, Khmers love num banh chok, which is the name of our noodles, and also the names of the dishes made with these noodles. Num banh chok is fermented rice noodles. First, the rice is soaked in water to soften the grains. The rice is then grounded into a liquefied batter with a stone mill. Afterward, the batter is placed in a cloth bag and a heavy stone is placed on top to squeeze out water, while the dough begins to ferment in the process. The drying dough is then boiled until it becomes soft, before being transformed into a smooth dough. The transformation process includes a lot of pounding and another boiling. After the second boiling, the dough becomes very hard. Next, it is pounded in a large stone mortar with a wooden pestle. After the pounding, the dough transforms from a hard ball to a smooth, elastic dough. It requires additional kneading by hand for some time. The dough turns snow-white; it looks almost like whipped cream cheese, and finally the dough is ready to be turned into noodles. The dough is spooned into a metal mold with a perforated bottom. Once the mold is filled, it is pressed down through the perforated bottom directly into boiling water. The cooked noodles are then rinsed in water until they’re completely cooled down. With the water squeezed out, the noodles are looped and coiled and they are arranged in a lotus or banana leaf-lined basket in concentric circles; the noodles are ready for the market or the table." 

"There are four num banh chok dishes: num banh chok samlor Khmer, num banh chok samlor krahamnum banh chok samlor kari, and num banh chok Kampot. Num banh chok samlor Khmer is noodles with green fish gravy, num banh chok samlor kraham is noodles with red fish gravy, num banh chok samlor kari is noodles with red chicken and sweet potato curry and num banh chok Kampot is noodles with crushed dried shrimp tossed with pineapple fish-sauce dressing and topped with roasted peanuts and coconut cream.
"Num banh chok samlor Khmer and num banh chok samlor kraham are served with a huge variety of raw vegetables such as banana blossom, cucumber, long beans, bean sprouts, papaya, young mango leaves, water lily stems, water hyacinth flowers, sesbania javanica flowers, some edible border plants, and countless herbs. The other two dishes require fewer adornments. Of course, these adornments also change with the season. Aside from these four dishes, num banh chok is served as an accompaniment to many other dishes as well.
"Num banh chok samlor Khmer, also known by its other name, num banh chok samlor praher, is so ubiquitous and so loved that we simply refer to it as num banh chok Khmer. In Khmer cuisine, num banh chok Khmer is in a category of its own. We simply eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner or a 2 a.m. snack."
*  *  *  *  *

If you live in the Bay Area, you are fortunate to  be able to sample Khmer noodles and other classic Cambodian fare in a nostalgic environment (featuring 60's Khnmer rock and roll!) at Nite Yun's Nyum Bai in Fruitvale.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Half Nudel Frontity From Kim Kardashian

I don't know much about Kim Kardashian, other than she's apparently one of those people who are famous for being famous because she was on a reality TV show, much like our current President. Since I don't watch much on TV other than news, baseball and Seinfeld re-runs, she only enters my consciousness by occasionally showing up in my noodle content searches. She apparently likes noodles, particularly ramen, and recently emphasized the fact by posting an Instagram of herself eating noodes topless.  Ms. Kardashian's breasts, or at least her nipples, were obscured by her chopsticks hand and her bowl-holding hand respecively, so it mat be a reach to call it a half nudal frontity pose, but Full Noodle Frontity applauds every effort to bring more exposure to the enjoyment of slurping down noodles. We're not about to knock her efforts, you might say.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Two Roads To Laghman, Part I: Eden Silk Road

Laghman at Kashkar Cafe, Brooklyn
I've been fascinated, if not always totally enthralled, with the traditional Uyghur noodle specialty known as laghman since first sampling it at Kashkar Cafe on Brooklyn's Brighton Beach Avenue nine years ago. It's a Central Asian noodle dish, popular with China's Xinjiang Uyghurs as well as the populations of neighboring "-stans"* generally.  While laghman invariably starts with bouncy, muscular house-made noodles and colorful. toppings, the flavor profile it brings to the palate can sometimes be underwhelming.  Here's a clue from the excellent blog The Silk Road Chef
[Laghman]...  is noodles topped with a sauce of meat and vegetables. Basically anything is game – lamb, beef, chicken, green beans, bell pepper, bok choy, squash – whatever fresh vegetables are on hand. However, there are a few common points: onion, garlic, tomato sauce, and bell pepper are almost always present [emphasis mine].
Sound familiar? From too-timid hands, laghman can come to you tasting like under-seasoned spaghetti from too far up the Silk Road.

As happened with my side-by-side comparison of two relatively new self-serve udon shoips, my erratic scheduling afforded me the opportunity to do the same with two very different venues offering laghman, Eden Silk Road and Silk Road Express, this time with separate posts.

Laghman at Eden Silk Road

Eden Silk Road on O'Farrell St. in San Francisco's Tenderloin District (a.k.a. "Lower Nob Hill")  is one of three similarly named Bay Area outposts of  Xinjiang Herembag Trade Co., a Xinjiang-based empire of halal food venues. Eden Silk Road is a sparely but nicely appointed room that considerable thought and investment has gone into, and its managably-sized and well-focused menu offers many near eastern and Uyghur specialties that I will be eager to try. But first the noodles.

Eden Silk Road was nearly empty when I entered just after its opening for dinner service, understandably, since it was on the eve of Chinese New Year Eve. The restaurant closes for two hours after lunch service to prepare for dinner service, and prepared they were to hit the ground running, unlike some restaurants where my 5:00 entrance awakened a snoozing chef or two. 

I ordered laghman with lamb (beef is the default but lamb is available for the same price) and a side order of samsas (two to the order). Being a halal restaurant the serve no alcohol, so I ordered tea. (I suppose I could have brought my own flask of vodkas, like the good ol' boys at halal Kashkar Cafe in New York.) My samsa arrived promptly, followed by my main dish after a suitable interval. Thanks to the alacrity of service, both dishes arrived piping hot.

If I were to describe my laghman at Eden Silk Road, it would be healthy. The saucing was devoid of oiliness (the same could not be said of the samsa), and even the sparse lamb chunks were lean, yet tender. The veggie matter was cooked to the right degree of crispness, and the hand-made noodles (so claimed by the menu) bouncy and bitey. Alas, the "secret" Laghman topping was a bit bland to my taste (and there was nary a chili pot on the table to sex it up with). The visible ingredients were primarily the obligatory tomato, onions, bell pepper and garlic (eith too little of the last). Only the presence of some chewy "wood ear" mushrooms  gave a "made in China" stamp to the dish; the overall personality of the dish was sedately Mediterranean, with a very faintly spicy tinge.  I don't know if they accommodate adjustment requests, but if I ordered it again I would ask for more spice heat, which would, in my mind, make it a very solid dish. As for the samsa, they were tastefully filled with a lamb and spinach-like filling, but distressingly oily. Next time I'll try the manti.

Where slurped: Eden Silk Road Cuisine, 572 O'Farrell St. San Francisco

*According to Wikipedia it is especially popular in Kyrghistan and Kazakhstan, and also popular in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, northeastern Afghanistan and in regions of northern Pakistan,

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Instant Gratification: DIY Snail Broth Rice Noodles (Luosifen) From Luobawang

This is my first review of an instant noodle product, and it's a lulu (or maybe a 螺螺*). 

Several years ago I discovered Liuzhou Luosifen, a spicy rice noodle soup with a rich, tawny snail-based broth, thanks to Oakland's Guilin Clissic Rice Noodles. Surprising as that discovery was, I was just as surprised to discover a DIY instant version, in the form a large packet from Liuzhou company "Luobawang" staring up at me from the sidewalk bin of a Chinatown grocer. I snapped one up, and after admiring it on my mantle for a few days and with my kibitzer-in-chief away for rhe evening, I steeled my nerves to tackle it.

This was no 10¢ packet of Top Ramen. The $2.99 package weighed in at 280g (10oz) and inside were eight separate ingredient packets. In addition to the packet of dried rice noodles, there were separate packets for the snail soup base, sour bamboo shoots, pickled long beans, chili oil, vinegar, peanuts and dried bean curd skin (the last two for garnish).  Once I figured out which packets were which (there was no English on the small packets) the instructions (in English on the main packaging) were concise and clear: (1) Pre-soak the dried noodles for an hour in cold water, drain and set aside. (2) boil 500ml of water, add (in order) the soup base, sour bamboo, pickled beans, and the pre-soaked rice noodles. (3) simmer "until the rice noodle can be cut off by chopsticks" and (4) pour into a bowl, add vinegar and chili oil to taste, and garnish with the peanuts and dried tofu. 

The trickiest part was the done-ness of the noodles, since cutting off noodles with chopsticks is not my forte; I used the bite test, testing continuously until I had them just right.  The end product was a very tasty and filling bowl of noodles.  I don't think the broth was as rich and deep as the restaurant versions I have had, but I made the mistake of adding some of the (very potent) chili oil before tasting the broth, so I can't fairly describe the subtleties its character.  Overall, though, it was a good bowl of soup for three bucks, and I'll be buying more of the fixin's.

Product: Luosi Rice Noodles, by Luobawang
Place of Purchase: Komi Foods, 898 Stockton St., San Francisco

*Luo luo, "snail snail."

Friday, January 19, 2018

Self-serve Udon Slurpdown: Kagawa-ya Udon Noodle Company Versus Marugame Udon and Tempura

Image from Gurunavi -- learn about Udon the fun way

With the arrival of a branch of Japanese mega-chain Marugame Udon (990 stores, including 786 in Japan) at Stonestown Galleria, San Francisco now boasts two "self-serve" udon restaurants, including the local independent Kagawa-ya Udon at 1455 Market St. (known to some as "The Uber Building"). The "Grand Opening" of Marugame  (after a month-long "soft" opening) this week spurred me to catch up with Kagawa-ya, which had the bad taste of holding its grand opening last Spring while I was out of the country (slurping noodles in Shanghai) and atthe same time do do a quickie comparison between the two.

The two restaurants have several things in common, including, of course, "self-serve" (cafeteria-like) dining.  This involves ordering your noodle choice (and bowl size, if applicable) and sliding your tray down the track to choose additional toppings/sides (mostly of a tempura nature) while your bowl is being prepared. Kagawa-ya offers seven different bowls of udon, Marugame 10. (I won't go into udon esoterica, not even to tell you about bukkake udon, but you can learn a lot here). Both have a variety of tempura (nine for Marugame, a"variety" for Kagawa-ya -- I didn't count them) including a potato croquette  For additional sides, Marugame offers four varieties of musubi, plus inari. Kagawa-ya offers Spam musubi (reflecting the chef-owner's Hawaii origins) plus onigiri.

Both Kagaway-ya and Marugame specialize in sanuki udon (udon with a square cross-section), and both venues make them in-house.

1. Kagawa-ya Udon Noodle Company

First up was Kagawa-ya. An upside of being away when it opened, is that any opening day story I might have essayed would have ended up in the long shadow cast by the prodigious coverage by Japanese-American food blogger Foohoe (Sandy Wada).  Read it and become her fan here. Note,  though, as she acknowledged, her meal was comped.

Kagawa-ya was forlornly empty when I arrived, just before 1:45 on a chilly Tuesday afternoon and placed an order for the dish I hoped would be useful for comparison with Marugame's fare, Niku (beef) Udon (described on the menu as "Soy braised sliced beef, sweet onions, green onions, ginger and toasted sesame seeds").  As my noodles were being prepared, I slid my tray down to the tempura section and picked a shrimp tempura and a potato croquette as add-ons. Somehow I missed the step where I could have had the woman behind the counter add a soft-boiled egg, which would have made my bowl more comparable to what I was contemplating ordering at Marugame.

The ingredients promised by the menu came in a slightly, but not offensively, sweet (dashi?) broth, whose sweetness appeared to come from the onions.  The coarsely shredded beef was the weakest part of the dish, being overly chewy and not particularly flavorful. The restaurant's headliner, udon noodles, were nearly perfectly chewy, though teetering a bit towards over-cooked, perhaps due to the lateness of my lunch hour. The two pieces of tempura I selected were as expected, though the potato croquette was peculiarly limp, as if underdone.

A bit of sticker shock will hit you at the register at Kagawa-ya; my bowl of noodles and two pieces of  tempura came to $17.20 before tax & tip (there is a tip jar). Had I found and added the egg I craved, it would have been over $20 with tax, steep for lunch (unless you happen to be part of the gray hoodie target market).

2. Marugame Udon and Tempura

Compared to the loneliness of Kagawa-ya on a Tuesday afternoon, Marugame Udon was a veritable happening upon my Friday visit. Arriving at 2:25 PM, I joined a serpentine line outside Marugame's new digs at Stonestown Galleria, not in the food court, but at street-level between Olive Garden and Chipotle. The vast majority of the cheerfully anticipatory crowd were college-aged (and some high school-aged) Asians. 

Thirty-five minutes after getting in line, I was able to place my order for a large bowl of Nikutama Udon ("Served with Sweet Flavored Beef, Soft  Boiled Egg, and Kake Sauce." and proceeded to the tempura station where I selected, as I had at Kagawa-ya, a shrimp tempura and a potato croquette.  Once you've paid for your order, there is another station with free toppings, such as spring onion, cilantro, wasabi, ginger and tempura flakes. I added sparingly from this bar because I wanted to appreciate the flavor as prepared by the chef.

Marugame, unlike Kagawa-ya offers two bowl sizes,"regular" and "large." For comparative purposes, the "large" Marugame bowl appeared to be larger than the Kagawa-ya bowl, if only marginally so. The contents turned out to be quite different, particularly the "sweet" beef in Marugame's bowl. It was sliced much thinner than that of Kagawa-ya's and, as advertised, was sweet, very sweet, cloyingly so, as if it had been candied.  Oddly, the broth itself did not seem to pick up this sweetness, as it seemed less sweet than the broth in Kagawa-ya's niku udon. Other than the difference in sweetness, the broths seemed similar, perhaps both  were of the Kansai dashi variety (hey, I'm learning!). The noodles themselves were perfection, chewy without being overly firm or mushy. The "soft boiled" (actually poached) egg was an additional blessing.

Cash register comparison? Not even close.  My beef noodles with an egg and two similar pieces of tempura came to $13.60 before T&T at Marugame.

An Eater Los Angeles article proclaims that "Marugame Udon Might Be the Most Authentic Japanese Restaurant in LA" in the sense, I suppose, that McDonald's might be the most authentic American Restaurant in Tokyo. You might, in fact, get the impression that you are actually in Japan, especially if, like me, you've never been there. 

Where slurped: Kagawa-ya Udon, 1455 Market St., San Francisco; Marugame Udon, Stonestown Galleria, San Francisco