There’s a hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop Chinese-ish restaurant in the neighborhood. It has just three tables and a few stools at the counter. Lunchtime on Saturday: The only table available was the one by the door, so we took it. I was just tucking into my bowl of noodles when the door slid open and an old guy shuffled in. He took one glance at me and his shoulders sagged, his lower lip stuck out about a mile. Mom of mom-and-pop said, “It’s OK. You can take the table at the back.” No response. He studied his toes. “Yada?” she asked, a kid word meaning “you don’t want to?” He glanced at me again and then shuffled to the table at the back, sat down, and pouted. All I could do was smile; for once this kind of reaction wasn’t because I’m a foreigner. I was in his seat.
There’s a group of neighborhood gents who spend their weekend afternoons in that restaurant idly gossiping, large frosty glasses of oolong-high and lemon sour ushering them gently into oblivion.
I felt awful. He probably spent the week looking forward to hang time with his buds, and there I was, the proverbial roadblock on the highway to heaven.
The good news is we walked past the place today and the door was open to let in the much awaited sunshine. There he was, basking in his regular seat, frosty mug in hand, grinning like a two year old in a sandbox. I hope he had forgiven me.
At lunch today, my friend’s 10 year old ordered curry udon, which is usually fine for kids, but this particular place makes it pretty spicy. We were discussing this issue with the server when she said, “Hang on. I’ll be right back,” and trotted off to the kitchen.
And she came right back with a small bowl in her hand and in the small bowl was a small spoon and in the small spoon was a taste of the curry sauce.
The other day at the noodle shop, this guy was tucking into a bowl of soba and slurped with such strength and intensity that I thought he would inhale the chopsticks, the bowl and maybe even the table along with the noodles. One of his slurps echoed off the opposite wall, rebounded off the darkened woodwork and bamboo screens, knocked the bandana off the serving lady’s head, careened along the painted concrete floor, threatened to topple a rather elegant flower arrangement in an over-sized vase, and was finally dissipated by the flapping paper fans of the blissfully ignorant hen party seated in the opposite corner.
It was the Ringling Brothers circus of slurps, world-class, top-of-the-line, one-of-a-kind, not-to-be-missed.
OK, I would have been happy to miss it. Must remember to invest in some ear plugs.
Spaghetti Napolitan is a uniquely Japanese dish of spaghetti, ham, onion, green pepper, mushrooms and…ketchup. I had always thought it was kid food, but recently learned that it was invented by a chef at a hotel in Yokohama for the staff of the GHQ during the occupation. Authentic and excellent Italian food is widely available now, but at that time foreign food was largely unknown and Napolitan was considered to be the height of fashion. (To be fair, I didn’t know you could put anything other than meatballs and tomato sauce on spaghetti until I went to Europe, and where I come from, Jello with grated carrot in it was considered to be “salad”. But I digress.)
There’s a very silly TV show on every Sunday afternoon where random young women are asked to prepare a particular dish. Last week it was spaghetti Napolitan. The women chosen are always the same type: pretty, heavily made-up and stupid. They are offered all the standard ingredients required for some standard dish along with some red herrings. This time, one of them added beef tongue and another used udon noodles instead of spaghetti.
After that fiasco, we cut to the studio where a qualified chef cooks the dish properly. This chef used ketchup, of course, and made it in a wok, stirring it with chopsticks.
I don’t have issues with fusion cooking. In fact, one of the best curries I ever tasted was seasoned with habanera sauce, not a combination I would have thought of. And I always rub whole chickens with soy sauce when I roast them—it makes the skin nice and brown and gives the gravy a lovely umami. But when the chef reached for the ketchup bottle, I could hear a thousand Italian grannies turning over in their graves.
Some other unlikely combinations also put my teeth on edge. Convenience store sandwiches are always slathered in mayonnaise that often has wasabi in it. Canned corn turns up in a lot of odd places. Green tea gets mixed into anything that will stand still—traditional sweets, of course, but also ice cream, cake, cookies, candy, Kit Kats. I guess I’m a bit of a traditionalist, but I think green tea belongs in a teacup. Anywhere else is just…not my cup of tea. (Sorry.)
Some things, I believe, are not meant to be fused.
As this terrible year is mercifully drawing to a close, Tokyo has whipped itself into its annual December frenzy. Stores are packed with people scarfing up armloads of overpriced seasonal goods, most of which look better than they taste. It used to be that everything shut down for the year-end; central meat/fish/veg/fruit markets closed until the 5th of January, so stores were also closed and we had to stock up enough food for the duration. That isn’t necessary anymore, but I guess old habits are hard to break.
In addition to the shopping mania, the streets are decorated with bamboo, pine branches, braided straw and little puddles of masticated noodles. From about mid-December, the tradition is to go out with colleagues or friends, drink too much, eat ramen and then barf it up on the way home. If you don’t manage to hold it until you’re out of the station, it’s commonly referred to as “platform pizza”.
Charming, right? I won’t include a picture. You’re welcome.
The holiday craziness also brings out the worst in people. As the year-end hype builds up, people get impatient, pushy, outright rude. As an example, it is common train courtesy that if you are standing and the person sitting in front of you gets up, you get first option on their seat. Well, my friend Soness lives way out by the beach and was recently riding the train into town. She’d been standing up for about 45 minutes when the person in front of her got off the train. As she was preparing to sit, a man in a suit shoved her out of the way and took the seat. Now, Soness is no mere mortal. Without the blink of an eye, she turned around and sat in his lap. Horrified (and hopefully ashamed), he jumped up and let her sit down. You go, girl.
All in all, 2012 had some great moments but was a pretty awful year, not as bad as 2011, but awful in its own unique ways. Good-bye 2012. I won’t miss you. Let’s raise a glass to 2013 kicking your ass.
It was getting rather late in the studio last week and everyone was getting hungry, so they passed around a menu from a place that delivered. I chose curry rice, thinking that it was probably a safe bet. Wrong. What I got was some sort of congealed grey phlegm with great horking lumps of pork fat floating in it. I attempted to eat it but then decided I’d rather be hungry.
Rochi had a great time watching me writhe at the noodle shop today as I was surrounded by enthusiastic slurpers today. He says slurping is accepted because noodles are considered low class food and that no one but an absolute slob would ever slurp their green tea or miso soup. I’ve also been told that slurping makes noodles taste better and that it’s to cool them off, although why one can’t blow on them instead of sucking on them is a good question.
And I still don’t really get why they have to be eaten so quickly. The guy sitting next to me today got through a large pile of udon in four bites, six chews per bite. (Rochi counted. I couldn’t watch.) I’ve heard that it’s considered manly to be able to swallow soba noodles without chewing them at all. Rochi says it goes back to an ancient samurai tradition of eating as quickly as possible so one can get back to the more important business of killing people.
I once saw a short film about a guy in New York who loved ramen noodles but just couldn’t stomach the slurping at the local noodle bar, and finally solved the problem by detaching a pair of disposable chopsticks and sticking one in each ear. Now that’s thinking outside the box.
Yesterday at the noodle shop, the big man at the next table was a hardcore slurper. Seriously. He slurped his udon and my glass of tea jumped. Fortunately he was also the type who can finish his noodles in four bites, so the agony didn’t last long.
It takes me forever to finish a bowl of noodles. I was once working on a bowl of udon and Rochi had already long finished inhaling his soba.
Somewhat irritably, he said, “You chew too much. You’re supposed to swallow it whole.”
Poker-faced, I replied, “We come from different cultures. In my culture, we are encouraged to take small bites and chew our food thoroughly with our mouths CLOSED.” *
And then, just for fun, I gave a mouthful of noodles a good, hard slurp.
Rochi laughed out loud and said, “Yeah, nice try. It sounds silly when you do it.