Monday, December 16, 2013

2013: The Year in Ramen

While Budapest can boast a million wonders, ramen noodles are not one of them. The Queen of the Danube lacks ramen-ya, the classic Japanese ramen shops that specializes in ramen noodle soup and gyoza, the little meaty dumplings that accompany them. I can't understand why that should be the case: Hungarians love noodle soups, and they love dumplings. They are fascinated by anything Japanese. How could they let this get away from them? There are about a dozen sushi shops around town serving raw fish to avid Magyars - a people not known for stuffing raw fish into their mouths - not to mention at least a thousand ex-pat Japanese who, to be objective, would eat Japanese food all the time if given their druthers. Yes, the Japanese are as provincial about their tastes as any Hungarian. A Magyar wants a taste of paprika in everything they eat, a Japanese expects everything to taste of sloy, fermented fish and seaweed. The world is a big and wonderful place, is it not? So no ramen in Budapest for the foreseeable future. However, by a freakish stroke of luck, we spent much of the the summer in Teaneck New Jersey. Teaneck, which is affectionately referred to by many of its native sons as "Jewtown, USA" is conveniently located near the nuclear epicenter of the western hemisphere's ramen noodle production: Sun Noodle. Sun noodle is a Japanese-Hawaiian noodle manufacturer that makes a noodle that some say are among the world's best. A few years ago they set up shop in Teterboro, New Jersey to supply the demand for high quality fresh noodles among New York's booming ramen scene. Ever since Chef David Chang started the neo-ramen shop craze a decade ago with his Momofuku Ramen in New York's east village (named after the inventor of the instant ramen noodle, Momofuku Andoh, who founded Nissan Food Products) ramen shops have sprouted all over New York. You think those chewy, springy ramen noodles were carefully crafted by hand in the back of a tiny noodle shop in Greenwich Village? Think again. They were made in New Jersey. Everything is made in New Jersey. By now, most of the better Japanese ramen franchises have set up shop around the New York area as well. Pop out of a subway station or pull into a suburban strip mall and you can usually find a decent ramen-ya waiting for you.
A good ramen-ya is like a good deli: it serves a limited menu of a comfort food but it can take a fierce pride in doing that task as close to perfect as possible. Ramen is to Japan what pizza is to New York: a slightly foreign dish (Chinese vs. Italian) that has been taken to heart, improved on, and made a central pillar of the local identity. New Yorkers are adamant about pizza (as anybody who watched Jon Stewart's Daily show pizza rant knows) because in Italy pizza is just a food. In New York it is The Food. The Japanese feel that way about ramen. I like ramen. Maybe not as much as my Significant Tokyo-born Other, who would take a train to Vienna in search of a bowl of "real" noodles. Vienna, incidentally, no longer has its two classic ramen shops, meaning that the closest decent bowl of ramen would be in Berlin, or possibly in Cracow.

Handsome Guy Gourmet Tofu stand
But a summer in New York means we can get our fill of ramen. Now, I do not drive. I don't like cars. Cars do not like me. Automobiles want to kill me, and they have tried and failed many times, which makes living in a Jersey suburb pretty much impossible for me. In order to get into New York from Teaneck I have two choices: hike up to Route 4 and catch the cheap "Spanish Bus" mini vans that run into northern Manhattan, or else the NJ Transit local bus at the end of our street, which takes us to the Mitsuwa Mall

You can have Santoka Ramen or Information, but not both.
in Edgewater, NJ, from where we can catch the Mitsuwa shopping shuttle bus to the 42nd St. Bus terminal. Mitsuwa is a full size Japanese shopping mall - complete with a giant supermarket in which you can buy Japanese toothpaste as well as fermented squid guts - but it also means I am pretty well sure that my day starts with a bowl of ramen from Santoka, which is only one of about seven different restaurant window choices on offer. There is a place offering Japanese-Chinese rice plates (hamburger and gravy on rice! Gyoza dumplings! Omrice!.) Another does udon noodles, another does tonkatsu and fried food, yet another "Kaiseki" set menus. All around ten bucks, which makes the food court a major draw for Japanese families in the New York area on weekends. Not to mention the location: Mitsuwa's food court looks out over the Hudson onto the Manhattan skyline, which alone makes it one of the more stunning dining options in the metro area.
Best panorama view of NY City available for $7.00
Santoka is oneof the leading Ramen chains in Japan, and for Fumie perhaps the main draw is the side dish of a bowl of rice with a whopping helping of salmon roe dished on top - an extravagant luxury in Japan, but here in the USA it is treated like sprinkles on an ice cream cone.

Shio Ramen, spicy miso ramen, and salmon abortion on rice. 
After picking up a few (yes, there are quite a few) of the Japanese expat and local community newspapers at Mitsuwa Fumie decided to go for the trifecta: let's try all the high end ramen-ya in the area. Next stop: Setegaya Ramen in Fort Lee. Named after a Tokyo neighborhood, this is located across the street from our favorite Japanese coffee and pastry shop, a place where you can get green tea cake and cold spaghetti sandwiches. Setegaya is a tiny place that serves only ramen and gyoza, and for lunch everybody gets the combo of... ramen and gyoza.

Setegaya set lunch.
You can order the shio (salt broth) ramen, shoyu (soy) or miso broth ramen, as well as the tsukemen ramen - ramen where the broth and noodles are served separately and combined by the diner. A bit pricier than Santoka, but still cheaper than any New York ramen-ya. How do I know that? Because the next ramen-ya on the list was New York's upscale Ippudo Ramen. Ippudo has been wowing New York's yuppoisie with its ramen noodles specializing in... noodles that are not curley.

Mo' noods.
Basically, capellini in broth. And as a special added treat, you can get a second helping of noodles plopped into your bowl after you finish the first, if you wish. Go on, make your banker happy and order the extra noodles! It was good, but I don't do posh well. Here you had to take a number and wait for a seat and eventually we were taken upstairs to the semi-industrial extra dining bar above the main floor. Good noodles, but Fumie had to have the special steamed bun with pork belly "burger" ...

Present Holy grail of New York foodies.
And what's better, I get big boyfriend points for taking Fumie to a posh midtown eatery.The big news in ramen noodles this year is something that English speakers probably don't even know about. The new thing in Japan is... a new kind of ramen noodle that comes "fresh" but you can make it at home. The days of the old dried package of ramen, and the styrofoam cup'o'soup are numbered, and Fumie has been getting care packages of these new fangled ramen noodles sent from home. Not only that, but Japanese business visitors have taken to bringing packages of these along as gifts, knowing the delight that will light up the faces on their clients and tech help when they get these "nearly fresh" ramen noodles. And yes, they are pretty darn good.

Pork belly and spinach ramen. Home made. In Hungary.


Share Clear Best Cardsahring Cccam Server said...
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Anonymous said...

You must have a good relationship with your butcher to find yourself a pork belly that hasn't already been turned into szalonna. Don't get me started on the knowledgable butchers here.

Unknown said...


Would it be possible for me to give you a call.

Hotel Murah Di Jakarta said...
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Myles said...

I've found your blog as I've been looking for Slovakian trout fly fishing. I also live in Budapest. When did you last go to the Revuca are is getting a permit still easy?

Thanks, Myles