Monday, March 29, 2010

Noodles and Stuff: Nabemono

Clearly the ramen post kicked off a noodle phase in my eating habits. After having a bit of nabeyaki udon (chinese cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, fishcake, poached egg and green onion simmered altogether in a pot) for dinner last night, I awoke still craving noodles. I realized that with Spring finally here, the season of noodles and dishes like nabeyaki have come to an end. Always behind the seasons, I felt inspired to write about those wonderful nabemono dishes that fix a blue mood on a cold rainy day.

Nabe is a cooking pot (clay or cast iron) and mono refers to all the ingredients that will be used for making a complete meal. Vegetables, meat and noodles are simmered together and served "family-style."

One famous example of nabemono is Sukiyaki, which is thinly sliced beef that is stewed in a sweet soy broth with tofu, shiitake and mung bean noodle. My mom's winter favorite is Oden which is a big production involving two different kinds of fish cake, fried tofu, cabbage, konnyaku, potato, radish, eggs and finally "treasure pouches" which are fried tofu skins filled with meat. A lot of work goes into making dishes like Oden, so much so that these days it's not uncommon to find frozen Oden kits that are ready to go. Ever anxious to keep up with the Kitty market, Asunaro also makes a Hello Kitty version of Oden that comes in a can...

Back in the Genyo era there was a limited seasonal kitty dedicated to nabemono called "Nabebugyo." The series featured 10 regional examples of nabemono. During my collecting days, I was only able to find one mascot from this particular series, but Kitty has a way of cross referencing herself in the regionals so I hoped for some luck.


This kitty version features a specialty of Hokkaido, Ishikari-nabe: Salmon stewed in a miso broth with potato, konnyaku, cabbage, chrysanthemum greens, radish, tofu, green onion and butter!

Ah! Close up of those hot pot ingredients...

As I had hoped earlier on, I did get lucky in the regional varieties. The next Kitty is one of my all time favorite original mascots: Houtou Kitty from Yamanshi Prefecture. In this dish the udon is an extra wide noodle that is a specialty of the region. The mono include Yamanashi specialties like mushrooms and Kabocha - that beautiful pumpkin-like squash. Everything is stewed together in a hearty miso broth.

No family-style service from this nabe. Kitty is IN the pot getting a heaping serving of that thick udon. I guess she loves the Houtou more than the usual nabemono. I wonder how Daisy feels about eating furry stew...

If you're interested in making nabemono, there's a number of fun/quirky videos on youtube that show you how to make a few of them like Oden.

Cooking with Dog: I am a new fan of these quirky but informative videos on Japanese cooking

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Alchemy of Fat & Carbs: Tonkatsu Ramen!!

Almost five years ago I did a post on a promotional line of Hello Kitty featuring Japan's "Ramen Devas". Deva is the sanskrit word for god or celestial one, so you get an idea of how highly regarded these gentlemen are. One of these devas makes a return appearance with a regional Kitty from Hakata, a ward of Fukuoka city on the southern island of Kyushu. I was fortunate to visit Kyushu many years ago and I loved it! As I watched the fog and rain roll in I had visions of Seattle. Sadly, my visit happened before Genyo introduced the regional and promotional kitty lines but more importantly, I was ignorant of regional specialty. I was too busy looking for Baumkuchen (I'll post on that if they ever make a kuchen-kitty) and Ohina dolls to take note of the legendary Tonkatsu Ramen.

Love pork or hate it, the rich taste and luxurious appearance of its broth make this noodle dish a distinct contender in the battle for best of the best in ramen. The broth is made by cooking pork bones until all the marrow and gelatin are released. This gives the broth its distinctive milky color and silky sheen. Traditionally it is topped with slices braised pork belly, green onion, red pickled ginger and hard boiled egg.


The tag for the plushie features chef Kitty and her ramen street stall or yatai. I can't tell what is on Daisy's plate, but its either very salty or sour considering her expression. Cod roe (mentaiko) or pickled ginger?

In the Genyo era version, Kitty dresses in her white ramenista uniform and presents a fresh bowl of creamy white Tonkatsu ramen. She can barely see over that bowl of noodles topped with slices of pork belly, green onion and ginger

In the Asunaro era, Kitty loses her chef whites and earns a pig costume. It's cute, but I prefer the Genyo version.

Just thinking about this post sent me to the Asian grocery to pick up some Tonkatsu style ramen and eat it before trying to blog on the subject.


It's not the real thing and its full of processed fat, carbs & MSG, but hey, I don't live in New York and this is the closest thing I will get to Hakata style ramen in the next few hours. This package boasts that it contains extra noodles so I can pretend I'm at a yatai and asking for those extra servings!

Errr, the ingredient list for the soup does not mention pork fat or lard, but refers to "pork essence". Yeah, it's gotta be a nice slab of something arterially challenging.

It looks a lot better once I've added the hot water...

...and even better with noodles and appropriate condiments. No pork slices and too hungry to add an egg...

In an earlier post I said that I thought udon was Japan's soul food. Ramen puts in a good bid for that title. In fact, ramen and udon share a few things in common such as Chinese origins and the importance of minerals that go into making the noodles themselves. For udon, it was salt; in ramen, it is a combination of salt minerals and water (kansui). This mixture gives ramen its distinctive yellow hue -- and I always thought it was egg... Its also worth mentioning that it too has a dedicated movie in its honor: Tampopo!

If you'd like to try a bowl of this comfort food without going to Japan or consuming the large quantities of MSG and "pork essence" like I did a few hours ago, there is hope. The Hakata Ramen Deva, Shigemi Kawahara has opened up one of his signature Ippudo restaurants in New York City. This isn't a humble street stall or typical ramen restaurant -- its a brasserie (insert the rolling of eyes right here) serving the traditional Tonkatsu Ramen, as well as a number of other ramen and meat dishes. Just like he had hoped for back in 2005, Kawahara has made his New York debut and it looks like they love this pork ramen as much as the Japanese.

Kitty returns as Shigemi Kawahara, the Hakata ramen Deva and marketing master mind who transformed the ramen shop into a full restaurant experience.

Another great food movie: Juzo Itami's 1985 film Tampopo. It's a fun and quirky ode to all kinds of soul foods and the people who love them