Back in 2011, I recounted my childhood love of instant noodles and the subsequent mind explosion that occurred when I discovered that ramen could be ordered in a restaurant. Since then, ramen has been enjoying a renaissance in the Bay Area, and I recently slurped my way through a few bowls in the East Bay and San Francisco for a piece on The Bold Italic. Here’s the full gallery of goodness I tackled with the help of a few intrepid friends. What are some of your favorite spots in your neck of the woods?
Tag Archives: food
If you’ve ever eaten in a Korean restaurant, you’ve invariably been served an assortment of small dishes you didn’t order. These small bites, collectively called banchan, accompany every Korean meal and often reflect local, seasonal produce. In Korea and parts of the world that celebrate the four seasons, banchan will vary throughout the year. In California, the selection changes less so. Pricier restaurants generally offer more elaborate and colorful presentations, while budget eateries dole out a few basics, including at least one kind of kimchi (fermented vegetables, typically napa cabbage and/or daikon).
When I was in Sebastopol in September, I had the misfortune of picking up the debut issue of Lucky Peach, a quarterly food journal spearheaded by chef David Chang (owner of NYC’s Momofuku restaurants), writer Peter Meehan, and the Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations production team. I say “misfortune” not because it’s a waste of a perfectly good tree but because it renewed my appreciation for ramen. But I suppose it would’ve been a failure on its end had it not, seeing as the whole issue centers around the humble, chewy foodstuff that sustained me for a good three-quarters of my life.
Kraft macaroni and cheese may have been popular in Western households, but instant ramen was a staple in our Taiwanese-American home. The Tung-I brand (the Chinese onion flavor in particular) was our favorite, with its brick of crispy, wavy noodles, foil packet of dry seasoning (MSG, dehydrated chives), and clear packet of fragrant, partially solidified oil and fried shallots.
We never ate it for dinner (somehow my mom always managed to whip up a soup, a protein, and several plates of greens and vegetables each night), but we devoured it as a snack. Occasionally we had it ungarnished, but most of the time we’d crack in an egg or two and/or toss in some fresh spinach. My dad would drop in dollops of chili paste until the broth was an unseemly red. I was probably 10 when I started making it on my own. Unsurprisingly, I packed a big box of it and an electric kettle when I moved 500 miles away to college.
Of course, my family also had a variety of Nissin Cup Noodles on hand for the times when we were either too busy or lazy to deal with a pot and a bowl. Even though I haven’t touched the stuff since the 1990s, I still remember the treats found within each cup, more so than I remember the various shaped marshmallows found in Lucky Charms cereal: spongy, yellow cubes of egg; small pink curls of shrimp with black intestinal tract intact; sweet orange tabs of carrot; green balls that never seemed to properly reconstitute into peas.
Eventually, once I was on my own and paying for stuff with my own money, Top Ramen and Maruchan (inferior brands, in my opinion, because they lacked oil packets) caught my attention with their 20-for-$1 sales. When I was feeling adventurous, I’d splurge on Shin Ramyun, a spicy Korean brand. I stopped eating instant ramen completely when I started reading nutrition labels and learned, to my horror, that each pack was 400 calories and 24 grams of fat.
I was long out of college when I discovered that cooked ramen existed in a commercial setting. A non-Asian friend introduced me to the handmade gook-soo noodles (similar to udon) at Bear’s Ramen House, a Korean hole in the wall in Berkeley’s Asian food ghetto. They also served ramyeon, but I didn’t see the point of paying $5 for something that I could literally get for a dime. Eventually, I ate my first bowl of restaurant ramen there. Even though they used dried instant noodles, the broth and accompaniments blew away my home attempts.
It wasn’t until years later in 2009, on my second trip to Tokyo, that I finally had fresh ramen. In Japan, ramen is considered fast food, and it’s as ubiquitous as burgers, sandwiches, and pizza by the slice in the States. Whole eateries (called ramenya) are dedicated to the stuff, and they’re not shy about showcasing their offerings, either through photos or plastic replicas so well done that you can almost see the steam wafting off the vinyl chloride noodles.
Ironically, I ordered my first bowl of fresh ramen from a vending machine. Many ramenya prefer an automated system in which you choose what you want from a machine outside, insert your money, and take the ticket it spits out to the person at the counter inside. I liked it because I didn’t have to struggle with the language and could take my time marveling over the menu.
My meal looked just like the replica, and the noodles were chewy, savory, and comforting, with a bite that instant noodles never had. How had my parents kept this from me for so long? Were they even aware of this magic in a bowl?
Little did I know that ramen had many more dimensions, as illustrated in Lucky Peach. The noodles could be curly or straight; the broth clear or milky, fishy or porky or both; the eggs soft-boiled, hard-boiled, or raw. And then there were the various combinations of toppings: green onion, seaweed, fishcake, pork, corn, spinach, bean sprouts. When I went back to Tokyo this past Thanksgiving, I made sure to squeeze in a few more bowls.
My ramen journey didn’t end there, however. Somehow during the course of writing this post, I became mildly obsessed with instant noodles and learned that they were invented by Taiwanese-born Momofuku Ando for Japan’s Nissin Foods. (I assume David Chang borrowed Ando’s name for his restaurant.) I also developed an unexpected longing for the Tung-I ramen of my youth.
I bought two packs at the Asian supermarket and saw that the packaging had changed a bit (“Unif” had been added to the name; the flavor was now simply “onion flavor”; instructions were also provided in German and Norwegian). In addition, the product was now made in Vietnam. Yikes! Did they change the recipe, too?
Curious as I was, it took me a good two weeks to work up the courage to prepare one pack. Yes, I know that makes me sound like the biggest food snob, but not only was the fat/calorie content daunting, so were the ingredients. MSG was one thing, but what were disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, and tertiary butylhydroquinone?
As it turned out, the ramen smelled and tasted exactly like I remembered, from the heavenly scalliony oil to the dried chives to the spirals of noodle. I ended up eating both packs with minimal guilt, knowing that I’d never knowingly eat instant ramen again.
Fresh ramen, on the other hand, is a completely different beast. And what about cup noodles…? Oh, why did I dare to eat this particular peach?
Andrew Zimmern, genial host of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods, makes traveling, eating, and filming around the world look easy. I’m sure it helps that a professional crew of directors, writers, cameramen, and soundmen tag along on his excursions.
C and I had no such advantage when we decided to slap together a three-minute video for a “Share Your Adventure” video contest Lonely Planet was having. C learned about it at the start of Labor Day weekend, Friday, September 2. The deadline? Tuesday, September 6, at 11:59pm PST.
Ordinarily, we would’ve just thrown our hands in the air and spent the weekend as other Americans might (lounging by a refreshing body of water, congregating with friends in someone’s backyard for gossip and food), but the grand prize of $10,000 was just too tempting. We had no grandiose notions that we’d whip up a cinematic masterpiece in 96 hours, but maybe we could do something stupid/funny/intriguing enough to win the prize. What was there to lose except a few winks of sleep and maybe our trim physiques?
Sharing a culinary adventure (as opposed to urban, family, visual, and outdoor adventures) seemed to be our best bet. We brainstormed and considered cobbling together video footage we had taken while in Spain last year, or hitting San Francisco or Wine Country for new footage, but none of those options motivated us. I must’ve been subconsciously craving Shan Dong’s handmade noodles because Oakland’s Chinatown, right in our backyard, suddenly felt right.
And why not? With Chinese street signs; sidewalk grocers yelling out specials in Cantonese/Mandarin; windows displaying a menagerie of roasted animals; and droves of Asian locals elbowing past each other for the freshest bok choy, longan, and walter caltrops, Chinatown really is like stepping into another world.
With the Canon 60D and Olympus PEN EP-2, we filmed on Saturday and Sunday, spending four hours the first day and ten hours the next hobbling up and down every one of Chinatown’s 16 blocks at least half a dozen times. I don’t know how real TV people do it, but I jotted down a few lines of monologue the night before the first filming to give us some direction. But even my inner boy scout wasn’t prepared for the strangest development—the lack of hustle and bustle.
Chinatown on the weekend is usually a zoo of double-parked cars, sidewalk vendors hawking miscellany such as (illegal?) baby turtles, extended families heading to dim sum, and locals buying groceries for the evening. Much to our surprise and dismay, most people seemed to have left town for the weekend. On the up side, we didn’t have to wait long for our food and could film scenes with relative ease.
Still, we faced other minor challenges. The biggest one was probably getting up early enough to get to Madison Square Park by 8:30 a.m. to capture different groups practicing taiji, wushu, and kung fu. The other: Staying awake after dim sum (ordinarily, I’d go home in a daze and just laze around until the food coma wore off). It was also difficult coming up with witty commentary on the fly.
In fact, we reshot my pandan waffle and cassava cake scene (on separate days) because, after viewing the “dailies,” I was mortified by my unrehearsed ramblings (did you know that tapioca is made of cassava root? You do now). I actually felt like a sham for pretending I was taking my first bite of each…until I read Eating China‘s fascinating behind-the-scenes account of appearing on Bizarre Foods. That’s some talent right there—not letting multiple takes suck the freshness out of a moment.
Here’s a rundown of the places featured:
- Gourmet Delight Seafood Restaurant (dim sum)
- Shan Dong Restaurant (vegetable bun)
- First Cake (bakery; formerly Delicious Food Co.)
- Golden Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant (pho noodle soup)
- Cam Huong (refrigerated coconut milk sweets in cups)
- BC Deli Sandwiches (pandan waffle, cassava cakes)
In the end, our submission was disqualified for having music in it. Major bummer, for sure, but I for one appreciate the kick in the pants the contest gave us to create a travel video. C, on the other hand, would’ve preferred spending that weekend lounging by a refreshing body of water, congregating with friends in someone’s backyard for gossip and food.
On June 11, 2011, Rock Paper Scissors, an art collective in Oakland, hosted its 3rd Annual Vegan Cupcake Bake-Off. It’s pretty awesome that it was vegan and they’d already had the bake-off two other times. But even better? Anyone could be a judge for $5.
I learned about the shindig just hours before it commenced and instantly knew I’d be there. Allie (of White Wires, Peach Kelli Pop) was in town and equally intrigued by the chance to 1) sample an undetermined number of cupcakes for a fiver and 2) decide the fate of one lucky baker.
I don’t know about her, but in the last year or so, I’ve become addicted to reality cooking shows: Top Chef, Master Chef and Master Chef Australia (which is basically a long, drawn-out Dr. Phil with aprons and spatulas, unlike its ridiculously cruel American counterpart), Chopped, The Great Food Truck Race, and even Top Chef Canada. Considering my sweet tooth, you’d also expect me to be a big fan of competitive baking shows such as Cupcake Wars and Ace of Cakes, but I’m not. They bore me, probably because I’m hopeless as a baker and don’t care to change the fact.
In any case, the judging on these shows always seems pretty straightforward: 1. Taste all the entries. 2. Pick the best one.
As it turned out, judging food is way harder than it looks.
This bake-off featured seven cupcakes:
Two contenders (lime raspberry-inthemiddle, blueberry surprise) made mini cupcakes; the rest quartered their full-sized versions to distribute to us judges. Receiving clumps of cupcake presented an unexpected challenge: Once I got all the entries on one plate, I had trouble visually distinguishing between several of them (rhubarb-apple, peach melba, cardamom); comparing them to the uncut cupcakes was not necessarily enlightening. Even more troubling, I still wasn’t entirely sure which was which after tasting them. But as an official judge, I had to soldier on and pick my favorite from the batch. My method? Process of elimination, weighing in flavor as well as technique.
Here are my comments, from least to most favorite:
7. Peach melba: dry cake; the raspberry sauce overwhelmed any peach essence the cake might’ve had.
6. Blueberry surprise: double blueberry action was darling but the cake was a bit dry and lacked flavor.
5. Rhubarb-apple cupcake with burnt sugar drizzle: tangy and moist but a little too pedestrian; did they forget the burnt sugar drizzle?
4. Lime raspberry-inthemiddle: topped with lime “cream cheese” frosting and garnished with a handmade lime and raspberry, this was truly a work of art. The raspberry in the middle of the cake helped maintain moistness, but overall the sweetness of the cupcake made my jaw hurt.
3. Cardamom cupcake with strawberry jam and basil buttercream: well-spiced, moist. Had the next two not been in the running, I could’ve stopped here.
2. Pastel de tres leches (cake of three milks) by Hella Vegan Eats: amazingly moist and rich, with a delicious, complex flavor profile due to the cake being soaked in coconut milk, rice milk, and almond milk. Accompanied by a grapefruit/lemon/mint cleanser.
1. Inlaw cupcake by Tastes Like Yum: chocolate/coffee decadence, with dark chocolate chunks, coffee buttercream, and chocolate coffee ganache. A definite buzz and everything I look for in a chocolate treat. It was so incredible I went back to the cupcake station and asked if I could buy one. Christina, the creator, wouldn’t take my money and gave me a whole one, much to my delight. It was then I noticed her Bake and Destroy shirt. (Funnily, Natalie, who runs the site, was in San Francisco that weekend but wasn’t able to make it across the bay in time.)
I managed to arrive at my personal favorite, but not without a heap of agony. Frankly, had this been a function with free cupcakes for the taking, I would’ve made the rounds and happily inhaled at least two of each. I’m not necessarily a chocoholic—I’ve often been torn between ordering, say, a chocolate lava cake, a fresh-fruit galette, a carrot cake, and a crème brûlée, and requested a non-chocolatey option. But I will say that whenever I do that, I usually pine over the chocolate dessert for a day or two afterward (that is, if I didn’t end up ordering it, too).
Yes, I have a problem. But the first step to recovery is recognizing it, right?
So how do professional judges put their personal biases aside? Or do they?
In the end, the pastel de tres leches took first prize. Allie and I weren’t able to stick around for the results, but I believe the inlaw got third place, which surprised me. How did the sole chocolate entry not get one of the first two spots? The mind boggles.
(By the way, I just discovered that Whole Foods carries vegan cupcakes in their bakery. The chocolate one is as gratifying as their non-vegan option, and far better than the crumbly slices of vegan cake they have.
Wait. Didn’t I say I wasn’t a chocoholic? Right. Like I’d ever buy vanilla cake.)