Day 26: Modan-yaki

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I went out for okonomiyaki* with my host mother and father. It was DIY okonomiyaki, pretty common in Japan, where you mix the okonomiyaki batter at the table and cook it yourself over a teppan grill set into the table.

The menu was several pages long, with different combinations of okonomiyaki filling – mochi and cheese, seasonal mushroom, kimchi and squid – but what first caught my eye was the Hiroshima-yaki, a variation on okonomiyaki with noodles I’d had ten years ago on a student trip to Hiroshima.

Beneath the Hiroshima-yaki I saw something called modan-yaki that I’d heard of, but never tried. Both had noodles, and filling, and egg. What’s the difference? I asked the waiter. He explained: Hiroshima-yaki is made differently, with a thinner batter, and you add the ingredients in layers. Modan-yaki also has noodles, but the batter is like normal okonomiyaki batter, with the fillings mixed in. Plus modan-yaki comes with extra eggs.

Yep, sweet, sold.

The tray of ingredients arrived and the steps were as follows: heat oil on the teppan, place noodles on the teppan together so they form a roughly circular shape. Mix the batter well and pour over the noodles. Cook for five minutes, flip, cook another five minutes, flip, cook another five minutes. Crack the eggs on a clear surface of the teppan and transfer the noodle-crusted pancake on top of the eggs. Fry briefly until eggs are set. Slather with okonomiyaki sauce, give it a squirt of mayo, sprinkle over plenty of aonori and katsuobushi and eat.

It was good, solid (two-carb), tasty food. To be honest I don’t think it differed too much from a normal okonomiyaki because the noodles sort of embedded themselves in the batter and were only really discernible by their texture (slightly chewier than the rest of the batter). Still very good though. I love okonomiyaki, I love noodles, really this was an ideal dinner.
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*a savoury Japanese pancake of sorts, with fillings like cabbage and squid and ham and green onion, cooked and then topped with a thick, sweet(ish) okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise and aonori flakes (a bright green, dried seaweed) and shaved, dried bonito flakes. It’s the kind of Japanese food even a rice- or fish-hater can get on board with. It’s very good.

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Day 25: Yamanashi houtou

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I’ve been waiting for this day for this whole trip. Before then, even, for it’s been years since I’ve been to my old home Yamanashi, years since I last tasted houtou, the uniquely Yamanashi dish of thick, flat noodles simmered with meat and vegetables in a hearty miso broth. And it’s been a really long time – ten years, perhaps – since I last had houtou at the best time of year, autumn and winter, when it’s cold outside and the pumpkin is especially sweet.

After a frantic rush to get to Fukuoka airport after sleeping through my alarm (though it was a marvel that in such a metropolis I could get from my city-centre hotel room to the airplane, seatbelt fastened, in less than an hour), a flight, a two-hour wait in Narita airport and a four-hour bus ride to Kofu, the day was nearly over, it was dark and cold and I was hungry.

The families who hosted me as an exchange student ten years ago had gathered at a new restaurant, one I didn’t recognise from before, but, my host mother assured me, their houtou was good. So it was.

Each person got an individual tetsu-nabe pot filled to the brim with the heartiest-looking houtou I had seen in a while: noodles, chunks of pumpkin, pork mince, mushrooms and eggplant and sweet potato.

You know how sometimes when you haven’t had something in a long time you elevate its deliciousness in your memory so much that when you finally have it you can only be disappointed? Not this dish. I had worked myself up quite a bit, and was worried I’d expected too much, but on the contrary, it was even more delicious than I recalled. The noodles were hand-cut, slippery and soft and toothsome all at once. The miso broth was rich and comforting, the faintly sweet pumpkin almost demurely melting into the soup, the eggplant bursting with juices.

I realised then that after weeks of travelling, and despite being in a city I hadn’t lived in in a decade, I finally I felt at home. Familiar faces, familiar noodles. They’ll do that to you. Very good.
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Day 24: Ichiran, Fukuoka

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Back in Fukuoka, home of tonkotsu ramen. I thought about going on a ramen adventure to the city of Kurume about forty minutes southwest of Fukuoka city, where I’d been told one can find the richest, most intensely porky tonkotsu ramen in all of Kyushu. But I was kind of tired and sweaty after a day of rushing to Incheon Airport in my big brown coat and heavy wool scarf and nearly missing my flight back from Seoul. So I stayed in Fukuoka. It wasn’t like I didn’t have options.

When I was last in Fukuoka, Koji had told me about Ichiran. Go there, he said, if you like ramen, you’ll like that place. You have to decide how you like everything though: the texture of the noodles, the intensity of the soup broth, white or green pieces of negi, etc.

Ichiran has a number of branches throughout Fukuoka (and possibly elsewhere in Japan, though I’m typing this on my phone and can’t be bothered googling right now). I went to the one Koji recommended, near the Tenjin subway station.

It’s tucked away down this little alley, with a big red lantern and a ticket vending machine outside. You insert your money, punch in your order, and are led inside along a corridor of cubicles to your seat: walled on both sides to keep distractions out, a bamboo curtain separates your booth from the kitchen. It’s kind of like those study cubicles you might find at a university library: this is serious ramen, ramen you’re meant to concentrate on. Also it’s a very good setup for a solo diner who wants to take notes and photos to her heart’s desire.

Once seated, you’re given a piece of paper on which you customise your bowl of noodles: how hard or soft you want your noodles, how light or strong you want the soup flavour, how much garlic, how much chilli paste, etc. I picked the middle of the road option for almost everything, except the noodles, but more on that later.
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First impressions: yep, this is serious ramen, serious tonkotsu to be precise. The thick, milky soup gave off the unmistakeably porky smell that’s typical of a rich, kotteri tonkotsu soup; the first spoonful was one of the best first spoonfuls I’ve had on this trip. It has a soup-like consistency but a gravy-like mouthfeel; it’s creamy, almost peanut-buttery, you can taste the marrow and collagen that have broken down over hours of cooking into deep, rich flavour.

The noodles are thin and straight and hard – I’ve ordered the extra-hard noodles for which this Tenjin branch is known – “on the dente side of al dente”, I’ve scrawled in my notes, whatever that means. Toeing the line between cooked and undercooked, maybe. But they’re really good. And perhaps because of the low moisture content or the straight shape, the noodles don’t carry too much of the intensely flavourful soup with each slurp, keeping the overall experience from becoming just too overwhelming.

The toppings are simple: soft, tender charsiu slices, sliced negi onions (I’ve picked the green portion of the onion), a dab of chilli paste that adds a pleasantly prickly heat.

Soon I’ve finished the noodles and it’s time for a kaedama. The good thing about having a broth so intense is that it takes longer to finish: perfect for a second helping of noodles. I tear off a little sheet of paper labelled “替玉” hanging in my cubicle, pick how hard or soft I want my noodles (this time, I go for “kihon” – Ichiran’s standard) and press the little button in front of me. A bell rings out, the bamboo curtain is raised, the paper slip taken away and soon after, a bowl of plain noodles arrives at my cubicle.
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These are still thin and straight and relatively al dente, but with more give than the extra-hard noodles. I like them a lot. Before I know it, they’ve disappeared. Rats. I still have soup left.

So I do what seems like the only rational decision at this point: tear off another kaedama slip, order another helping of noodles. And, for the sake of completeness, I order the extra-soft noodles. These are an entirely different experience altogether. Almost overcooked, bordering on slimily chewy, but they’re an ideal vehicle for the rest of that gravy-like soup, which now clings for dear life to each clump of noodles as I slurp.

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I finish the noodles. I’ve nearly finished the soup. Just a spoonful or two remains at the bottom, and as I drain my bowl I notice on the bottom of the bowl is written, in gold lettering: この一滴は最高の喜びです。Which roughly translates to: this single drop is the greatest of joys.

Truer words were never written on the bottom of a ramen bowl. I won’t be forgetting that last drop of soup anytime soon.

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