Saturday, October 17, 2009

Ramen to the Rescue

While the art of making udon and soba have given them an almost elite status, ramen is a much more commonplace noodle.   Indeed, ramen is so pervasive, that when people think of Japanese noodles, they're usually thinking of ramen.  However, I given the choice, I would always prefer our local crossbreed saimin, to Japanese ramen. 

To me, ramen always seems kind of simple in comparison.   Whereas ramen broth is a simple thin shoyu and dashi mix, saimin broth to me has a much more full bodied flavor, especially true saimin which imbibes the shrimpiness of ha mai (dried o'pae), blending with the ginger and green onion flavors.   To me, the slightly curly saimin noodles have a more interesting texture than their much straighter cousin.  To me, the local myriad of toppings you get with saimin from all the different cultures of Hawaii, eggs, kamaboko, won bok, spam, char siu, green onion, maybe some shrimp or won ton, are much more satisfying than the scant few pieces of meat and vegetable you usually get with ramen.   Maybe it's just because of what I grew up with, but generally, I just like saimin much better than ramen.   Ironically, this is the exact opposite viewpoint of my fellow blogger, Pomai, who considers himself a ramen connoisseur.   To each his own, even amongst fellow kamaaina I guess.

But there are times when I have been down and out, and good ramen has come to the rescue.  Back in high school, there was this girl.   All the boys in the class had a crush on her.   It wasn't like on the mainland, how the object of everyone's desire is the perky outspoken buxom blonde cheerleader.  In Hawaii, it's the highly intelligent, gentle and demure, kinda shy but genuinely warm, pretty oriental girl with the long silky black hair that turns everyone's heads.    She's the kind of girl that all the geeky local guys drool after, but while they may be academically commanding, they're not so romantically brazen.  So she just has a lot of guy friends, but no real romances.   I think every class in Hawaii has someone kinda like this.  Well, for weeks I studied with her, and hung out with her during free periods, and tried and tried to work up the nerve to ask her out.   Over and over in my head I tried to figure out the right words, the right circumstances, the right timing.   Finally, after weeks and week of nervousness, I somehow succeeded in asking her out (although my memory is a bit hazy on exactly how).   Anyway, the date was set.   It was simple enough, after one of our school assemblies, we would meet up and go out to dinner somewhere.  Well, this of course lead to more nervousness, an overwhelming sense of anticipation, and a racing imagination, with frequent bouts of giddiness. 

Finally the time came, but after the assembly, a group of our friends asked us if we wanted to go grab a bite to eat with them, and she said sure.  Suddenly, my happy little bubble just burst.   Did she completely forget about our date?   Did she not want to go out with me anymore?  Did she think that us having dinner with the gang was the same thing as having dinner with me alone?   Obviously if she did, she didn't have anywhere near the same romantic intentions that I did.   So rather than subject myself to sharing her company with everyone else, I decided to wander home alone.    I must've looked really miserable, or at very visibly shaken, because another friend of mine asked me if I was alright, and if I wanted to go have dinner with him.   Not knowing what to do, just kinda numb, kinda spaced out, and completely heartbroken, I must've blindly followed his lead (again my memory fails me on just how).  Where did he take me?  Well, it was just a little ramen place in the Samsung Plaza on Keeaumoku called Daruma Ramen.  

I really can't remember very much else from that night, except the warmth of the ramen.   It was the first time that ramen tasted so good.  Yes it was a simple thin shoyu based broth, but it just sort of flooded my body with warmth, replacing the bitter numbness that I was feeling.   I'm sure my friend gave me a good pep talk about girls, and how there were other fish in the sea, but honestly all I can remember is drowning my tears in the warm ramen broth.  

Daruma Ramen has long since closed, and no other ramen shop has ever really tasted as good.   But when I was working near Ala Moana, and I was feeling kind of sick, my co-worker took me to another place on Keeaumoku called Goma Ichi Ramen.   There I tasted for the first time a Japanese / Szechuan variation called tan tan ramen.   It's a spicy, sesame flavored ramen which actually tasted pretty good.   But it wasn't until I tasted the same dish at their rival restaurant, Goma Tei Ramen, that I was really hooked.  Goma Tei has two shops, one in Ward Center, and one in Ala Moana Center.   Originally, Goma Ichi had partners, and when the partners split, the other partner opened Goma Tei leading to a bitter rivalry between the two.  I really hate to pick sides in such a rivalry, but honestly I like Goma Tei better.  

Char Siu Tan Tan Ramen at Goma Tei
First off, the reason that I like tan tan ramen so much better than regular shoyu ramen, is that it is a mixture of shoyu and a spicy sesame oil.   The sesame oil gives it a much fuller smoother flavor than you could get from a regular shoyu based broth.   My sister will inevitably tell you, that's because oils are fats and that's what fats taste like, but that's not necessarily an unhealthy thing depending on the type of oil.   In any case, the broth has much more richness than regular thin ramen.   Because it's sesame, it also adds slight nutty flavor.  Secondly, the piece of chashu that they give you is nothing like the tougher red-rimmed Chinese char siu.  It's a very thick, extremely soft, full flavored piece of pork.   It's out of this world soft and delicious. 

Gyoza at Goma Tei
Finally, just like no self respecting bowl of saimin should go unaccompanied without a stick of bbq beef or chicken yakitori, no ramen should be without a plate of gyoza on its arm.   Their gyoza is perfectly crispy on one side, and soft and yummy on the other side.   The way good gyoza should be.

Ban Ban Ji Chicken at Goma Tei
But not only is the gyoza good at Goma Tei, they have a fantastic side dish called ban ban ji chicken, which shares the same wonderful shoyu/sesame oil flavor as the tan tan ramen.  The chicken is tender and lean, a perfect breast meat cut, and works fantastically together with the cold refreshing cucumber below.

Life is inevitably full of heartaches and hard times, but I've learned that a nice hot comforting bowl of ramen is the perfect thing to drown your sorrows in.   When you've hit the bottom of the bowl, and drunk every last drop of broth, you may look up and see something better.  A sexier, more intuitive, more devoted, more insightful local girl might just be waiting for you a few months away.

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