I love noodles. All kinds of noodles. Pasta makes up a big part of my weekly menu, but I am also a big fan of big bowls of soup with noodles in them. And Chinese stir-fry? Yes, please. Before coming to Tokyo, I was excited to try various types of noodle soups, but what I didn’t realize was how many different types of noodles are actually available in the Japanese diet. While I know I didn’t even scratch the surface of noodle types- I didn’t make it to trying ramen or soba- all of the dishes we did eat were completely different, but amazingly tasty.
Before coming to Japan, one of the major dishes I knew I had to try was Udon. Udon noodles are thick, chewy noodles made out of what flour, that are served in large bowls, with broth and usually some type of meat. The day before the marathon, we walked over to the government building in the heart of the business district (which was the starting point for the race) to figure out where Luke’s starting gate was going to be. On the way home, we walked by shop after shop, boasting big pictures of noodle bowls outside of their doors. There are so many restaurants in such a small space, it is almost overwhelming trying to choose one place to eat over another. My strategy tended to be pretty random- I would peak inside, and if a restaurant didn’t have a line and wasn’t overwhelmingly busy, I would duck inside. If the counter was full, I would keep on walking to the next door.
This particular day, it was still fairly early for lunch, and we found a small place on the street level that hadn’t hit the lunch rush yet. We peeked into the door, and directly to the right was a cafeteria style counter and a chef standing on the opposite side with a massive pot of noodles. “English?” he asked while he handed me a laminated menu, clearly labeled “English Menu.” Not wanting a giant line to form behind me, I zeroed in on the words I knew, and pointed at the bowl clearly marked “curry.” Seconds later he handed me a steaming bowl of curry broth and noodles, which I placed on my cafeteria tray. Further down the line was a large array of tempura. I chose a chicken breast covered in the light, fluffy batter, and paid for my bowl at the end of the line- 4700 yen, or roughly $4.20. Not too shabby.
The seating in the Udon shop was different than anything I have ever seen in the US. Approximately five long tables were set up, with small counter style stools on either side. In the middle of each table was a small divider, placed lengthwise down the table, separating you somewhat from the person seated across from you. The shop was small and busy; the atmosphere making it clear that this is a shop where you eat quickly, and vacate your stool for the next patron.
The curry noodles were hot and steaming with perfect chewy noodles and pieces of what I assume were pork. I must admit that eating noodles with chopsticks took a bit of work. While my chopstick proficiency skills probably fall into the average range, picking up slippery noodles proved more difficult than eating sticky rice. Luke eventually showed me how to twirl noodles around the chopsticks making it easier to get the noodles from the bowl to my mouth. I don’t know if this is the “authentic” way to eat noodles but it worked. Once I managed to consume all of my noodles, I picked up the bowl and drank the rest of my delicious broth straight from the bowl.
But hot steaming broth isn’t the only type of Udon that I had. While Luke was running the marathon, I had a lot of down time in between standing on street corners and watching him run by. The day of the marathon happened to be drizzly and freezing cold- at 40ish degrees, I was forced to buy gloves and an extra undershirt to stay warm. For lunch I ducked into a noodle shop hoping for a hot steaming bowl of soup. However, due to my total lack of ability to read Japanese, the picture I pointed at turned out to be for a cold noodle dish. I was handed cold noodles, tossed in a light marinade and roe (fish eggs). It probably wasn’t my favorite dish of the trip, and wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for, but in hindsight I was happy that I tried to completely different types of noodle bowl.
By the way, Luke finished the marathon in 5 hours and 12 minutes, which was about what he was planning on. Between breaking his toe 5 weeks before the race, and wanting to make sure that he could get around Tokyo in the days after, he took it easy on his pace. But he had a great time seeing the city and being a part of such a large event.
Chinese noodle dishes, soups and egg crepes
While I knew that noodle soups were a large part of Japanese cuisine, what I didn’t realize was that there would be so many other types of noodle dishes. On our first day, we went to Tokyo Big Sight, which is where the end of the marathon was supposed to be. It was also where the 2015 Tokyo Expo was being held. In the center of the building, the race organizers had arranged for a number of local Japanese restaurants to set up booths and showcase local cuisine from all around Tokyo. One of the most unique dishes we tried was some type of egg crepe, that was filled with cabbage and pork, wrapped and topped with two or three different, yummy sauces that I think were mayonnaise based.
Or at least that is what I think this dish was roughly made of. Again, the vendors did not speak English, so I mostly pointed at something that I thought looked tasty and hoped for the best. I wish that the lid hadn’t messed up the sauce on top because it looked really impressive. We also got steamed pork buns willed with pork belly from a different vendor (obviously selling Chinese style food).
The last place we got a couple of noodle dishes from is the restaurant where we probably made the most faux pas. One afternoon Luke and I were walking around in the business district, trying to find a place for lunch before we had to meet a shuttle bus for the tour we had signed up for. One of our strategies for finding a place to eat in Tokyo was to duck into an alleyway and find the first thing that looks interesting. Alleys in Tokyo are amazing; while in the US alleys are dark, scary, and usually where the garbage dumpsters are kept, in Tokyo alleyways seem to be these pockets of activity filled with bars and cheap places to eat. So around 11:30 we ducked into an alley. The first shop we peaked into had a full counter, so we moved on. The next place we came to had a woman in a pink uniform, holding the shop door open and talking to someone inside. As she turned around, she was met with our expectant faces staring at her, giant camera around my neck. She (probably grudgingly) led us inside the empty restaurant- which we quickly realized wasn’t actually open yet, as evidenced by the fact that the staff was all still sitting down to lunch.
However, we had committed. No English menu was available, so we pointed at a few random dishes and crossed our fingers. Since most dishes that we had had in Japan thus far were pretty small in size, we decided to order three things. What came out were three giant bowls that could have fed four people.
The first was a stir-fry noodle dish that seemed to be tossed in a peanut sauce, sprinkled with peanuts, and topped with ground pork.
The second dish was a spicy broth, made with a flatter egg noodle, and again more pork, and some veggies.
The food was amazing. We raved about how it was the best food we had had in Tokyo yet. Even though the portions were huge, we tried as hard as we could to waste as little as possible (unfortunately we still left a lot sitting on the table). Luke tried to type into his translation app that “This is the best Japanese food we have had in Tokyo.” He showed it to the staff. They seemed extremely confused. We worried that they thought we were complaining. We waved our hands around and made thumbs up signs to show that, no, we are very much enjoying our meal. I think they probably couldn’t wait for us to leave.
Days later, we were having dinner with Gan, a long-time friend of my family who lives in Tokyo. We told him about our lunch experience, how we seemed to fail with our translation app with the staff, and described our dishes. He mentioned that it sounded like we had been enjoying our lunch in a Chinese restaurant. Which suddenly made so much sense.
In my next couple of posts, I’ll get to the two other major food adventures we had while in Tokyo- eating rice dishes, and trying the sashimi.