For the love of jajangmyeon: Korean-Chinese noodles to comfort lonely hearts

Chances are you’ve eaten some Chinese food in your lifetime, and likely some Korean food as well, but have you ever had Korean-Chinese food? Originally developed in the port city of Incheon where the majority of Korea’s ethnic Chinese population historically immigrated, it’s basically Korean adaptations of popular Chinese dishes, using local ingredients and flavours. This hybridization through immigration is what Peter Meehan refers to in the current Chinatown issue of Lucky Peach as “Chinese-hyphen cuisine” – “dishes that evince a Chinese influence without completely surrendering to the soup dumpling and roast pork canon”.

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Jajangmyeon at Seoul Restaurant

Unsurprisingly, Chinese-hyphen cuisine often manifests itself in the form of noodles. You can see it in the char kuey teow of Malaysian-Chinese cuisine, Caribbean-Chinese jerk chow mein and the Indo-Chinese Hakka noodles. Even ramen, a now iconic trademark of Japanese cuisine, is a product of Chinese influence and is often still referred to in Japan as chūka soba – literally Chinese soba. And when it comes to Korean-Chinese food, there’s none other than jajangmyeon – boiled wheat noodles smothered in a thick gooey black bean sauce studded with nearly-melting morsels of braised pork and onions.

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Stir it all together with your chopsticks

It’s a derivation of the popular northern Chinese dish zhajiangmian, literally fried sauce noodles (jajangmyeon is the Korean pronunciation of the same name). The Korean version however, is quite distinct; it’s sauce is made of a local black bean paste that tastes very different from the Chinese variety and it’s also much sweeter and saucier (the Chinese version gets its flavour from a savoury ground meat sauce that’s more meat than sauce). A heaping bowl of jajangmyeon is typically topped with some fresh cucumber shreds and served with a side of raw white onion chunks doused in vinegar and slices of yellow pickled radish, all of which cut nicely through the the thick sweet sauce.

Side dishes + scissors for cutting up unweildingly long noodles

Side dishes + scissors for cutting up unweildingly long noodles

Jajangmyeon is immensely popular across Korea, and even recognized as one of the country’s national dishes. Beloved by young and old alike, apparently it’s common for parents to take their kids out for jajangmyeon on special occasions such as birthdays and graduations, thus making it a dish that’s embedded in most Koreans’ childhood memories. It’s also the most popular fare for home delivery, akin to pizza delivery in North America. For these reasons, many regard it as the ultimate Korean comfort food. In the ever-popular melodramatic Kdramas, for example, rather than turning to a tub of Ben & Jerry’s, broken-hearted young girls will drown their sorrows in a bowl of black bean- sauced noodles. It’s also the informal dish consumed by lonely singles on Black Day – in Korea, (hetero-normative) tradition holds that Valentine’s Day (February 14) is for women to buy their men a gift, White Day (March 14) is for men to buy their women a gift and Black Day (April 14) is when all those lonely hearts who didn’t receive gifts in the preceding months get together and commiserate their singledom by wearing black clothes and slurping down bowls of black-sauced (tear-stained) noodles. In other words, this is some downright comforting stuff.

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Jajangmyeon at Ding-Ho on Bloor

Want to try some jajangmyeon? Here are a few places in Toronto to get your hands on some, regardless of whether you’re single, coupled, poly-amored or otherwise.

(1) Song Cook’s (Yonge and Steeles)

A bit out of the way for downtown dwellers, and practically hidden at the back of a non-descript plaza on Steeles, this place is definitely worth seeking out (and many do – though quite a large space, it’s often teeming with groups of young people and families). They serve up some of the best jajangmyeon in the city, which is in large part due to the fact that their noodles are handmade. The best part, especially for indecisive eaters like myself, is the jajang combos: half order of noodles + half order of another Korean-Chinese style dish like seafood noodle soup, sweet n sour pork or sweet n spicy chicken.

(2) Ding-Ho (Bloor and Christie)

This place specializes in Korean-Chinese food, as indicated by the red paper lanterns strung outside. They also do combo platters to share. Their jajangmyeon is immense, with soft rather than springy noodles (which some people are really into when it comes to jajangmyeon) and heaps and loads of sauce. Also, their kan pung gi (sweet n spicy chicken) is seriously to die for.

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In the words of Guy Fieri, “winner winner chicken dinner”

(3) Seoul Restaurant (Bloor and Palmerston)

A little secret: amongst the bazillion seemingly indistinguishable restaurants in Koreatown, this one is my all-time favourite. Not only does it remind me of super fun outings with my sister (who now lives in Tel Aviv and yearns for their bulgogi stew) but their service is aces and their food consistently tasty. Though they don’t specialize in Korean-Chinese dishes in particular, they still have the beloved jajangmyeon on their menu (as do most places) and it’s delicious.

Toronto ramen roundup: where to get your fix in the 416

My very first bowl of ramen (the fresh stuff, not the packaged instant kind) was about five years ago in Toronto. My super cool cousin Alan, repatriated after a brief sojourn in Japan and well aware of my penchant for Asian food, was eager to introduce me to the dish that was all the rage in that gastro-centric island. The only ramen restaurant, to our knowledge, that existed in Toronto at the time was a little Korean-run spot called Kenzo, located in an unassuming blink-and-you’ll miss it strip mall near Yonge and Steeles (just south of glorious Centrepoint mall, for those of you, like us, who lived in the area). One bite and I was converted. But it certainly wasn’t easy convincing friends that it was worth trekking north of the subway line’s end just for a bowl of noodles. For awhile, despite the rising popularity of ramen in other food-savvy North American cities like New York, Vancouver and San Francisco, that first outpost of Kenzo remained the only spot in Toronto to get your slurp on. Within the past year though, and the past couple months in particular, our ramen landscape has drastically altered, with a surge of new spots popping up all over downtown. Indeed, we’re (finally) in the midst of ramen mania (or ramenia, for the portmanteau lovers out there).

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Santouka’s shio ramen, with pickled plum garnish. Go get yourself a bowl asap.

Raijin's shio ramen

Raijin’s assari toridashi shio ramen, made with chicken broth

In Japan, ramen is not just the newest food trend, but a fundamental element of contemporary food culture – consumed by everyone, obsession to many, and for some, a way of life. Across the country, there are over 4000 shops turning out bowls of these beloved brothy noodles, which means an immense range of style and quality. People wait in hour+ lines to try the work of a legendary master or of a new innovator. There are scores of blogs, both Japanese and English, dedicated to documenting the best ramen shops, along with ramen magazines, mangatv shows etc. There is even a ramen museum (not to be confused with the Cupnoodle Museum of my inaugural post) where visitors can learn about the history of the dish and sample bowls from some of the country’s most famous purveyors (I obviously made a special trip there while in Japan, where I had my first ever encounter with ramen coma). And of course, ramen movies, like the1985 critically acclaimed Tampopo, a hilarious and extremely well-made “ramen western” which you should totally watch. I know it looks hokey, and it is, but trust me – watch it.

As for the composition of the dish itself, preparations can vary immensely, particularly between regions, but there are generally four basic elements: the broth, the tare, the noodles, and the toppings. The broth is usually pork and/or chicken (+ vegetables), though some use seafood, with each shop developing its own blend. As the element that gives the dish most of its body and flavour, it’s generally the battleground on which ramen shops compete. The tare is like a strong seasoning sauce, spooned into the bottom of the bowl to later mingle with the broth. There are three basic varieties, with the tare being the factor to determines the ramen’s type: shoyu, which is soy sauce based; miso, the notorious fermented bean paste; and shio, a salt-based sauce that also contains some seafood and seaweed essence. To make it all more confusing, there is a fourth type of ramen, tonkotsu, a rich, creamy pork bone broth which has tons of flavour in itself, and may or may not be mixed with tare. Noodles can be thin or thick, curly or straight, but are usually wheat-based alkaline noodles. For me, the noodles are as important as the broth – must be chewy! Serious shops use fresh handmade noodles rather than packaged stuff. Finally, the toppings usually include roast pork (belly or shoulder), a boiled egg, and some simple vegetables like bean sprouts, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots.

Sansotei's tonkotsu ramen

Sansotei’s tonkotsu ramen

Kinton's miso ramen

Kinton’s miso ramen

Unsurprisingly, there are many variations on these basic elements, with lots of interesting, sometimes funny, innovations and trends. Tsukemen, for example, is an extremely popular style where broth and noodles are served separately. The broth is more concentrated than that of a typical ramen and serves as a dipping sauce for the noodles (inspired by the traditional way of eating soba). Then there’s a shop called Jiro ramen which has become insanely popular in Japan for just loading on heaping tons of toppings.

There are even places using ice cream in their ramen, like this one with an actual ice cream cone in the bowl, or this chilled soy-milk broth ramen with chili oil ice cream and chicken. Eek. While Toronto’s not quite at that stage yet, we’ve finally got a respectable number of ramen shops slinging their own versions, including some creative bowls in the mix. Without much further ado, here are all the spots to score yourself some slurpy goodness:

(1) Santouka (Dundas and Church)

A Hokkaido-based ramen shop with several locations worldwide and many devout followers. Their signature, shio ramen, is topped with a pretty pickled plum and is just plain incredible. Try it. They also serve tsukemen, the dipping ramen, which I’ll have to go back for.

(2) Ramen Raijin (Yonge and Gerrard)

From the owner of some successful Vancouver ramen shops, Raijin’s the newest kid on the block. They were in soft-opening for awhile but now serving their full menu as of yesterday. Their ramen is great and they have the most diverse menu by far, including a vegetarian option, chicken broth ramen (which are clear and light – they’re pretty salty too but you can ask them to adjust when you order) and tsukemen. Their most unique dish is a bamboo charcoal dark miso ramen, which actually contains food-grade charcoal powder (apparently considered a toxin cleanser). Also some tasty sounding sides like pork buns and Japanese poutine. In addition to their food, one of their biggest draws is that the restaurant is huge compared to other places, meaning you probably won’t have to wait long in line, if at all. It could also accomodate large groups.

(3) Sansotei (Dundas and University)

Their signature is the pork-bone broth tonkotsu ramen and it is definitely something to write home about (if you’re from a food-obsessed family like mine I guess). I literally drank every last drop. They were getting some flack from customers about not having the chewiest noodles to match their amazing broth so they actually listened – they upgraded to Japanese quality noodles and are now offering customers a choice of noodle type.

(4) Kinton Ramen (Baldwin Village)

From the people who brought you Guu, it’s the most fun and lively of all the ramen shops (as expected from Guu). Their noodles, made in house, are excellent and their pork belly is serious business. Options include a cheese ramen, with swiss cheese and basil toppings (I haven’t tried but sounds good) as well as a corn kernels topping (yum). On Wednesday evenings, they do a limited amount chicken ramen.

(5) Kenzo (Spadina and Bloor; Bay and Dundas; Yonge and Wellesley; Yonge and Sheppard)

The owners of Toronto’s first ramen shop at Yonge and Steeles (now under different ownership) have since expanded to four locations throughout the city. While it’s not the best bowl of ramen ever – their broth isn’t the richest nor noodles the chewiest – it’s stil really tasty food that hits the spot. I’ve been there a handful of times and always order the King of Kings ramen. It’s good stuff.

(6) Momofuku Noodle Bar (Richmond and University)

From the infamous and innovative David Chang. There’s only one bowl of ramen on the menu, and it’s made with bacon. Not traditional, tastes great.

(7) A-OK Foods (Queen and Shaw)

This place just opened last week so I have yet to try it, but it’s from the people behind Yours Truly, who used to serve the tastiest snack menu (R.I.P.), so hopes are high. Amongst other snacks, they have a shio ramen and a tsukemen sichuan ramen (mmm, sounds good). I’m gonna guess they’re both untraditional.

(8) Ajisen (Spadina and Dundas; Yonge and Empress)

Big menu. Don’t have much to say as I just don’t really like this place.

(9) Ramen and Izakaya Ryoji (College and Montrose)

Set to open sometime before Christmas, Ryoji, with several branches in Okinawa, promises to bring us some Okinawan style ramen.

Go get your slurp on.

Make Me: Singaporean Curry Laksa

How time passes. It seems like just yesterday that I was sun-screened, sweaty and flip-flopped, searching out icy cold noodles to beat the sweltering July heat. Then, all of sudden, the sidewalks are lined with (rotten, smelly) leaves, scarves and coats are mandatory and all I can think about is how to get my hands on a steaming hot bowl of soup noodles. Pretty sure that’s all I’ll be eating (and probably writing about) from now until the beginning of March or so. Good thing there are about a million different kinds and variation. Broth + noodles + toppings = endless possibilities.

One of my first bowls of soup noodles this season was a Singaporean curry laksa prepared by my awesome friend Wilson. Slurping down that creamy golden spicy broth was a particularly enjoyable and memorable experience since (a) it was cold and rainy that day; (b) I had never tried laksa before; (c) it was cooked at home with TLC (not referring to the Honey Boo Boo network here) and shared amongst good friends; and (d) it was goddamn delicious! This is some seriously comforting food, people.

Wilson and I first bonded while talking about food. Food talk led to noodle talk led to laksa talk – a kind of soup noodle that’s ubiquitous in Singapore and Malaysia, where food is paramount and diverse, a convergence of Malay, Chinese, Indian and several other cooking styles and ingredients. To be clear, there are actually two main kinds of laksa: curry laksa, a coconut milk and curry based broth common in Singapore, and assam laksa, a fish and tamarind based broth that’s common in Malaysia. Both contain noodles (often rice noodles, though it may vary) as well as an assortment of fresh and cooked toppings. Raised in Malaysia but born in Singapore, curry laksa is the one that’s near and dear to Wilson’s heart (although he really likes assam laksa too and hopefully we’ll make some as a sequel to this post). His family didn’t actually cook it much at home since it’s so cheaply and readily available at the hawker stalls there – not to mention that most vendors have been perfecting their recipes for years if not generations, making their version of the dish hard to beat. Since living in Toronto though, where good Singaporean food is sparse, he’s come up with a recipe to satisfy his cravings.

Other than a mediocre version of the dish at the Cupnoodle Museum‘s “world bazaar” cafeteria in Japan, and some virtual trips to the hawker stalls with Anthony Bourdain (watch an excellent clip from his No Reservations here), I had never tried curry laksa before. Firstly, I’ve never had the opportunity to visit Singapore (though, internationally recognized as a street-food mecca, it’s definitely one of my top three travel destinations, along with Penang, Malaysia). Secondly, for some reason Toronto doesn’t have much to offer in the way of Singaporean restaurants – there are only a handful, and save for the new-fangled Hawker Bar on the Ossington strip, they’re located quite far from downtown and public transit. I’ll probably make the trip out to some of these places in due time (wanna come?), so that I can try different styles. But frankly, I’m pretty happy to be eating Wilson’s curry laksa at home. And guess what – you can too. No, he doesn’t do house calls. But I can share with you how we made it. Other than a few obscure-ish but definitely available in Chinatown ingredients, it’s actually not too hard to make. And it’s easily customizable depending on your tastes. In Singapore, some common toppings for laksa include chicken, shrimp, cockles, fish tofu, tofu puffs and hard-boiled eggs. We just used a couple of those. You could additionally or alternatively use any manner of blanched proteins and vegetables like maybe some tofu and baby corn, or green beans and crab.

The Ingredients:

(1) Laksa paste

Ok, the jig is up. We kind of cheated by using store bought curry paste instead of making our own. This is the huge time saver since there is a flurry of ingredients ground together in the paste. It typically includes things like shallots, garlic, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, chilies, coriander, dried shrimp paste and maybe some other things, or maybe less. We used the Asian Home Gourmet brand.

(2) Dried shrimp paste (belacan)

It’s sold in a brick, about the size of a bar of soap. Wilson cleverly stores his in a tight-sealed glass jar because watch out – this stuff SMELLS, like as if you’re in waist-high rubber boots in the middle of a fish market at 4am. Don’t let the smell deter you though – its pungency is the reason for its amazing flavour. By adding this to our broth, we were able to add some depth of flavour that would otherwise be lacking had we used the spice paste alone.

(3) Dried shrimps

Aren’t they cute? You can buy these in Chinatown, either pre-packaged at the grocery store, or by weight from one of those shops that sells things by weight. They come in a variety of sizes and colours so it was kind of hard to decide which to get. I read an article recently, can’t remember where, that said the redder the better, but we just kinda chose the ones that looked the nicest and driest. Once again, these added some more depth of flavour to the broth as well as some good texture (they soften up).

(4) Laksa leaf/Vietnamese mint/Vietnamese coriander

I can’t express how much I love this herb. It was really the crowning glory of our bowl of laksa and in my opinion, a necessary element. It’s taste is kinda sorta like a cross between coriander and parsley, but with this note of light fresh citrus. It brightens up your palate and is a perfect complement to the creamy, spicy richness of the broth. The package we found was generically marked ‘herbs’ but look for long and pointy-tipped green leaves.

(5) Fish tofu

Is it fish or is it tofu? Minced fish cubes that look like tofu (there’s also some soybean oil and soy protein mixed in), they’re really similar in taste, and probably ingredients, to those uncomfortably neon-coloured fishcake rounds that you often find in udon and other Asian soup noodles. I love them but lots of people hate them. Load it up or leave ’em out. I don’t think they’re essential. We found them in the freezer at the grocery store.

(6) Tofu puffs

These little fried tofu puffs are a textural wonder. Light, spongy, and a little chewy, they deliciously soak up the flavours of the broth. Yums.

(7) Rice vermicelli/rice noodles

Figuring out the right noodles was a bit of a doozy. I always thought that rice vermicelli refers exclusively to those very thin strands used in Vietnamese bun dishes. Typically, however, laksa is served with a thicker, round noodle – also referred to as rice vermicelli – which is approximately the size and shape of spaghetti. It’s much easier to find the dried variety, which is what we used, but I’d love to try it with some fresh rice vermicelli (maybe at T&T). Other kinds of noodles could easily work well too, although for some reason I don’t think the yellow Chinese egg noodles would taste good in this.

(8) Fresh chilies

(9) Bean sprouts

(10) Coconut milk

(11) Chicken stock (or water if you don’t have any)

Method

No measurements involved here. You’re basically following the directions on the back of the laksa paste package and then added things in until it tastes good. We used two packages of laksa paste as there were 4 people eating, but you could just do one package and still have leftovers, which is really the best part. Like most one-pot cooking, it actually tastes even better the next day as the flavour have had more time to meld together.

(1) In a stockpot, heat up a couple tablespoons of oil over medium heat. Pour in the laksa paste and saute in the oil for a minute or two, until it becomes aromatic. Pour in a can of coconut milk and about two cups of stock. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat so it’s lightly bubbling.

(2) In a food processor, grind up a slice of shrimp paste (around the size of one of those perfect pads of butter you see melting atop a stack of pancakes in commercials/stock photographs like this) along with a couple tablespoons of dried shrimps and a tablespoon or two of water. Pulse it all together until the shrimp are broken down a bit and the paste is no longer in brick form. It won’t exactly be a paste. Add it all into the lightly bubbling stockpot.

(3) Pick a bunch of laksa leaves from the stems. Wash and pat dry. Stack about 8 leaves on top of one other, roll them up lengthwise, like a cigar, and slice horizontally into fine shreds (aka chiffonade). Reserve for later.

(4) Finely chop a chili or two, or more depending on your taste, and add it to the stock pot. Throw in some fish tofu and some tofu puffs. Let it all simmer together for awhile.

(5) While it’s simmering, boil some water in a separate pot. Add a couple handfuls of bean sprouts to the boiling water. Let them boil for a minute, then remove them with some tongs and put them in a bowl of cold water (to stop the cooking).

(6) Now use that same pot of boiling water to cook your noodles, according to the package instructions. Within the last few minutes of cooking, keep on testing the noodles to make sure you don’t overcook them. Mushy noodles suck. Drain the noodles and rinse with cold water.

(7) Divide the noodles into your serving bowls. Divide the bean sprouts as well.

(8) Taste the broth. Too bland? Add some fish sauce and/or more chili. Too creamy? Add more stock/water. Not creamy enough? More coconut milk. Once you get it how you like it, let it simmer a bit more. Then spoon it over the waiting bowls of noodles.

(9) Garnish each bowl with a heaping pile of the shredded laksa leaves. Enjoy!

Noodles In Motion: I’d Call This One ‘Ramendesiac’

Romance, humour, suspense, noodles – all I could ever want from a film, wrapped into one five-minute short. Looking for love? Eat more noodles! This is what I’ve been trying to tell you guys all along.

Also, for all the viewers out there who’ve never been to Japan, a fun glimpse into Japanese ramen shop culture.

 

P.S. If you really like me, you can now follow me via twitter or email – just click one of those links on the homepage sidebar.

So I Finally Momofukued…

A few weeks ago, after months and months of delays and anticipation, New York’s acclaimed Momofuku restaurant (which means lucky peach in Japanese, but as I wrote in my first post ever, might refer to Momofuku Ando, the father of instant noodles) finally opened its doors in Toronto – and it’s all anybody’s been talking about since. How long did you have to wait in line? Did you try the pork buns? Along with every food-blogger, every local and national publication has also covered some aspect of it, like here, here, here and here. I think Toronto is feeling rather chuffed that of all the cities in all the world, the empire has chosen us to include in its realm. Ok, Sydney might have been first, but we didn’t get just one Momofuku restaurant – we got three (plus a bar).

Adjacent to the new Shangri-La Hotel at Univeristy and Adelaide, the glass cube structure houses all four Momofuku establishments: the infamous Noodle Bar on its ground floor; Nikai, a second-storey lounge/bar where you can have a drink while waiting for a table (although its birds-eye view of others’ tables as they happily slurp away at their noodles seems kind of torturous ); the third floor Daisho, which serves large family-style meals like whole fried chicken; and Shoto, also on the third floor, which serves a fancy-pants $150 ten-course tasting menu. I’d eventually, someday, like to try all of them but Noodle Bar was first on my list – not only because it was the first of the three to open but quite obviously because it serves NOODLES. Also, I’ve never been to the original Noodle Bar in New York and have heard so much about it. Also, I was totally enthralled with the first issue of Momofuku-founder/chef David Chang‘s Lucky Peach magazine (it’s the ramen issue, and is entirely, obsessively devoted to all things ramen) and while reading it, I thought (a) this guy totally gets me and (b) someone who’s so obsessed with noodles must turn out some pretty good ones – and I must try them.

The restaurants’ entrance on University, with a smidge of the gorgeous Zhang Huan sculpture that dominates the building’s exterior

Bird’s eye view of Noodle Bar from the second floor bar – hi guys!

For all the praise and cult-like worship this place gets though, there’s also the inevitable, and often disproportionate, hater backlash – and Toronto has been no exception. Within the first week, I heard/read a whole range of reviews – some people were in love, bowing at the altar, others said it was a total disappointment/doesn’t compare to the New York location/is totally not worth waiting in line for an hour +. And then most people were somewhere in the middle – thought it was good but didn’t get what all the hype was about. Despite some lowered expectations, I was still extremely excited to check it out for myself.

A group of five of us went there on a Friday afternoon at 1:00. We were told the wait would be 1.5 hours and they took our name and number down on an iPad and said they’d text us when our table was ready. Somehow we got lucky and before we even made it to the closest coffee shop to distract our stomachs, we got the text and were seated within 20 minutes – woot! Despite its name, only about half the dishes on the restaurant’s menu are actually noodles, while the rest is other delicious sounding things, like smoked chicken wings, kimchi stew with rice and the infamous pork-belly steam buns,. With five pairs of big eyes, we actually tried to order one of everything on the menu. (Un)fortunately, the waitress told us it would be way too much food (party-pooper) so we scaled down a bit. Here’s what we tried:

Kimchi jar

Shiitake and chicken buns – nope, we didn’t get the pork belly

Ramen with pork belly + shoulder, poached egg, fishcake and cabbage

Chilled spicy noodles with sichuan sausage, fresh spinach, fermented black bean, and candied cashews

Smoked chicken wings (with some background carnage)

Ginger scallion noodles, dressed with a light vinaigrette

Roasted rice cakes in a sticky/sweet/spicy red chili sauce

The ramen was a good bowl of noodles – springy noodles, comforting, meaty and well-salted broth, and a beautifully yolky egg. Purists beware, this is not a traditional Japanese ramen and doesn’t claim to be (there are other places in the city doing that, and quite a few more on the way – stay tuned for my ramen low-down). It’s instead an interesting variation on the theme. The ginger scallion noodles were also really tasty – a more light and refreshing take on a noodle bowl. The chilled spicy noodles were decent, although not something I’d crave or go back for. The best things we had were actually the non-noodle goods. For me, total sleeper hit was the shiitake buns – did not expect to like these at all but as soon as I took a bite, I was taken. Same reaction for the roasted rice cakes. Rice cakes in chili sauce is otherwise known as dukbokki, a common and extremely popular Korean dish that can be found for about $5 at any of the Koreatown restaurants near Christie and Bloor. This is an elevated version of it though – by untraditionally roasting the rice cakes, they get a crispy crunchy coating and an ooey gooey centre which goes so well with the sweet sticky sauce and green onion and sesame garnish. Overall, I’d say the food was good and tasty but not omg-amazing-best-ever. Certainly not the absolute best bowl of noodles I’ve ever had (which I was kind of hoping for) but I’d go back for a couple of the dishes, and to try the pork belly buns, and maybe also cause it’s a cool atmosphere. Worth waiting in line for? At least once. And depending on your outlook, the line-up can be half the fun.

The Ultimate Noodle Experience: Making Soba From Scratch

Despite my many years of noodle obsession, I had never – until a couple weeks ago – tried my hand at actually making my own noodles from scratch. I don’t mean just frying up some noodles in a wok; I mean actually mixing a dough, rolling it out and cutting it into strands of noodles. I’ve seen it done many times in markets, restaurants and on television, have always been interested in the process, and briefly entertained the idea of making David Chang’s ramen recipe from the first issue of Lucky Peach. Alas, without any guidance or instruction, the task always proved too daunting to try on my own. So when my hobby-forward friend Laura (also my companion for last year’s woodworking class) proposed checking out a soba noodle making class (after being inspired by the soba noodles in sesame sauce that I brought to her bbq!) with our friends Ananda and Julia, I was all in.

Soba is a traditional Japanese noodle made from buckwheat flour that’s lauded not only for its delicate flavour but also its health benefits. It’s extremely popular across Japan and can be found in a wide range of eateries, from tiny train station noodle stands, to mid-level tourist spots to expensive restaurants specializing exclusively in soba. Soba quality can vary greatly though, and the base factor in that is whether the soba is fresh and handmade or dried and machine-made. It’s kind of like the difference between fresh and dried pasta – the fresh stuff tastes way better. Interestingly, however, only a tiny fraction of soba purveyors in Japan actually make fresh soba by hand. This is because the fresh stuff is quite labour intensive and requires a significant amount of skill and expertise – during the Edo period, aspiring soba masters apprenticed for a total of 5 years and 3 months!

Fresh soba contains approximately 80% buckwheat flour – this high buckwheat content is what gives the fresh noodles their prized flavour but it’s also what makes them tricky to produce. Buckwheat flour lacks gluten, the protein that’s responsible for giving dough its elasticity (that’s why those gluten-free cookies and cakes are always kinda crumbly). So when buckwheat flour is mixed with water, the resulting dough is quite delicate and prone to breaking. Machines just can’t make noodles from that kind of inelastic dough, so they cheat by using only about 40% buckwheat flour mixed with regular wheat flour. The noodles are then typically dried and packaged, to be consumed later. The large majority of soba in Japan and abroad is of this dried variety. And while it obviously has the appeal of convenience and efficiency, it comes at the cost of that delicate buckwheat taste. For the soba connoisseurs then, real soba is only the fresh stuff.

Enter Ted, our noodle-making host for the afternoon and the only person to his knowledge IN CANADA making fresh soba by hand. Ted hails from the Asakusa district of Tokyo, one of the city’s few neighbourhoods where you can see and feel traditional elements of the foregone Edo period. After spending many years as the boss of a company in Japan, which included a brief stint in Toronto, Ted gave up the corporate world in favour of the noodle world (my hero!). Having always been a big soba fan, he went to school in Japan to learn the craft of soba making. Then, lucky for us, he brought his skills back to Toronto and through his company, Soba Canada, has been spreading the soba love here for over 15 years. He hosts a weekly event called Soba Tuesdays where he takes over Ichiriki Japanese restaurant at Yonge and Bloor for a night and, instead of the restaurant’s regular sushi menu, he offers a special soba menu consisting exclusively of fresh noodles that he’s personally made from scratch. In addition, he occasionally hosts soba-making classes in his basement workshop.

The zaru soba (i.e. chilled soba on bamboo sieve with dipping sauce) that I enjoyed at Soba Tuesday about a year ago, served with sides of fresh tofu, crab legs and salmon roe

Ted is the definition of an artisanal food maker, without any of the pretension, puffed-up marketing or overpricing ($10 for an artisanal chocolate bar anyone?) that usually goes along with the Brooklyn-inspired food trend that’s taken over North America these days. You want farm-to-table? He’ll literally give you seed-to-table. For Ted, the single most important factor in making delicious soba is the quality of the flour – even a soba master’s noodles wouldn’t taste good if using low quality stuff. Unsatisfied with the quality of buckwheat flour that’s available in Canada, Ted makes his own, and is involved in every single step of its production. He uses parent seeds from Japan which are then planted on a farm in Manitoba, the “buckwheat capital of Canada” (interestingly, Canada doesn’t consume much buckwheat itself and most of Manitoba’s production is exported to Japan; Japan on the other hand is a top buckwheat consumer but doesn’t produce much of the crop itself due to space). When the crop is harvested, he takes the buckwheat seeds back to his home in Mississauga and grinds them into a flour himself, using a flour mill that he has in his basement workshop. He packages and sells some of the flour for retail. But when preparing a fresh batch of noodles to serve, he’ll actually grind the flour fresh that morning.

The buckwheat

The mill

In addition to the level of care that’s put into producing the buckwheat flour, the process of actually making the noodles is a whole craft in itself. As I mentioned before, aspiring soba masters would spend 5 years and 3 months learning the art of soba making – 3 years for mixing the dough by hand, 2 years for rolling the dough and 3 months for cutting the dough into strands. While those days of intense apprenticeship are long gone, it still takes a significant amount of time and practice. For example, Ted offers a 20-day intensive course for aspiring soba professionals. Setting our sights a little lower, we opted for Ted’s one-day experience class – you watch Ted’s demonstration of noodle-making, and then he helps out as you make a batch of noodles on your own to take home. With just a couple hours of instruction, you’re not able to actually acquire and retain the skills to make soba independently. But just taking part in the process for a day is so much fun. Also, it’s pretty inspiring to watch and learn from someone who is so passionate and expertly skilled at their craft. Watching Ted’s demonstration, I was completely in awe. Total control and fluidity in his movements, as the buckwheat flour gradually transformed through each step of the noodle-making process, from small balls of dough to their ultimate incarnation as fine buckwheat strands. Kind of hard to describe in words, you can see the entire process below (click on an image, and a carousel of photos will pop up):

It’s so much harder than it looks! Thanks to Ted’s guidance, I think we did pretty well for total novices. My soba turned out pretty ugly though – I couldn’t roll the dough out thin enough, so my noodles turned out pretty short and I also couldn’t manage that giant knife too well, so they were thick as well. But they still tasted really good! In line with his focus on freshness, Ted told us that to experience the best taste, the noodles must be prepared and eaten within 3 days maximum, although first or second day soba is best – even Ted’s dog Cookie, evidently a trained soba connoisseur, won’t eat third day soba. I made my noodles the next morning, preparing them in the traditional zarusoba method- quickly boiled and then chilled, garnished with some roasted seaweed and fresh green onions and served cold with a tsuyu dipping sauce on the side (the sauce is flavoured with dried bonito flakes, soy and mirin;  I just bought a bottle at the Korean grocery store on Bloor). You’re supposed to just pick up some noodles with your chopsticks, dip them in the sauce and slurp away. You could really taste the difference from using fresh handmade noodles. Mmm soba – so good.

Noodles In Motion: Knife-shaved noodlebots!

Dao xiao mian, knife-shaved noodles, are a handmade style of noodles that are extremely popular across many parts of China and Taiwan. As the name suggests, they’re made by taking a knife to a block of wheat dough, and quickly shaving ribbons into a pot of boiling water. I used to love watching them being made in the markets, mesmerized by the noodle-maker’s speed and dexterity. Apparently the future is rapidly approaching in China though, as those human knife-shaved noodle-makers are being replaced by robots! According to this German design site, forwarded to me by my awesome former roommate Christine, rising labour costs in China prompted a Beijing restaurateur to develop an army of noodle-shaving robots. Whereas a noodle-shaving chef would cost $4700 a year, the robots only cost $2000 each. Apparently they’re in production now and 3000 of them have already been sold. The robots certainly raise some questions about labour and economics. But they’re also just awesome to see – their eyes glow like real robots!

And then here’s a video of a human making dao xiao mian. This guy is amazing. While the robots are cool, I’d be sad to see guys like him gone.