Tsukemen Vs Ramen

Tsukemen Vs Ramen

I want to like Tsukemen Ramen.  I want to appreciate it.  But, I just don’t and it makes me feel like I am not getting something essential about living in Tokyo.  My taste buds have betrayed me as I kind of think Tsukemen tsucks.

Tsukemen Ramen is essentially deconstructed ramen.  Each component of the classic ramen bowl is served separately: Noodles, broth, toppings.  The noodles are served chilled or room temperature.  You dip them into the broth, which is a thicker, more concentrated, more powerful liquid than what you get in soup. Add a slice of pork, a bamboo shoot, egg, whatever and slurp it all up.

Tsukemen was invented in 1961 by Kazuo Yamagishi at his ramen shop Higashi-Ikubukuro Taishouken.  The dish was called “Mori-Soba” and it was started as a staff meal that gradually made it onto the menu.  As the dish is served at a cooler temperature that regular ramen, it became a popular summer dish and gradually became a staple of ramen shops throughout Tokyo and the rest of Japan.

I tried Tsukemen for the first time in Los Angeles.  I appreciated the concept, but ultimately found the dish unsatisfying.  In Tokyo Tsukemen is everywhere.  All my favorite shops serve a version and I would say that 50% of the customers order it.  I hated my first Tokyo Tsukemen.  I found the dipping broth far too amped up with dried anchovies — an umami overload that erased the subtleties of the noodle.  I thought I should persevere, so I kept ordering it — I felt like a wannabe junkie who keeps shooting heroin in hopes of finally understanding all the hype.  I had a few versions that tasted good, but the love eluded me.  Finally, the other day, I went with my son to our favorite Ramen shop: Kami-Itabashi’s Tamashii Soba. I decided to try the Tsukemen because I believed if I would finally have an epiphany, it would be there; I love Tamashii’s noodles, the master makes them every day and they are toothsome, springy and hold the broth perfectly — serve them solo, as in Tsukemen, and you would have, I thought, an easy winner.

I tried my best.  I dipped my beloved noodles into the dipping sauce which was as wonderfully balanced as the master’s regular soup — rich chicken broth, a hint of pork bone all rounded out with the flavors of anchovy, garlic, dried mushroom and ginger. I recognized the goodness of it, recognized the pleasure of such a dish, but I found myself gazing at my son’s regular bowl with jealousy. When I want ramen, I want the fully tactile pleasure of blazing hot soup, noodles slurped loudly to both inhale broth and protect the mouth from scalding.  I want my nose to run.  Tsukemen just doesn’t engage me the same way.  I realize it is exactly the same as a dish of pasta.  I would not get the same pleasure from dipping even the best pasta into a concentrated version of Carbonara.  I want my pasta, as I want my ramen, to absorb some of that sauce, that broth — to be unified in perfect harmony rather than broken apart into separate pleasures.

I bow my head in shame to the Ramen gods.  I am not yet a true Tokyoer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *