Beware of pixie dust.

Beware of pixie dust.

For the uninitiated, tsukemen is a different way of serving ramen. The noodles are separated from the broth, which, as a dip, is usually thicker than the typical ramen soup. This entails a more concentrated flavor, designed to captivate palates and minds of the young and the old. At the end of the meal, one can request for hot soup to be added to the remaining dip, which transforms it into a comfortable and refreshing finish.

At the heart of Tokyo, a particular tsukemen restaurant took the liberty of substituting the broth with pixie dust. This simple, yet ingenious, gesture makes its humble bowl of ramen magical. In Rokurinsha, there are no chefs; magicians take the stage to conjure bowls of tsukemen for their audience.

Are these the best noodles ever brought into existence? I’ve been told to avoid superlatives, but I can’t help it that Rokurinsha is magical. Highly recommended by a deluge of TV hosts and celebrity chefs, the initial anticipation weighed me down (never trust the media). Yet with each slurp, the skepticism dissipated and my feet lightened. In the last sips from the bowl, I could hardly hang on to my seat. In the following hour, I felt like Peter Pan – floating in the air.

In Japan, ramen makes a casual meal, but serving it is a serious affair. It isn’t difficult to stumble upon a random place and have your ‘life-changing’ bowl of noodles. I remember how, on my first trip to Tokyo, I had the ‘best ramen ever’ in a nameless restaurant. I swore then that I would not have any more ramen back home, but those were the days when dreams were as distant as the stars. A decade later, I realized with great (but readily available) miso, shoyu, or tonkotsu, you can’t really get a ‘bad’ ramen. But some of these can turn out to be really heavy – the fat, the salt, and perhaps a reckless belief in umami. There’s a reason why a spoonful of glutamate paralyzes your taste buds.

Rokurinsha’s broth came across as a bowl of depth. Long hours of simmering with pork and chicken bones, and fish flakes made it incredibly rich. It was a rare experience to have a delicate balance of meat and fish flavors, and not forgetting the restrained application of umami. Apparently, there is some sort of ‘dried fish powder’ in the broth for that. I’m skeptical about ‘using’ umami, but neglecting this aspect of taste can be dangerous. Besides that, the noodles were succulent and chewy, perfect for the intense broth. The accompaniments were indispensable too – chashu, shredded pork, bamboo shoots, and a beautiful egg. The magic is in the ‘unreal’ sense of bliss at the end of the meal, unobstructed by any food lethargy. Pixie dust, I swear.

It is possible that I am still under the psychoactive effects of the meal, so I apologize for any hint of derangement. I visited the flagship branch in Tokyo Ramen Street, and queued for 40 minutes. There’s a new branch at Tokyo Solamachi, a shopping mall adjunct the Tokyo Sky Tree. No regrets for this simple bowl of tsukemen; it’s something to remember for a long time. Bon appétit !

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Akami-zuke

Akami-zuke

I have never liked sushi. It’s not that I hate it, but I haven’t actually go to great lengths to appreciate it. Fancy sushi restaurants cost a bomb, and affordable places serve sushi that warrants little merit. Cold, over-sized rice balls ruins the tastiest fish, while tasty fish don’t come by cheap.

On my fifth trip to Japan, I thought I should try some serious sushi. Everybody knows about Sushi Jiro, because it has three-michelin stars, because Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and because President Obama dined there. Unfortunately, I’m just a poor nobody who can’t speak Japanese, and so I had to opt for a more casual, but still serious, affair. A brief search on the Internet led me to Sushi Iwa.

Sushi Iwa is a small restaurant located in Ginza. It isn’t far from Tsukiji market where over 300 sushi restaurants around the area get their fresh produce from. With only six seats, every customer gets the chef’s undivided care and attention. There were two chefs on the counter, and Chef Tsunoda prepared our meal for lunch. I didn’t ask, but Chef Tsunoda seemed to have taken over as head chef/owner, whereas the blog posts, which I referred to, named him as the sous-chef. Such are petty matters… besides, it made an impressionable sushi experience.

For this virgin venture, my Dad and I chose the 13-piece set lunch, over the 10-piece set and the dinner omakase. There was tai, saba, karei, akamizuke, toro, bonito, ika, hotate, some crab, anago, and I can’t name the rest. I can’t remember the exact order either, which is important in a sushi meal. The chef pressed the rice à la minute, taking care of the temperature of both the rice and the fish, and asked us if the amount of wasabi was alright. Everything was fresh and the natural flavors of the sea shone through. It is difficult to name any favorite, because I never had better of each kind. The saba, the toro, the bonito, the ika… the hotate, the anago… breathe, restraint, breathe… you get the point.

What makes sushi serious anyway? Fresh seafood, restrained use of rice, or serving them at the right temperatures and in the right order? As a novice in all things, I can’t give an informed answer. What I know to be true, is that food becomes serious when chefs are committed to their business. The respect for ingredients, the dedication towards technique, the drive for precision… these may all sound frivolous to the common populace, but in the pursuit for better food, if the men and women in white jackets and tall hats do not uphold these ideals, who would?

From the sushi to the hospitality, Chef Tsunoda’s belief in his craft is noticeable in his actions. What I could admire more is his humility, which I think all chefs, or in fact everyone, should have. At the end of the meal, we chatted for a while, about sushi, pastry, and the weather. He walked us out, and stood outside the place to see us off. I walked away that summer afternoon, knowing that I would be back some day for a great meal, which is so much more than good food alone.

Chef Tsunoda

Chef Tsunoda

At a great place, with an even greater mentor.

At a great place, with an even greater mentor.

People say summer is a dream. I couldn’t be less sure, on the eve of a new semester. Am I waking up into a dream, or am I falling into reality? Ever since my enrolment at the university, my life has been oscillating between who I am and who I want to be. This incoherence is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be discomforting on occasions. At least, I know where I am headed.

My mom tells me that when I was really young, I wanted to be a fireman. In primary school, I wanted to be an astronomer. For a while, I wanted to be a doctor, then, a scientist. I couldn’t remember if there was a time when I didn’t at least have a vague idea of what I want to be. I don’t need a fixed direction, but I can’t live with having no direction at all. That’s me.

“My name is Han, and I want to be a pastry chef.”

This proclamation sounds frivolous and strange enough, but it helps me stay on track. I don’t suppose it takes such difficulty for most to find their place in the kitchen, but I could use a little more clarity. Business schools and commercial kitchens are rather disparate worlds, and I suck at transitions.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that summer break is over. The previous month has been eventful – leaving Pollen, a week’s stint in the military, a trip to Tokyo, and being a photographer for Freshmen Orientation Week. This summer has been more than rewarding and I hope that the next would be just as fantastic, if not better. Before then, the second year of school wouldn’t be short of adventures to look forward to! For one, I’m taking another French module, super! Getting to see friends around in school will be awesome too, and not forgetting an exchange programme to Hong Kong in the second semester!

As usual, I’ll promise more time for baking and French. More reading too, with more positivity. Here’s to a great year ahead!

Koffee and Kashi

Unearthed diamonds lie in their slumber, unfazed by the relentless passage of time. They wait patiently in the darkest depths, and in their first light, they blinds us to the blood and sweat that taint them so. Yet we are not drawn most to their shine; we are not magpies. It is their elusiveness that lay their unyielding grip on our hearts and minds.

Being elusive is what makes this coffee shop charming, like a diamond on a ring. Tucked in a residential street, Omotesando Koffee stays hidden from plain view. You will walk past it twice, only to uncover its camouflage on the third try. Step into its entrance, and the surreal greenery isolates you from the outside world, while the furnishing transports you into a timeless dimension. Designed like a traditional Japanese tea-house, its modern coffee bar stands out-of-place within its wooden interior, like a passing dream.

OMO

Style without substance also makes a passing dream, but the place has survived the test of time with great coffee and even greater dedication. The sweltering sun was the only thing that didn’t go well with the hot drink. If I did away with my persistence for hot coffee, and opted for an iced latte instead, it would have been perfect. Fortunately, the shade and the kashi – a kind of coffee custard pastry, saved the day. A few sips of my Dad’s iced coffee helped too.

It’s difficult to conclude that the coffee is ‘to-die-for’, because it is frivolous to die for any kind of coffee. Nevertheless, Omotesando Koffee is a diamond, and it will always warrant a visit, whenever I get the chance to return to Tokyo. Perhaps, in cooler seasons, this place would make a perfect sanctuary, from the blood and sweat of reality.

Sanctuary

The Land of Tsukemen.

Nothing beats a bowl of Tsukemen.

There are a thousand and one articles on the internet reiterating the benefits of travelling. I don’t see a reason to encourage people to travel, unless they are on the related industry’s payroll. When our ancestors settled down and took up agriculture, their thirst to explore, so as to understand, only grew stronger. We have never left our nomadic tendencies behind. It is still in our nature to explore the worlds beyond our own.

Silly talk aside, after a year of freshman toil and a summer internship, I decided that I needed a break to simply relax. I had conceived a solo trip but it turned out to be a father-and-son trip, which I didn’t mind. Except that there were fewer bits of relaxing, and more of trying to be a better son. Leading a trip can be more tiring than wandering off on your own. In any case, nothing beats family and my dad’s pretty cool. Thanks Dad.

Japan never disappoints. It isn’t a perfect country, nor can it sway my attachment to Paris, but its wonders are boundless. It tops my list of most-visited countries, yet there remains so much more uncovered treasures, waiting to be discovered on my next visit. And Japan is so much more than Tokyo. Admittedly, for Tokyo, I’ve gotten used to marvelling at its amazing produce, unparalleled hospitality, and endless food basements. On this trip, I sought out a few special places, which have impressed upon me subtly, yet indelibly. By chance, these places line up in their respective categories: Coffee, Tsukemen, Pastry, and Sushi. I will write about these highlights individually, in time to come, otherwise this would make a very long post. In short, dedication is key to excellence, and the Japanese know it best.

Who can walk away from fireworks?

Who can walk away from fireworks?

Moving on from all things edible, this trip also coincided with the Sumidagawa fireworks festival, which also happens to be on my dad’s birthday. I don’t like crowds, but I couldn’t walk away from my first Japanese festival. Everyone had put on their yukata-s, brought bentos for their picnics along Sumida River. Night came and so Tokyo celebrated my dad’s birthday, with lights and sparkles incomparable to the little candle on my dad’s cake, which we had later in the night. Surely the crowd was nearly unbearable, but it is difficult to regret attending such a festival.

No regrets too, to have stayed in Tokyo for six days. It was slightly longer than necessary, but not having to rush from city to city was a blessing. Perhaps it would take a few years before I return to this city, but there is no doubt that I would visit again. Till then!

A plateful of greens and reds

Beetroot Salad

I wouldn’t usually drive into the Central Business District. Traffic is impossible, and parallel parking frightens me.  But McCallum Street sounded like the quieter side of Tanjong Pagar. With some courage, and lack of wisdom, I went behind the wheels to brave the lunch crowd. The parking lots were accommodating; the traffic behind me were less so. After considerable effort, I could finally switch off the engine and set forth to the destination on my reliable legs. The hot weather didn’t offer much relief, nor did forgetting to put parking coupons. So when I had finally arrived at this café just opposite Amoy Street Food Centre, I got myself an iced white.

I’m ambivalent about having my coffee cold. My favorite espresso drink is the piccolo latte, or ‘short white’, or ‘magic’, or Gibraltar. Purists will condemn me for putting these in the same band, but I’m not that particular. With well-textured milk and decent espresso shots, a concise hot coffee drink works for me. On the other hand, cold brews are intriguing, and tropical heat necessitates cold refreshment.

The café’s non-existent AC didn’t help. We relocated to an alfresco table, which was much better with the occasional breeze. I opted for the beetroot salad, after a heavy breakfast. With rocket, sliced almonds and feta, it was aptly dressed. Given its size, it could use a little more acidity. Maybe a dash of lemon juice or some fresh citrus segments? On the positive end, the sourdough that came with the salad was sufficiently tangy, which I’ve taken a liking to during my stay in Paris. However, more gluten development would make a better crumb, and the crust could be more pronounced. Nevertheless, it made a good meal!

My company had the pork sandwich. The thing I have against tall sandwiches is that if you can’t pick it up and take a bite without dislocating your jaw, it can be quite a hassle. Especially when you just want to kick off your shoes and bask in the ambience. That’s why I prefer tartines – open-faced sandwiches, which makes more sense. They are usually flatter so you can take it by the bite, or you can easily cut it on the plate. But really, this is a matter of preference, so anything goes.

Overall, it was a decent meal. The brunch menu seemed interesting, and I’ll be sure to drop in for that the next time round, as well as the short white I missed. The café has character, and that gives it the potential to stand out amongst the many office lunch options around the area. A more welcoming service would also do no harm. After all, building rapport with customers keeps them coming back for respite from a hectic week. With so many new places opening up here, exceptional service could well be the make-or-break deal in keeping a café going.

GÆST
21 McCallum Street #01-01 The Clift
Singapore 069047
T: 6634 0922

http://gaest.com.sg/

The sunrise by the Flower Dome.

The sunrise by the Flower Dome.

It is July, and summer break is almost over. It has been a tasteful experience; being back in the kitchen felt liberating. Compared to school, long hours for most of the week has been quite a strain both mentally and physically. But to acknowledge that one has pushed on further toward one’s goal can be quite fulfilling. It is not to say that I am anywhere near an end-goal, if there is one, but I am happy with making progress, however small it is. It is something.

On the other hand, the idea of nothingness is dangerous. We avoid it, although there is nothing to be afraid of. We fear being compounded into nobodies making unnoticeable differences, of having a muted existence in the infinity of the past and the future. This explains our constant strive to be somebody.

Then, the problem of that is: losing somebody is worse than losing nobody. As much as we will our presence to be everlasting, we are mortal. Like ephemeral boulders, we can only surrender our fleeting bodies to the permanence of flow – that is the species as a whole. Nevertheless, only rarely do we hold this perspective, and never do we let it hold us back.

In the twists and turns of the tides, we always have to say goodbyes. It isn’t the same as losing someone, but we would never know. We cannot step into the same river twice; we change more unpredictably. This summer, I have lost count of how many times I had to bid farewell to somebody. Friends and old-friends, colleagues and ex-colleagues, as well as mentors, who always will be mentors. Farewells will always be difficult, like it or not. To deny its inconvenience is to swim against the currents. Peter Pan would say, ‘never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.’

We tend to brush off fairy tales like these, thinking we have outgrown them. But really, how do we know that we have actually grown up? I like to think that there’s a part of us that never grows up, that we can always sit by the river and feel complete, no matter how many good or bad goodbyes we’ve been through. Of course there are different types of fairy tales. Brothers Grimm against Disney. Even if we are really grown up, we still can learn a lot from them, and from everything else. One of the most heart-wrenching goodbyes in Disney’s films is when Sulley had to close the door in Boo’s room. How more metaphorical can a farewell be than to close a door that would never open to the same place again?

Just as Wendy leaves the window open for Peter, Mike puts the shredded door back together for Sulley. Some things would have changed, others not. We will never know unless we forget, which is neither difficult nor easy. What we must not forget is how we have been changed, for better or for good, by people we meet. That is one way of expressing gratitude and appreciation.

In this season of goodbyes, I am feeling surprising positive, because I am excited for those who are embarking on new chapters of their lives, right here or somewhere out there. I am moving on too, to the second year of university life. I will be taking a little break before that – a week in green uniform, and the other in Tokyo. I will miss walking past the sunrise by the bay, making chocolates in a giant greenhouse, and being around the awesome people in Pollen pastry team.

We are boulders; we are rivers. Till we meet again, halfway through the woods. Bon courage !