Read This Now: "Pretty Good Number One," A Fish-Out-of-Water Tokyo Tale

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Matthew Amster-Burton's is one of the funniest writers I know. He comes up with the kind of one liners and clever descriptions that makes me stop and say to myself damn, I wish I'd thought of that. He makes me want to be a better writer.

I first became aware of his writing when a good friend of mine who works with children suggested I read his first book Hungry Monkey, a chronicle of his attempts to teach his young daughter to eat all of the foods he loves most. It was charming, easy to read, insightful, and downright hilarious, and it made me start following him on his blog Roots and Grubs.

His new book Pretty Good Number One is even better. Part guide book, part diary, it's about his month-long stint living in a Tokyo apartment with his wife and young daughter, a city that despite its reputation, is a difficult one for Westerners to crack. I've been to Tokyo several times and have read all the guidebooks, and I was delighted to find that there's almost no overlap between what the typical book says to do and what Amster-Burton finds amusing, surprising, or delicious. It's given me a whole new set of things to look forward to next time I head to Tokyo.

I chatted briefly with him about his writing process, what it's like to raise an adventurous eater, and how to eat your way through Tokyo. Check out the interview, followed by the complete ramen chapter excerpted from his book below!

The book is available as a paperback for just over $10 and as an ebook for under $4 through Amazon.

As a fellow writer who draws from personal experience, I know that my wife and family have certain privacy issues and boundaries. You write an awful lot about your wife and child. Is this something you discussed before taking on your last two projects, and have issues of private vs. public life ever come up in the course of your writing? I don't recall ever discussing it in detail. From the earliest days of our marriage, Laurie and I read food and travel writers like Calvin Trillin and Jeffrey Steingarten, so I think it was just assumed that I would use my family in the same way in my own writing. The key to using your family without making them feel used, I think, is to make sure to always poke fun at yourself first. This comes easily to me, because I do lots of things worth making fun of.

I can learn from that advice! I'm always fascinated to hear how people come up with jokes. I know some humorists who painstakingly craft one liners that come out on paper as off-the-cuff remarks. What's the process for your writing, and are you as quick-witted in real life? Thanks! I've honestly never been asked this before.

I think describing oneself as "quick-witted" is a great way not to get a date. But I do host a couple of comedy podcasts and briefly did stand-up in the 90s, and I do enjoy lofting one-liners whether the situation calls for them or not.

Most of the best jokes in my writing happen during revision. I try to put myself in funny situations; the okonomiyaki chapter in Pretty Good is a perfect example. I figured if we went out to a restaurant where we'd have to cook our own food, with no experience and limited language skills, that would be pretty funny. I didn't know the waiter was going to be a grinning Japanese Patrick Swayze lookalike.

Taking those raw materials and turning it into a funny true story takes a few revisions. From talking to a lot of writers, I've learned that most writing that has an informal, natural flow is the result of painstaking grunt work.

Oh, and finally: I send my manuscript to my friend Dan, who is funnier than I am, and he writes some last-minute jokes. For this service, he gets a spot in the acknowledgements and a 0 percent cut of the profits. But I'm thinking about doubling his pay.

[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Going back to your first book Hungry Monkey, it's about your daughter Iris, who at the time was very young but still seemed to enjoy eating almost everything. She also seems pretty adventurous in Pretty Good Number One. Did she ever go through a picky phase? Oh, Iris was very picky from about age three to seven. She's still not really into green vegetables unless they're inside a gyōza or other dumplings. But she's open-minded about trying new foods that fit into categories that she already identifies as good eating. So eel isn't a slimy snakelike monster, it's just fish, which she already likes. Plus, it's usually prepared in a way that involves soy sauce, and Iris is a soy sauce fiend.

I know that you're currently in research phases for a new book on Japan, specifically on ramen which is going to go more in-depth into the subject. Pretty Good Number One was pretty much a "here's an American's first take on Tokyo and Tokyo culture" in which you go in with basically no experience or advance research. Your first book was similar in tone. Do you find the process of writing an actual researched subject-based book to be different in terms of writing process? Is it equally enjoyable? Well, I don't think my approach for the ramen book is that different. By the time I finish the book, you, Kenji, will still know a lot more about ramen than I do.

My goal for Pretty Good Number One was to introduce readers to my Tokyo, a place I'd never seen described in print quite the way my family and I experienced it. So with the ramen book, I'm not writing a history book or a cookbook; I just want to bring readers along to eat Hakata ramen in Kyushu, miso ramen in Sapporo, and so on. To meet this wonderful dish on its home turf.

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At the same time, I know ramen lovers are devoted and detail-oriented, by which I mean they will eat me alive if I repeat canards about ramen in my book. So I've been slogging through books like Economics of Ramen in Japan, but also slavering over books like Tokyo Nostalgic Ramen, a guide to Tokyo's oldest continuously-operating ramen shops.

In Pretty Good Number One you hit a lot of places in Tokyo over the course of a month, many of them not on the typical tourist itinerary, even for food-loving tourists. Do you have any advice for travelers to Tokyo who want to go more off the beaten path? Resources that they can use to find places like you did? This advice isn't unique to Tokyo, but you have to be willing to risk embarrassment. Walk into a restaurant in Tokyo that looks good, and it will probably be good. It's amazing how much can be communicated by exchanging smiles and nervous laughter. Most of the places I wrote about in the book weren't ones I picked out of a guidebook but places in our neighborhood that we wandered into.

That said, here are a couple of online sources I found useful:

  • TimeOut.jp and Bento.com have listings and reviews geared as much toward expats as tourists. They cover less well-trod corners of Tokyo and of Japanese cuisine.
  • Tabelog.com is Japan's equivalent of Yelp. It's strikingly comprehensive and full of opinionated ratings and reviews. It's also 100% in Japanese. But it's quite usable in browser translation if you don't speak Japanese. Tabelog reviewers are tough: a place with higher than a 3.5-star average will probably blow you away.

Some other good tips: Eat at chain restaurants. They're much better in Japan than in any other country I've visited, and they tend to have picture menus or other easy ways to order. Ramen, tempura, curry, udon, sushi, and other chains are everywhere.

Finally, if you want to be That Guy: learn Katakana. It's one of the easier of the Japanese language's four writing systems. You can learn it in two weeks and use it to read tons of menu items and signs. The first time you successfully order off a Japanese-language menu, you will feel like the a superhero, even though the person next to you has been doing it since they were five.

Here's an easy closer: top five food experience in Tokyo. Go. Only five? That's brutal, man.

  • Eat tempura at a counter. You call you what you want the chef to fry. The chef fries it. You eat it. It's the greatest. [Editor's Note: wanna see what that's like? Take a peep at this slideshow.]
  • Visit a depachika, a department store basement food hall. The best of these, like Isetan and Takashimaya, make Harrods or Fauchon look small and shabby.
  • Eat convenience store onigiri (rice balls). I don't think I want to know how they sell these delicious and cleverly-packaged treats for about a dollar each, but I'm not complaining.
  • Go to an izakaya. A Japanese friend and I were chatting recently about these pubs, where you can drink beer, sake, or shochu and eat appropriately matched small plates. We agreed that there's something about an izakaya that's nearly impossible to replicate outside Japan, something about the conviviality, the sound, the way the food and drink meld into a seamless experience. What accounts for this quality? We couldn't put it into words, but visit an izakaya (even a chain), and you'll see.
  • And, of course, eat ramen. A good place to start is Tokyo Ramen Street, in the basement of Tokyo Station. [Editor's Note: check out these 8 great bowls of ramen in Toyko!]
  • I'm going to cheat and throw in one more: tea. Japanese tea served outside of Japan is hard to find and rarely good. Get a great introduction to this savory and refreshing beverage at Cha Ginza (near Ginza station), where you can taste several teas and eat a small confection for under $10.
  • Great advice. Thanks Matthew! And now, on to the excerpt.

    Ramen, from Pretty Good Number One

    On our first evening in Tokyo, after a ten-hour flight and shuttling efficiently through customs, we took our seats on the Keisei Skyliner, a high-speed train serving Narita Airport. A man asked to see our tickets. He wasn't a conductor; we'd unknowingly sat down in his reserved seat. After finding our actual seats, I went to the vending machine and bought a bottle of C.C. Lemon to share with Laurie and Iris. We drank the fizzy stuff, turned to the window, and watched the city draw us in.

    By the time we checked in at our hotel, it was about 6:30 p.m. Tokyo time. That's 2:30 a.m. Seattle time, and it felt like it. The rule for avoiding jet lag (eat and sleep on the local schedule immediately) clashed with the rule for sleepy children (let them stay up a minute too long, and you will be very, very sorry). Hunger lured us out into the streets of Asakusa to look for dinner. We wanted something quick, filling, and cheap. Ramen was preordained. To start, however, we'd have to contend with our first ramen ticket machine.

    A ramen ticket machine is an aptitude test, menu, and robot in one box. It stands outside (or just inside) the entrance to a ramen restaurant and has a push button for each menu item: ramen, gyōza, side of rice, and so on. Ticket machines are common at ramen places and rare at other types of restaurants. Some ticket machines have color photos on the buttons, and some have only Japanese writing. If you find yourself in line for a ticket machine that looks problematic, you can order by price and position—the button near the top denoting something that costs between 700 yen and 1000 yen will probably get you a basic bowl of ramen, or you can hit the same button as the person in front of you.

    This machine, on Kaminarimon-dōri, had photos. I recognized tonkotsu (pork broth) ramen and gyōza. (Tonkotsu is different from tonkatsu, although the "ton" in each refers to pork.) We fed some bills into the machine, received our tickets, and presented them to a waiter. Why do the ticket machines exist? To save the waitstaff from having to stand at your table while you say, "Hmm, maybe I'll have the--no, wait, make that...." Why do they exist only at ramen joints? I don't know.

    In Tokyo, ramen is a playground for the culinary imagination. As long as the dish contains thin alkaline wheat noodles, it's ramen. In fact, there's a literal ramen playground called Tokyo Ramen Street in the basement of Tokyo Station, with eight top-rated ramen shops sharing one corridor. We stopped by one evening after a day of riding around on the Shinkansen. After drooling over the photos at establishments such as Junk Garage, which serves oily, brothless noodles hidden under a towering slag heap of toppings, we settled on Ramen Honda based on its short line and the fact that its ramen seemed to be topped with a massive pile of the Japanese leeks called negi.

    The Internet is littered with dozens if not hundreds of exclamation point-bedecked ramen blogs (Rameniac, GO RAMEN!, Ramen Adventures, Ramenate!) in English, Japanese, and probably Serbian, Hindi, and Xhosa. In Tokyo, you'll find hot and cold ramen; Thai green curry ramen; diet ramen and ramen with pork broth so thick you could sculpt with it; Italian-inspired tomato ramen; and Hokkaido-style miso ramen. You'll find ramen chains and fiercely individual holes-in-the-wall. Right now, somewhere in the world, someone is having a meet-cute with her first bowl of ramen. As she fills up on pork and noodles and seaweed and bamboo shoots, she thinks, we were meant to be together, and she is embarrassed at her atavistic reaction to a simple bowl of soup.

    On that first night, as soon as our ramen hit the table, we dove in, parceling out noodles, ultratender braised pork belly, and broth. I ate in a sleepy haze, peering through the glass door of the restaurant. That's Tokyo out there, I thought, and grinned. Anyone looking in would have recognized me as a jetlagged sentimental dipshit who just survived his first ramen ticket machine.

    In summer, most ramen restaurants in Tokyo serve hiyashi chūka, a cold ramen noodle salad topped with strips of ham, cucumber, and omelet; a tart sesame- or soy-based sauce; and sometimes other vegetables, like a tomato wedge or sheets of wakame seaweed. The vegetables are arranged in piles of parallel shreds radiating from the center to the edge of the plate like bicycle spokes, and you toss everything together before eating. It's bracing, ice-cold, addictive--summer food from the days before air conditioning.

    In the comic book Oishinbo: Ramen and Gyōza, a young lifestyle reporter wants to write an article about hiyashi chūka. "I'm not interested in something like hiyashi chūka," says Oishinbo's protagonist, food writer Shiro Yamaoka. It's a fake Chinese dish made with cheap industrial ingredients, he explains.

    Later, however, Yamaoka relents. "Cold noodles, cold soup, and cold toppings," he muses. "The idea of trying to make a good dish out of them is a valid one." Good point, jerk. He mills organic wheat into flour and hires a Chinese chef to make the noodles. He buys a farmyard chicken from an old woman to make the stock and seasons it with the finest Japanese vinegar, soy sauce, and sake. Yamaoka's mean old dad Kaibara Yūzan inevitably gets involved and makes an even better hiyashi chūka by substituting the finest Chinese vinegar, soy sauce, and rice wine.

    When I first read this, I enjoyed trying to follow the heated argument over this dish I'd never even heard of. Yamaoka and Kaibara are in total agreement that hiyashi chūka needs to be made with quality ingredients, but they disagree about what kind of dish it is: Chinese, Japanese, or somewhere in between? Unlike American food, Japanese cuisine has boundary issues.

    For enlightenment, or at least sustenance, I went to Sapporo-ya, a lunch counter in Nihonbashi. According to Yukari Sakamoto, author of the guidebook Food Sake Tokyo, Sapporo-ya serves the best hiyashi chūka in town. (Yamaoka gets kicked out of a similar place in Ginza for loudly criticizing the food.) It was a perfect day for cold noodles, cold soup, and cold toppings: during the three-block walk from the subway station to the restaurant, I had to stop at a vending machine for water and then lean against a building, trying not to faint. You know how the weather report sometimes says, "75 degrees (feels like 78)"? In Tokyo in the summer, it's 88 degrees (feels like 375).

    Finally, I descended into the basement-level restaurant. In lieu of a ticket machine, a man sits at a podium, takes your order and your cash, and issues a handwritten ticket which you then present to a waitress about six feet away. This did not strike me as particularly efficient, but I wasn't thinking about labor productivity. I was thinking, This is possibly the ugliest restaurant in the world.

    There are so many thousands of ramen places in Tokyo that it's foolish to generalize about their aesthetic, but many of them make your average hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurant look like the Four Seasons. They are not actually dirty, because nothing in Tokyo is actually dirty, but they manage to suggest decades of accumulated filth without the filth. The prevailing decor is "if you want decor, go to a fucking kaiseki place." Also, many great ramen places smell like pork bones that have been boiling for three days, and when you sit down at the counter, you're inches away from a giant vat of pork bones that have been boiling for three days. Some cooking smells (grilling meat, frying onions) reach into an ancient brain lobe designed to identify good eating; this is not one of them.

    The reason for this uncharacteristic inattention to detail is that the ramen shop wants you to understand that they are putting all of their money and energy into the bowl. You'll get a potentially life-changing soup for less than $10. In exchange, you're expected to ignore or learn to appreciate scruffiness. The message: "Our ramen is so good, we don't need to wash our curtain."

    You're also supposed to eat fast and get out. A ramen joint is not the place to play Lady and the Tramp with your lover; it's solitary food. One chain, Ichiran, segregates diners into individual booths. You slide into a booth smaller than a study carrel and present your ticket; a faceless server on the other side hands you the soup through a curtain. Nevertheless, Laurie and Iris and I went out for ramen together often, ate slowly by local standards, and always felt welcome--though we never went to Ichiran.

    Now, back to Sapporo-ya. The place is deep enough below street level that the windows let in no natural light; harsh fluorescent lamps made everyone look ill. The walls are greenish-yellow. If you are directing a modern adaptation of The Divine Comedy, shoot the purgatory scenes here.

    The waitress set down my hiyashi chūka goma dare (sesame sauce). It was in every way the opposite of its surroundings: colorful, artfully presented, sweated over. The tangle of yellow noodles was served in a shallow blue-and-white bowl and topped with daikon, pickled ginger, roast pork, bamboo shoots, tomato, shredded nori, cucumber, bean sprouts, half a hard-boiled egg, and Japanese mustard. It was almost too pretty to ruin by tossing it together with chopsticks.

    I sat at a communal table with two other men. One was a harried-looking businessman in the official summer attire of black pants and a white shirt. He dispatched his hiyashi chūka in five minutes with no apparent shirt stains and went back to work. People in Tokyo are capable of eating noodles at shocking speeds; I lost count of how many times people eating next to me disappeared so quickly that they might as well have left behind a cloud of smoke and a cartoon ZOING! sound. Also at my table, however, was an older man in casual dress, probably retired, who ate nearly as slowly as I did and with evident pleasure. Every bite of hiyashi chūka is a little different but always brought together by the lip-smacking, tangy sauce. As with any bowl of ramen, it is totally appropriate to lift the dish to your mouth and drink the broth, and I did, until it was gone. Yamaoka would not have been impressed--for about $11, there's no way they're using organic or otherwise rarefied ingredients. But it worked for me.

    Then I looked around at the horrifying decor and got the hell out of there before I turned out to be the protagonist in a dystopian novel.

    Our neighborhood ramen place was called Aoba. That's a joke. There were actually more than fifty ramen places within walking distance of our apartment. But this one was our favorite.

    Aoba makes a wonderful and unusual ramen with a mixture of pork and fish broth. The noodles are firm and chewy, and the pork tender and almost smoky, like ham. I also liked how they gave us a small bowl for sharing with Iris without our even asking.

    What I really appreciated about this place, however, were two aspects of ramen that I haven't mentioned yet: the eggs and the dipping noodles. After these two, I will stop, but there's so much more to ramen. Would someone please write an English-language book about ramen? Real ramen, not how to cook with Top Ramen noodles? Thanks. (I did find a Japanese-language book called State-of-the-Art Technology of Pork Bone Ramen on Amazon. Wish-listed!)

    One of the most popular ramen toppings is a soft-boiled egg. Long before sous vide cookery, ramen cooks were slow-cooking eggs to a precise doneness. Eggs for ramen (ajitsuke tamago) are generally marinated in a soy sauce mixture after cooking so the whites turn a little brown and the eggs turn a little sweet and salty. I like it best when an egg is plunked whole into the broth so I can bisect it with my chopsticks and reveal the intensely orange, barely runny yolk. A cool egg moistened with rich broth is alchemy. Forget the noodles; I want a ramen egg with a little broth for breakfast.

    Finding hot and cold in the same mouthful is another hallmark of Japanese summer food, and many ramen restaurants, including Aoba, feature it in the form of tsukemen, dipping noodles. Tsukemen is deconstructed ramen, a bowl of cold cooked noodles and a smaller bowl of hot, ultra-rich broth and toppings. The goal is to lift a tangle of noodles with your chopsticks and dip them in the bowl of broth on the way to your mouth. This is a crazy way to eat noodles and, unless you've been inculcated with the principles of noodle-slurping physics from birth, a great way to ruin your clothes.

    About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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