Cheapo survival in Japan: ramen and veggie miso soup
There are oodles of noodles in Tokyo. I used to categorise Vietnam as the noodle soup meister (pho soup was on the menu everyday) but it seems that Tokyo is a record breaker in the amount of soup eateries.
Noodle soup restaurants are cheap, no fuss and plenty to choose from. The only spoiler is for vegetarians, as most broths are meat based. That is why we mainly live on miso – the divine cholesterol free soup alternative, I will elaborate later on in the post.
If I had to pick a noodle soup location for carnivores, it would be Ichiran – with a long history of ramen making and a unique 60s counter stall ambience, serving flavourful bowls of tonkotsu (pork bone broth).
If there is a queue and you can hear slurping customers lined up by the door, take it as a good sign.
Or if you see a sign that reads No 1. No less than 40 soup-makers are involved to create one bowl at Ichiran.
Check out their site – we went to the one in Shinjuku, near the station:
Ichiran is two minutes from Shinjuku station (with over 20 exits, only if you take the right exit- Higashi Exit!).
Walk in and up to the vending machine. Pick and pay for the kind of soup you like (with/without meat, the amount of noodles…) to get your ticket. If you like extra toppings, like extra onions or more slices of pork you can push the button. Don’t worry if you can’t read any of it – this is Japan, land of picture menus.
We had the 790 yen ramen bowl.
Then we had to line up and take in the fascinating workings of that tiny famous place.
You can try on the Ichiran head scarf to kill some time.
Soon it was our turn to fill out the soup questionnaire!
Ichiran needs to know how you like your noodles (al dente, medium or soft), the amount of green onions, how spicy your soup shall be, if you like some special sauce, you can indicate the flavour strength of your soup and some more criteria, each designated between one and five, no spice to very spicy, soft to hard, no garlic to plenty of garlic… let the Ichiran masters concoct the perfect bowl for you.
You can also choose to have no meat.
This huge control panel on the wall manages customer flow. ‘Blue’ means free spot, I think. Ichiran estimates waiting time at one minute per person. Look at the cue and do the maths. Generally, the queue moves fast.
Behind two curtained doors will be a row of stalls kept in dark brown wood – very retro. Each stall is separated on each side, so you sit like in a tiny library booth. This is not the best place to take someone out on a date.
Place the questionnaire and your ticket at the table. Wait for your bowl. There is a tap with free refill water and another questionnaire to give feedback (if you like).
Notice how quiet it will be.
No one comes here to chat. This is purely about enjoying a culinary delight with a history.
If you like to call staff to order more, you can push the button at the rear of your table. “This special ordering system allows you to make your order without raising your voice” – says the info sticker.
The soup will arrive shortly.
And the curtain will go down immediately to allow ultimate privacy with your bowl of soup.
Eating soup with chopsticks!
Notice how the spoon has been designed not to fall into the bowl.
Me and two big and delightful gaijin, our guests Kasia and Andrzej didn’t leave a drop. Me neither.
For a final highlight, do not miss the toilet! Japanese toilets are awesome and pleasantly clean…
…but this one clearly ups the ante.
As I was saying, the down side is that even when not choosing meat, pigs had to be killed for my soup. I like pigs and good soup flavour, so a good alternative is MISO soup. Tomek is becoming a miso soup connoisseur and you can get many many different flavours of miso paste, the base for miso soup at Shinjuku’s Isetan department store with its famous food basement. Every sushi place and conbini store will have miso soup as well. We got ourselves a pack of miso soup variety to easily prepare at home.
Miso is not only extremely tasty but cheap.
Miso paste comes in different colours and is based on fermented soybeans, rice, barley, yeast and salt. Sometimes other ingredients such as enoki mushrooms are added. Miso ages in wooden barrels for three years.
It has many health benefits and is rich in fibres, proteins, vitamins, minerals and isoflavones blocking cancerous cells. It was concocted by Buddhist monks in the 7th century and has been a nutritious dish of the Samurai.
Just the right thing for travelers. There might not be a connection to miso at all (which we have already eaten a lot back in Cologne) but I am amazed that we have not been sick since we started to travel (about one and a half years ago).
Anyhow. If you buy the miso set, all you got to do is to pour water over the miso paste, the vegetables and tofu…
Tomek likes to add a nori sheet or two. We also like to eat nori sheets plain as a snack, which I imagine to be a rather ferocious act to a Japanese, probably like eating pure pepper.
We will visit another soup place with traditional Japanese Soba noodles tomorrow. See you there!