In six weeks, it will have been a year since I left Okinawa, Japan. Whenever I tell people that I lived there for over three years, they always ask me how I liked it. I’m honest and tell them that it was fun at first, but quickly got old. When asked if I miss it, I list the three things I miss: the shopping, the beach, and the food.
When I mention Japanese food, most people assume that I am referring to sushi. I did eat sushi in Japan, but quickly tired of it. In fact, I would be content to never eat another piece of sushi again. The Japanese delicacies I miss are ramen, rice balls (onigiri), and mochi.
When I first began to frequent the Japanese noodle soup restaurants, I assumed that what I was eating was soba (buckwheat noodles). As we were illiterate, Mike and I renamed our two favorite “soba” restaurants: “Soba House” and “Ticket Soba Place” or “TSP.” TSP requires explanation. To order food at TSP, you put your money in a vending machine, selected your meal, and were dispensed a ticket. You gave your ticket to a waitperson, who took it to the kitchen and later returned with your soup. The ordering method was so bizarre that it inspired the name.
We later learned that our “soba” restaurants were actually ramen restaurants. To Americans, the idea of eating ramen at a restaurant is silly. We are familiar with the dried brick available at the supermarket. The bricks are also available in Japanese groceries, but the ramen served in a Japanese restaurant is worlds away from dehydrated noodles and seasoning packets. The noodles are never in brick form. Rather, they are prepared fresh and then fried. The broth is the chef’s joy and pride, not powder dissolved in hot water. At Soba House, the ramen came with two tender slices of slow-roasted pork and half of a shoyu egg. The hard-boiled egg was soaked in soy sauce so that the white was a light brown and salty. Mike was usually gracious enough to give me his egg. At TSP, our favorite menu item was the hot ramen. The ramen came in a spicy broth, loaded with green onions. At the table, we would add hot oil and pepper flakes. The resulting concoction was enough to burn out any sort of upper respiratory infection. Even when we weren’t sick, it made our noses run. Thankfully, TSP stocked boxes of tissue (used by the Japanese as napkins) on each table.
One bowl of ramen was a huge meal. Of all the times we had ramen, I may have eaten the entire bowl of noodles once. If I had my way, I wouldn’t eat the noodles at all. I could subsist on the pork, the egg, and the delicious broth.
The first time I had a rice ball, I had no idea what I was getting in to. I was on my way to a dance rehearsal with a local Japanese studio, when I stopped at a convenience store to pick up something to eat. I took a chance and bought two triangle-shaped rice balls and a Pocari Sweat (similar to Gatorade). I knew that a rice ball was rice, covered in seaweed. However, the filling and the method of opening the package were mysteries. During our lunch break, I sat among the Japanese girls and solved the puzzle of the plastic wrapping. By pulling the center tab, and removing a plastic strip, the remaining covering can be removed by grasping the corners and pulling. The wrapping is quite ingenious, the rice ball is not only wrapped on the outside, but there is also a plastic layer between the rice and the seaweed, ensuring that the seaweed remains crisp and the rice moist. I can think of no textural eating pleasure that compares to biting through crisp, dry seaweed to the moist, chewy rice below.
Rice ball filling is only limited by the imagination. My first rice ball was filled with tuna salad and I enjoyed it immensely. Later experiments turned up dried tuna flakes, fish eggs, and other, less palatable fillings. I learned to avoid all but tuna salad and, my favorite, ume. Ume is pickled plum. It is sweet and tart and salty. Inside a rice ball, ume is absolutely fabulous. Disappointingly, ume seemed to be a universal favorite and the ume rice balls were often gone from the convenience store shelves by mid-morning. I often had to content myself with tuna salad.
I never did learn to read Japanese and the rice ball packages rarely had pictures, so finding my favorite fillings could be a problem. Blue lettering usually meant tuna salad, but I had no such simple method for finding ume filled balls. My elegant solution was to choose a friendly looking local and present them with my rice ball asking: “Ume? Ume?” Although my fellow patrons always seemed willing to help, Mike found my behavior horribly embarrassing. I didn’t care, as long as I got my ume.
Japanese pastries are far less sweet than the American version. Any familiar-looking confections were sure to disappoint my taste buds. Mochi looks like nothing you’d find in an American bakery. It appears to be an unappetizing ball of white dough. In fact, it is a ball of dough, but far from unappetizing. The dough is composed of sweet rice that has been pounded until it forms an almost translucent, rubbery, white paste. The dough is flattened, filled with sweet bean paste, and then rolled to form a ball. The dough is soft, sweet, and chewy. In fact, it is so chewy that Japanese die each year choking on mochi. The bean filling is a little grittier, but a nice counterpoint to the chewy rice dough. If sweet bean paste disgusts you, mochi are also available filled with a whole strawberry or custard. The chocolate custard filled mochi are incredible.
I can’t recall the first time I tried mochi, but I do remember the powerful cravings I later had for them. I would leave the base and troll through the Japanese convenience and grocery stores searching for mochi. There must have been some sort of seasonal availability for mochi, because they could be difficult to find. The trouble was always worth the reward: a sweet, chewy ball of carbohydrates.
Now I am ramen-less, rice-ball-less, and mochi-less. There is no hope of finding mochi. I could make my own rice balls, complete with ume, but the seaweed never turns out quite as crisp on homemade rice balls. Mike and I eat packaged ramen on a regular basis, but it doesn’t compare to the real thing. However, I recently read in the New York Times that two ramen shops are opening in the city. Sounds like a road trip is in order. New York is a much closer than Japan.