A couple of years ago, while in Japan for the first time, I took a day trip from Tokyo to Yokohama, which was only about half an hour away by train. I spent a few hours at the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum, which is pretty much a mini indoor theme park devoted to Japan's obsession with ramen. The basement had a collection of ramen houses highlighting specialties from regions around the country, and it was extremely hard limiting myself to just one shop and one bowl of ramen for lunch.
But the main reason I decided to devote a whole day to Yokohama on my short visit, other than the museum, was because of the largest Chinatown in Japan. A Chinatown which, incidentally, also felt like a theme park. It was, for starters, the cleanest Chinatown I had ever seen. The immaculate streets were lined with restaurants showcasing the best of Chinese plastic foods in outdoor display cases. On almost every corner, there were three- or four-story shops with pagoda-like awnings selling Chinese knick-knacks, and at least a couple of stores selling clothes and home decorations from craftspeople in Mexico, Peru, Cambodia, etc.
There were a few alleyways that brought to mind Beijing's hutongs (but much cleaner). It was in one of these alleys that I found another ramen shop. Heck, there was not reason I couldn't have two large bowls of ramen in a day. You only live once.
The special of the day, read the placard on the bar, was the mapo tofu ramen. Well, any dish that combined my favorite Japanese dish and one of my favorite Chinese dishes was a must. It arrived not long after ordering, bright red and still bubbling. And goodness, what a thick and spicy sauce! The cooks certainly maintained the textural integrity of Sichuan mapo tofu, and kept it fiery enough (if light of the Sichuan peppercorn) to warrant gulping down two Sapporos.
The experience reminded me of trying jajangmyeon in Seoul; Korea had taken a Chinese dish of noodles in black bean paste, thickened the sauce, minimized the vegetables, and turned it into a national obsession that's served at both fast food joints and classier establishments. Mapo tofu ramen isn't quite a national obsession in Japan, but it is a hybrid dish that has seemingly become a huge part of its noodle culture.
So here's my version, which involved slightly tweaking my mapo tofu recipe to accommodate the addition of chicken broth and noodles. It's not quite as thick as the version I had in Yokohama, but you can certainly change that by doubling or tripling the cornstarch-mixed-with-water amount. And don't fret about not having springy house-made ramen; all you need is the instant ramen that's already sitting in your cupboards.
Have you ever traveled to another country and found a local favorite that involved altering a Chinese dish?
Mapo Tofu Ramen (Mabo Ramen)
- 1/2 tablespoon fermented black beans
- 2 tablespoons chili bean paste
- 1/2 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1 teaspoons sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon ground Sichuan pepper
- 1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil
- 4 ounces ground pork or beef
- 2 scallions, white and green parts separated and chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon minced ginger
- 3 cups chicken stock
- 1/2 block soft or medium-firm tofu (about 1 pound), drained and cut into 1-inch cubes
- 2 packets instant ramen
- Prepare the sauce: In a small bowl, mash the fermented black beans with the back of a spoon. Stir the mashed black beans with the chili bean paste, rice wine, soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, and Sichuan pepper. Set aside.
- Heat a wok or large skillet over high heat until a bead of water sizzles and evaporates on contact. Add the oil and swirl to coat the base. Add the pork and stir-fry for 2 minutes until no longer pink, breaking up the meat with a spatula. Reduce the heat to medium, then add the scallion whites, garlic, and ginger. Stir-fry briefly until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
- Add the black bean mixture and chicken broth. Bring the liquid to a boil, the reduce to a simmer. Add the tofu cubes. Allow the broth to simmer for about 5 minutes.
- While the broth is simmering, cook the ramen according to package instructions. Divide the ramen into individual bowls.
- Season the mapo tofu broth with salt and pepper. Ladle the broth over the ramen and garnish with scallion greens.