Vancouver B. C. – Chinatown and Serious Ramen

M and I are on our second year of a tradition I’m liking very much – Since we live within rock throwing distance of the Canadian border, we go up for a few days the week before Christmas. It’s a good time, sort of a ’tween holidays lull. Last year was just a quiet trip to Harrison Hot Springs, which is lovely and quaint and very relaxing indeed. This year, we chose a different route, one that was guided by food as much or more as any other criterion.

Sure, we all eat when we travel, and often enough, it’s a focus, but what came to mind for us was going to Vancouver B.C. specifically for two things – First, to eat some great Asian food (and spark our own creativity thereby), and secondly, to do a recon cruise through Chinatown, maybe pick up some supplies.

The Hotel Listel in Vancouver’s West Side

We chose a nice hotel, smack in the middle of the West End, a relatively bohemian chunk of the city. Rents and incomes are middle of the road here. Roughly bordered by Stanley Park to the northwest, Chinatown and Gastown to the east, Vancouver harbor to the north, and Granville Island to the south, the West End is home to lots of art, great food, and plenty of sidewalk entertainment, (as in, just soaking up the vibe). There is marvelous, flowing diversity in the people, food, commerce, and art.

The Hotel Listel prides itself on great art.

Our hotel was the Listel, which was remarkable affordable given the obvious quality therein. They pride themselves on abundant art throughout the place, their environmental concern and awareness, (which is palpable – No plastic anything in the room, recycling containers, solar power generation, to name but a few), and their food, which for us was hot and cold. We ate at the Timber restaurant, where the staff and service were once again excellent, but dishes were hit and miss. The calimari and chicken wings were delightful, while the cheese dip and shore lunch were not so much – The dip itself was great, but the crackers and potato skins provided there with were not done at all well, and the fish, while obviously quality, came to us soggy and a bit tired. That said, room service breakfast was truly excellent – The eggs were obviously top notch, and I’d be excited about the Benedict wherever I was eating, but especially so in bed on a lazy Monday morning!

Our room in the Listel was seriously cozy

Our room faced an adjoining high rise apartment building, which initially might seem disappointing, but the fact is, this is how and where people live here, so it should be embraced – Families doing their thing, a hairless kitty in the window checking out the gulls – it was all rather nice. The staff and the people in general were remarkably friendly. The rhythm of the area varied from absolutely hopping when we arrived on a rainy Sunday afternoon, to comfortably relaxed on a weekday. The Listel has valet parking for an additional fee, (about $30 a night), which includes unlimited access when you want your ride. Staff were happy to offer good honest advice on destinations, including where not to park in Chinatown, (avoid parking garages where your vehicle isn’t in plain sight of the street). 

Vancouver Chinatown

Neither M or I had been in Vancouver for literally decades, so some broad exploration was in order. We started with Chinatown, which may have its share of touristy kitsch, but is still vibrant and genuine for the folks who live there. There is plenty of great food and some wonderful shops throughout, (like the original Ming Wo Cookware building, a truly scary place, in a good way). We sought advice from a knowledgeable resident, with an eye toward food that the locals buy and eat – He strongly recommended T & T Supermarket. There are three of these in Vancouver – we chose the one smack in the middle of Chinatown, at 179 Keefer Place, (there was ample street parking nearby on our weekday visit). 

T & T Supermarket is an absolute delight

First off, yes, this is a grocery store, but it’s certainly not your average one. We’re used to seeking out high quality ingredients when we shop at home, and to do that we visit a litany of smaller specialty shops and markets. This place has it all under one roof, (and our guide had been absolutely correct – we were part of a very small handful of non-Asian shoppers.)

T & T Supermarket is an absolute delight

The differences here lie chiefly in variety and quality. From staples like noodles, rice, flour, and oil, to incredible varieties of very fresh seafood, meat, and produce, T & T is stunningly good – If I lived here, this is where I’d shop, and in light of that, we’re already planning for our next stay to have cooking facilities so that we can do just that. On this recon trip, our purchases were kept to Christmas treats for the granddaughters, some wonderful dried noodles, and a bottle of aged black vinegar – You can bring quite a variety of personal use food items back to the States, and there’s a good resource for that here.

Our T & T stash

On the way out of Chinatown, we decided to cruise Gastown, and thought about stopping for a beer and a bite, but despite the outward charm, we found it all a bit too trite and decided to head back to the West End. Across from our hotel there was a little hole in the wall noodle place, Ramen Danbo, that always had a line in front of it, and often, a really long line. When we arrived, there were only four people out front, so we decided to go for it. There are two in Vancouver, one in Seattle, and one in NYC, augmenting the 20 shops throughout Japan. This one has only 28 seats, which explains some of the constant line, but not all – The lions share of that is due to the fact that this is really good ramen – Fukuoka style Tonkatsu, from the southern end of Kyushu, to be precise.

Ramen Danbo - Seriously good stuff

Naturally, good quality, fresh noodles are critical to ramen, and these guys certainly have those, from thin to thick, and soft to firm, as you please. As with all great soups, though, it’s more about the broth and the base. Tonkatsu is considered by many to be the ne plus ultra of Japanese ramen variants – it’s a complex, involved dance, indeed.

Ramen Danbo, Vancouver

First off, there’s the all important broth, that sublime elixir. It tastes simple as can be, and it may be, in terms of ingredients, but it’s sure not in terms of preparation. Traditionally, this is made from is pork trotters or knuckles, either split lengthwise, or whacked with a hammer to release the marrow, along with a few chicken feet, which add some serious protein, calcium, collagen, and cartilage to the mix, (AKA, some stuff that’s good for you, and some serious unctuousness). Add aromatics, (onion, garlic, ginger, leek, scallion), and finally, some fresh fatback, and then boil the shit out of it – In traditional circles, for as long as 60 hours, and you get this stock – Well, sort of anyway. Fact is, there is some seriously finicky cleaning called for to get broth as pretty as the stuff we ate at Danbo. Everything from those bones that isn’t white or beige has to go, or what you’ll get is a mud colored, albeit tasty broth, so some serious washing and nit-picky cleaning is in order. Unlike French stocks, this stuff is not clarified and filtered extensively before it’s served. With a bone broth cooked for as long as tonkotsu is, not only do you generate a bunch of gelatin, but virtually every other constituent gets into the act as well – fat, marrow, calcium from the bones themselves – All this stuff is why it’s so stunningly good.

Next comes the soup base. There are several primary Japanese variants – Tonkatsu, miso, shoyu, and shio – and Danbo does versions of all of those. Their signature base is ‘ramen-dare’, and they’re tight lipped about what’s in it – They say, and I quote, ‘our ramen-dare soup base is imported from Japan, made from select natural ingredients, and despite having low sodium, is filled with umami extracts.’ This apparent obfuscation is neither nefarious nor unusual, by the way. Like many signature ingredients, soup bases are closely guarded in Japan, so it’s next to impossible to discover exactly what’s in there. I sure don’t know what fuels Danbo’s dare, but I’d take a stab at kombu, plenty of shiitake, a little bonito, and a little shoyu – The Shiitakes would be the likely culprit for adding serious umami without a lot of sodium. As dark as the stuff looks in their menu pic, might be the possibility of deeply caramelized aromatics as well, (heavy on the onion, garlic, and ginger). The base is generally added to the broth in a ratio of around a tablespoon to a bowl, (or less, given how lightly colored theirs is when it hits the table.) 

Ramen Danbo - Seriously good stuff

Topping off Ramen Danbo’s offering is a little spoonful of red sauce – They call it tare, and all they’ll tell us is that it’s, ‘Togarashi red pepper powder mixed with Chinese spices and medicinal ingredients, this top-secret mixture brings out the flavour, umami, and full-bodied taste of our ramen,’ which significantly downplays what this stuff likely is – I’d guess that what we have here is a spin on classic Tonkatsu Master Sauce – a complex, heady mix of onion, tomato, garlic, apple, sake, kombu, hot chiles, and most if not all of the warm spices from Chinese five spice – Sort of a Japanese swing at Worcestershire sauce, (and some cooks put that into the mix, too). It is, in other words, seriously concentrated flavors, mouth feel and a decent punch in a very small package – Maybe a teaspoon crowns your bowl. 

Ramen Danbo - Seriously good stuff

Put all that together and you’ll be staring, glassy eyed, wowed, and very contently, at a mostly empty bowl if you’re me. Or you might be like the guy who sat next to us taking advantage of the kaedama offering – Additional helpings of noodles, which he did for a grand total of five servings – And He was a skinny little guy, too – Some guys get all the luck.

Yakitori, Japan’s Answer to the Kebab

If it seems as if you’re seeing a trend in my posts lately, you are. I just finished rereading Mark Kurlansky’s, Salt – A World History, and find myself inspired. It’s a great read, and you should give it a spin. Like John McPhee, Kurlansky has the ability to write volumes on a seemingly mundane topic and come out with a page turner. When I first read it years ago, I wasn’t writing about food as much as I do now, so this go ’round lead to a fascinating bout of exploration. Recent posts on salt potatoes, ketchup, and fish sauce were all inspired therefrom, and this week, I bring you Yakitori, Japan’s answer to the kabab.

Hey, if they serve it at the ballpark, it's gotta be great, right?
Hey, if they serve it at the ballpark, it’s gotta be great, right?

Casual observers are often surprised by how much meat is involved in Japanese cooking. Certainly Japan did have a rather protracted period of fundamental vegetarianism. The broad adoption of Chinese Buddhism in the 7th century sealed the deal – in the late 670s, the Emporer Tenmu proclaimed a prohibition on eating animal flesh, fowl, fish, and shellfish, and Shojin Ryori was born – Japanese vegetarian cuisine as cultural touchstone. Not all of that motivation was spiritual, though – The powers that be realized that eating draft animals seriously impaired the country’s ability to adequately feed its people. Nonetheless, the edict more or less persisted for some 1200 years. Clearly, the increasing presence of westerners on Japanese shores had a bearing on the resurgence of meat eating, a process that began with Portuguese traders in the middle of the 16th century, and continues to this day.

While eating food cooked on a stick undoubtedly goes back to the harnessing of fire, the Japanese have a pretty clear recollection of when yakitori first appeared. It was in the Edo period, around the middle 1600s, and initially it was game birds roasted on sticks – quail, pheasant, pigeons and the like. As European influence increased, chickens became more common, eventually making it on to a stick as well. Beef and pork followed over time. As is oft the case, how good your yakitori was back when depended on your income and social status – While the rich ate the best stuff, the poor folks were grilling offal, and all the other little weird bits the beautiful people didn’t want. In any event, those sweet, smoky flavors, basted in soy, sake, and spices, was and remains hugely popular, and the regional variety is as rich as the country that spawned it.

Season lightly with salt and pepper before grilling
Season lightly with salt and pepper before grilling

Just covering the chicken versions of yakitori can be a bit dizzying – Our preference is for the ever popular chicken thigh version, called momo, along with negima- chicken and spring onion, and kawa – Chicken skin, (seriously, it’s amazing done up with bacon, spring onion, and water chestnuts). There’re many more, from chicken and leeks (hasami), to breast meat (sasami), chicken meatball (tsukune) and chicken wings (tebasaki). Then there’s all those former peasant versions, which are still quite popular – Kawa is skin, bonjiri is tail, shiro is guts, nankotsu is cartilage, hāto is heart, rebā is liver, and sunagimo is gizzards – nummy.

Then there’s that seasoning and/or sauce – Yakitori is typically done salty, or salty-sweet. The salty version is, more often than not, just sprinkled with sea salt and grilled, end of story. The salty-sweet, called tare, is a whole ‘nuther ballgame. In Japan, you can bet that dang near every yakitori stand and joint has their own version, and they’re all top secret. Fortunately, we can suss out the basics – soy sauce, mirin, dry sake, and some form of sweetener are added to freshly made bone stock, and that more than gets the job done. Of course there are variants – Everything from spring onion and garlic, to ginger, hot chiles, pepper, and even wasabi might be found in there. That’s good news for us, because making a very nice basic sauce is easy, and more to the point, poetic license is fully authorized.

Protein or veggies, anything you've got will make fine Yakitori
Protein or veggies, anything you’ve got will make fine Yakitori

The real beauty of yakitori is that it makes a great last minute dinner, or a perfect vehicle for fridge cleaning – You can and should use whatever you like, in whatever combinations please you. Sure, a lot of ‘real’ yakitori is either just one thing, or maybe a couple skewered together, but there’s nothing at all wrong with doing them up like little shish kebab. The bottom line is that the cooking method and saucing has as much or more to do with the overall taste as the things you decide to grill, so go wild. By that same rule, if you’re pressed for time, there’s nothing wrong at all with using straight soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, or bottle yakitori sauce, (and the former is now quite easily found in the Asian food section of your local market.

Yakitori does not require any marinating prior to cooking. You need to merely slice stuff up into bite sized pieces and shove them onto sticks. Couldn’t be easier. One note on cutting stuff – the preferred method is known as sogigiri, AKA cutting on a roughly 30° angle with the food lying flat in a cutting board. Cut toward yourself, starting at the upper left of your intended slice and working down and across. What that does is maximize surface area on relatively small chunks of food, giving more space to add sauce and heats from the grill to.

The Sogigiri cut maximizes surface area
The Sogigiri cut maximizes surface area

Speaking of grilling, while traditional yakitori is done on a brazier or charcoal grill, the desired technique employs no smoke and moderate heat, which means you folks who only have a gas grill, or a broiler in your oven, are gonna be just fine.

When skewering your goodies, do take the time to make sure every piece is snuggled right up tight against the next one – With small, relatively thin cuts of flesh and veggies, dried out food is a real possibility – Keeping them tight helps retain the baste better, and keeps things moist and juicy as well. Give whatever your skewering a light dusting of good salt and fresh ground pepper after you’ve got them done up. If you’re wanting to go all out, take a trip to the market and find fresh, seasonal veggies, meats, and poultry. Like the Vietnamese, Japanese cooks pay special attention to color and season – Spring is green, summer dark green, fall is orange and red, winter is white. Have some fun with it, and let your plates reflect your findings.

Place skewers close together to help keep things moist and juicy
Place skewers close together to help keep things moist and juicy

Brush on your basting sauce after you’ve placed the skewers on the grill. With chicken, pork, or beef, you’re going to want in the neighborhood of 5 minutes or so cooking per side, with another baste application at the turn. Again, don’t run your grill flat out – You want to cook these on medium-low heat, allowing time for things to cook through and absorb all the goodness from your baste. If you’re using a charcoal grill, set up a two zone configuration, start the skewers on the cooler side, and finish with a couple quick flips on the hot side. If you’re using wooden skewers, soak them for about half an hour prior to loading them up. Lightly oil your grill surface prior to placing skewers, to help keep them from sticking – Use a neutral vegetable oil so you don’t adulterate your taste profiles.

House made Yakitori Sauce - Black gold.
House made Yakitori Sauce – Black gold.

That sauce, that amazing sauce. We’ll start here, because this stuff really is magical. I made the batch done for this post on the same day I slow cooked a big ol’ pork roast. In the last week, that sauce went on the pork twice, into fried rice, was added to a teriyaki joint style salad dressing, and even made its way into tacos – Its that good, and that versatile. Many, many folks say that, over in Japan, cooks add to a big pot of their signature sauce every day, so that it effectively never runs out. We won’t likely go that far at home, but my oh my, do you want this in your fridge at all times. While the real deal is made with the bones from the chicken thighs you’re about to skewer, you can sub chicken stock for the water and bones if you’re in a hurry – But DO make the bone stock version just once, and you’ll be hooked – It’s super easy, incredibly delicious, and very rewarding for home cooks.

House made Yakitori
House made Yakitori

You can certainly use one sauce for all things, and well might – But we’re including some variants, to give you some ideas for future explorations.

 

Urban’s Go To Yakitori Sauce
(Makes enough for several meals, or one hell of a party)

Bones from 4 fresh Chicken Thighs or Legs
1 Cup Mirin
1 Cup Tamari
1/2 Cup Dry Sake
1/2 Cup Water (Chicken Stock, if not using bones)
6 Scallions
3 cloves fresh Garlic
1/2″ chunk fresh Ginger
2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar
1 Tablespoon Sesame Oil
1 teaspoon ground Szechuan Pepper (or anything hotter if you prefer)

Peel, trim and mince garlic.

Trim scallions and cut into roughly 1/2″ rings.

Dice ginger, (you don’t need to peel it)

On a baking pan lined with foil, under a high broiler, scatter bones and broil for about 10 minutes, turning with tongs so they brown evenly.

Transfer roasted bones to a heavy sauce pan over medium high heat.

Add all additional ingredients, stir well to incorporate, and heat through until a low boil is achieved.

Reduce heat to just maintain a steady simmer and cook until the volume of the sauce is reduced by 50% – You’ll note when you get there that the sauce coats a spoon with an even, viscous layer. The cook should take around 45 minutes to an hour, but keep an eye on things and give it an occasional stir.

Remove pan from heat and pour the sauce through a single mesh strainer into a non-reactive bowl.

Allow to cool to room temperature, then transfer to a clean glass jar. Will store refrigerated for 2 to 3 weeks.

Urban’s Pork Yakitori Sauce

1 Cup Mirin
1 Cup Tamari
1 Cup Dry Sake
2 Tablespoons Hot Chile Paste (Gochujang, wangzhihe, harissa, or Sriracha will do just fine)
2 Tablespoons Sesame Oil
2 Tablespoons Honey
1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
3 cloves fresh Garlic

Peel, trim and mince garlic.

In a heavy saucepan over medium high heat, add all ingredients and stir to incorporate.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer.

Allow sauce to reduce by 50%, remove from heat, run through a single mesh strainer, cool to room temp.

Store refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.

 

Urban’s Beef Yakitori Sauce
This is quite close to a typical sauce used for that deep fried wonder, Kushiage.

1/2 Cup Ketchup
2 Tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
2 Tablespoons Tamari
1 Tablespoon Mirin
1 Tablespoon Honey
1 Tablespoon Dijon Mustard
1/2 teaspoon granulated Garlic

Mix all ingredients together and allow at least 30 minutes for the flavors to marry before brushing onto your skewers.

Refrigerate in an airtight container for storage.

 

Just in case you’re like us, and want a little something green with your skewers, here’s my swing on that great savory salad dressing you get from your local teriyaki joint.

 

Urban’s Teriyaki Joint Salad Dressing

1 Cup Mayonnaise
1/3 Cup Rice Vinegar
4 Tablespoons Agave Nectar
4 Tablespoons Sesame Oil
2 Tablespoons Yakitori Sauce
1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

Whisk all together in a non-reactive bowl, and allow flavors to marry for at least 30 minutes prior to use.

Store refrigerated for up to a week in an airtight, non-reactive container.