A love story in a bowl
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As cross-cultural Asian culinary collisions go, mapo tofu ramen is right up or down there with peanut butterfilled mochi, crab rangoon, and sweet and spicy teriyaki potato chips. Not for purity-obsessed traditionalist foodies, cholesterol watchers, or just plain unimaginative eaters, this delightful bastardization will float many a boat of the clean-plate brigade if only they can find it. Mapo tofu ramen isn't sukiyaki, chicken teriyaki, shrimp tempura, or tekka maki it's far from being a Japanese menu staple. But until wasabi noodles emerge to wipe spice lovers' sinuses clean, the few places that do serve this pepper-bedecked dish will be guaranteed pilgrimages from heat-seizers who appreciate that pleasure 'n' pain combo of sneeze-inducing chilies and comfort-giving brothy benevolence.
Just a noseful of ramen swirling in soup sends me back to the jillions of noodle stands riddling train station platforms all over Japan. Their presence paralleled the ironclad reliability of the country's public transportation system. While you waited for your JR car, you plonked your yen in a quaint automat machine and pushed a button indicating your bowl of choice, be it udon or ramen, curry or karage. The machine issued you a ticket, which you forked over to the white-kerchiefed lady behind the teensy, tablet-shaped counter. Out came your bowl, in a few Shinkansen-speedy minutes. As the wet, bone-deep chill of a Japanese winter whipped across the raised platform outside, past the shivering salarymen and shuddering office ladies, you inhaled the noodles, using the chopsticks as a slender shovel, and noisily slurped the bonito-laced soup the greater the gusto and the more audible the consumption, the greater the appreciation. Stops at the noodle stand became a warmth-endowing ritual disguised as a quick, tasty snack.
So how did Japanese ramen itself a much-loved, long-ago import from China come to be paired with numbingly spicy, sinus-clearing mapo tofu? The dish brilliantly pits nutritious tofu so revered that "eating bean curd" can mean "taking advantage of or flirting with a person" in Chinese, according to Chinese Regional Cooking with ground pork, or occasionally beef, and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorn. I've found some of the finest examples of mapo tofu outside of Sichuan ones that are a far cry from the brown-sauced, veggie-bedecked form it sometimes assumes stateside in Japan, where heat-delivering comestibles like kimchi have also found favor. The premade mix you'll find in most Japanese groceries is a decent approximation of the dish named, as legend has it, after a pock-mocked Sichuanese woman whose tofu swimming in meat sauce was worth traveling great distances to sample.
But who decided to first couple Sichuan-style spice with Japanese ramen? Online searches show mapo tofu ramen popping up on menus occasionally in Hawaii, Texas, and southern California. But my first brush with nose-clearing, sweat-beading heat came at Genki (Healthy) Ramen (3944 Geary, SF. 415-630-2948, genki-ramen-sf.eat24hour.com) in the Richmond District, under streamlined, vaguely disco-like decor. Curtains of reflective spangles and modish thread-strung lamps hang above flat-screen TVs showing button-cute J-pop nymphets serenading CGI kittens. Right now it might be the only spot in Bay Area to get a bowl of the genuine article in both the mapo tofu and ramen departments.
The bowl arrives with a side of daikon pickles, sweet enough to cut the heat. A delicate isle of red, white, and brown mapo tofu lies perched amid flecks of green onion atop an al dente mound of slithery ramen noodles. Concentric circles of chili-hued sauce, oil, and soup expand out from the small mound of tofu specked with small yet not negligible nubs of pork, like a fatty, psychedelia-savory fever dream. The sauce is ever so slightly sweet and oyster sauceish, and soup delivers a distinct, radiating kick of space. Later the waitress tells me the cooks simmer pork and garlic all day to make the tonkatsu broth. Spice-snorting bliss a marriage of the bland, serviceable refinement of tofu and the oily goodness of pork. This is every vegan's nightmare, though unlike bacon-wrapped tofu, one gone deliciously right.
I venture out in search of more, on the rumor that Suzu Noodle House (1825 Post, SF. 415-346-5083) in Japantown and Katana-ya (430 Geary, SF. 415-771-1280) near Union Square serve spicy tofu ramen that compares. But no such luck. Suzu aims to please with a fine broth and toothsome noodles, but the spice level lacks the red-faced power of Genki. And Katana-ya's spicy tofu ramen is more of a kimchi tofu ramen, sporting bits of pickled cabbage. It can be considered the soupy counterpart to its kimchi fried rice.
And so it's back to Genki we go: if some Sichuan chili fans are right, getting healthy should always involve such a delicious sweat.