Soyless tofu?

Short anecdote for today: We had a follow-up appointment with our paediatric allergist and mentioned that it seemed our child may be a wee bit sensitive to tofu. The skin prick test hadn’t indicated a reaction to soy but he had gotten a bit itchy around his face on a few occasions when we’d offered him tofu.

The allergist asked us if the tofu had soy.

I looked quizzically at my partner. My eyes asked him, Did he just ask us if tofu had soy? When my partner cracked a smile, it confirmed that I hadn’t heard wrong. I told the allergist that yes, the tofu had soy.

The allergist told us that he hadn’t reacted to soy but that maybe we can try it without the soy.

Tofu. Without soy. Tofu, without soy? I remained dumbfounded for the rest of the day and chuckle whenever I think of that conversation.

Ginza: a ramen shop in Ottawa

Ginza Ramen (832 Somerset Street W – in Chinatown)

A dear friend messaged me one evening to let me know that she was eating a bowl of ramen at a new ramen shop. In Ottawa! At a place called Ginza.

I had seen the first Ginza shop in passing, on Elgin Street in downtown Ottawa, and in great excitement searched for a menu online. After seeing the menu online (mix of ramen, pho, vermicelli dishes, sushi, rice noodle soups, grilled foods), I figured it was your typical all-encompassing Asian restaurant…and my interest waned. But my dear friend assured me that the place that she was eating at in Chinatown served *just* ramen. And she liked it.

Ginza

The shop in Chinatown incorporates a lot of wood into its interior and has a warm feel inside. The kitchen isn’t very open to the eating area, which is key to a ramen shop so that you can watch all of the fast-paced action, and there was no hearty irashaimase from the staff to welcome patrons inside. However, the server provided courteous, friendly, and prompt service, with just the right level of attention (because nobody likes a server who hovers or forgets about you).

Ika-age with wasabi mayo
Ika-age with wasabi mayo
Chicken karaage with a wasabi mayo
Chicken karaage with a wasabi mayo

We ordered chicken and ika karaage as appetizers. Both were accompanied by a mild wasabi mayo dip. The chicken was dry and the batter was average, but not having had karaage for a while, it did hit a spot. The ika (squid) had a good crunch from being deep-fried.

Miso tonkotsu ramen with corn, char sou, bean sprouts, green onions, mushrooms, and nori
Miso tonkotsu ramen with corn, char siu, bean sprouts, green onions, mushrooms, and nori

Continuing from previous ramen adventures, which you can read about here, here, here and here, I ordered the miso ramen. Ginza has a tonkotsu base and a chicken broth base; the miso is a tonkotsu ramen. The broth was decent but the balance of flavours and textures in it doesn’t quite meet some of the better ramen bowls I’ve had elsewhere. The noodles were cooked well and the range of toppings offered in the bowl was good, but the char siu slices were thin, not the awesome wrapped kind, and not as fatty/melt-in-my-mouth as I like them.

Considering Ottawa has no other reputable ramen shop yet, the ramen at Ginza would definitely entice me to return when I have a craving. However, if I were in Toronto or Vancouver, where there are a myriad of ramen shops, I would likely go to another place.

Ginza Ramen(Chinatown) on Urbanspoon

Homemade birthday cake! (aka Japanese strawberry shortcake)

When I was last in Toronto, I visited a Chinese bakery. We actually do so every time we’re in Toronto, usually to pick up some buns for the road trip back home. This past visit, I saw the typical Chinese birthday cake in the display case: the chiffon cake with whipped cream filling and topping and a variety of fruit. It was around $20 for an 8″ cake and I swear, I was *this* close to buying it and driving it back to Ottawa because I love these cakes and there is no proper Chinese bakery in this city that sells a good cake. So ever since I saw that cake in the display case and didn’t get to eat it, I’ve been craving it. And that is how I came to search the internet for a recipe to make it myself.

I used this recipe as it was the only one that I could find that had normal measurements of ingredients. I figured that the key to this cake would be to make the meringue properly, beating the egg whites until truly stiff peaks formed, so I took 20 minutes to get stiff peaks and tried not to deflate the meringue by over mixing when it is added to the rest of the cake mixture.

The cake actually turned out pretty well. Because I only had a 10″ springform pan (instead of the 8″ the recipe calls for), I was worried that the cake would turn out too shallow…but it actually turned out just perfect. The wider diameter did make it more challenging to do the lateral slice to fill the cake with whipped cream and strawberries but once the whole thing is assembled and the outside is smothered in whipped cream, you can hardly tell that my lateral slice was lopsided. I’ll definitely have to work on getting a nice smooth spread of whipped cream on the outside of the cake; as my friend pointed out, the reasons why the bakeries have a smooth outside spread is because they use a lazy susan and an inch of whipped cream!

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Sliced cake

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So I’m still happy to pay $15-$20 to buy this cake pre-made at a good Chinese bakery, but I can actually make it myself now too! It probably took about 3 hours total (including baking time and assembly time), with 20 minutes going to whipping the meringue and another 15 minutes going to whipping the cream. A stand mixer would make things more efficient…as would buying whipped topping instead of 35%MF heavy whipping cream!

Another bowl of ramen in Toronto

Kenzo Ramen (Mississauga location: Burnhamthorpe Road West by Mavis Road)

Whenever I’m in Toronto, I like to try to get in at least one bowl of ramen into my itinerary.  I’d gone on a bit of a ramen adventure in Toronto during a 4.5 day trip there last February (read about it here) and though I never wrote about it, I also had some delicious ramen at Momofuku Noodle House as well. Unfortunately, when I’m staying in the suburbs, the concentration of ramen shops in the downtown area does me no good.

This time, I thought I’d lucked out. Kenzo Ramen, which I had yet to try, has 5 locations in the Toronto area, including in the suburban city of Mississauga. We arrived there just past 6pm on a weekday to find a good-sized but fairly empty restaurant (score!?). I should note that by the time we left, all of the tables were full. We walked in to Irashaimase (welcome)…a good start. We ordered takoyaki as an appetizer (at an expensive $8.99 for 6 pieces), and a tonkotsu ramen and a tonkotsu miso ramen (both bowls are $10.95 each).

Takoyaki
Takoyaki

The takoyaki were a decent size but again, pricey for (a) what you get and (b) what it entails.

Tonkotsu Ramen
Tonkotsu Ramen
Tonkotsu Miso Ramen
Tonkotsu Miso Ramen

I expect tonkotsu broth to be rich, flavourful, and hearty. It should taste like pork. The charsiu (BBQ pork) at a really good place is wrapped, not just a piece of pork, and should melt in your mouth. I did not enjoy the tonkotsu broth at Kenzo, neither in flavour nor in richness, and the charsiu at other ramen places in Toronto is much better (though the flavour at Kenzo was decent). Unfortunately, despite not having eaten a bowl of ramen in over 6 months (read: we were ramen-hungry), we did not feel satiated by this ramen.

Sigh.

It also took a while for our dishes to make their way to our table, despite there not being too many customers ahead of us.

Kenzo Ramen on Urbanspoon

When there’s no good ramen shop in town…

Every now and then, I enjoy a good steaming hot bowl of ramen. You get spoiled being in cities like New York, Vancouver or Toronto. And obviously you get spoiled if you live in Japan. Unfortunately, I have yet to find that delicious bowl of ramen in Ottawa. Have no fear though! It pays to have people in your life who love to experiment with making food.

Behold, a partnership of partnerships: one couple to make the ramen broth (many many hours of boiling a variety of bones), one couple to make char siu (wrapped – in my mind this is the only proper char siu for ramen) and ramen noodles.

Noodles of various textures, thanks to different concentrations of lye water.
Noodles of various textures, thanks to different concentrations of lye water.
Noodles for ramen
Noodles for ramen
Toppings for ramen
Toppings for ramen
More toppings for ramen, including seasoned hard boiled eggs (yum!).
More toppings for ramen, including seasoned hard boiled eggs (yum!).
Wrapped homemade char siu
Wrapped homemade char siu
Finished product: 4 bowls of homemade ramen!
Finished product: 4 bowls of homemade ramen!

This isn’t exactly a throw-together last-minute meal and for that, I do wish a good ramen shop would open in town…but how often does one get to enjoy a completely homemade bowl of ramen!? YUM.

New-ish ramen shop in Vancouver

I didn’t try any food trucks this last trip to Vancouver but I did chance upon a new ramen shop in the West End, Marutama Ramen (780 Bidwell Street). It’s a decent-sized space just off Robson Street, one block east of Denman Street where the popular Kintaro Ramen and Motomachi Shokudo are located.

Storefront of Marutama Ramen in the West End of Vancouver
Storefront of Marutama Ramen in the West End of Vancouver

This place uses a chicken broth, which they offer mild or spicy, and thinner ramen noodles, which can be cooked soft, regular, or al dente. Flipping to the backside of their menu, I noticed that this is actually a chain restaurant with other shops in Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong.

While you wait for your bowl of ramen, you can sip cold mugi-cha, which is a barley wheat tea commonly had in Japan, a nice touch on a hot summer day and an alternative to cold water. The service was attentive (my tea cup was quickly filled each time I emptied it…which was quite often) and friendly, all of the servers and cooks are Japanese, and the ramen was delicious. You can get a tamago ramen as well, which includes a marinated soft-boiled egg (heard that it was very tasty!).

Marutama Original Ramen $9.25
Marutama Original Ramen $9.25

I’d definitely recommend trying this place out. Good ambiance, a nice-looking space, and options to eat at the bar (best place to be in a ramen shop, in my opinion) or at tables.

Marutama Ramen on Urbanspoon

Drool over Sushi in the Park

One awesome summertime activity is watching a movie outdoors. Many cities across Canada host free movies in the park or on the pier (yay Halifax!), and Ottawa is not to be left out. Centretown Movies is a volunteer-driven film fest that screens family-friendly films at Dundonald Park in downtown Ottawa, both to bring the community together for evenings of fun and to take back a park that used to be a bit rough. The films are pay-what-you-can (pass-the-bucket style) and last year, there were two food vendors who serviced the event. Enjoy a picnic dinner on a Friday or Saturday evening then enjoy the movie once dusk sets in.

Click here to see the schedule. The first movies start July 26/27. However, I did want to highlight one very enjoyable film that I saw at the local independent theatre, Bytowne Cinemas. It’s called Jiro Dreams of Sushi and the story is great, the cinematography is great, and I definitely recommend seeing it. I wrote about it here but don’t worry, it isn’t a spoiler. The film is playing on Friday August 9. A recipe for a perfect summer evening!

Sea Vegetables

Today, the bento box is a trendy lunch style. Growing up, my mom would pack me a bento box to take to elementary school, complete with onigiri (Japanese rice balls) and a few side dishes to go with it; sometimes my lunch even included warm miso soup. Sounds amazing, right?

Well, I remember the reactions I got from my classmates when I’d open my bento at lunch. Classmates would hone in on the onigiri, wrapped in nori (sweet-salty Japanese toasted seaweed), and react with disgust and ridicule. I would go home and tell my mom that I just wanted a ham sandwich, just like everyone else.

I’m reminded of this memory as I listen to an episode of the BBC’s Food Programme on seaweed. Many cultures around the world have incorporated sea vegetables into their diets over hundreds of years. Growing up, my experiences told me that I was the odd one out, eating various seaweed products (nori, kombu, hijiki)…but now, I feel like North America and parts of western society are the odd ones out by not eating any seaweed.

Interestingly, seaweed use is becoming trendy, recognized for its vast flavours (including umami), mineral and trace element content, potential for supporting sustainability in energy (for humans and beyond), and – I’m assuming – because it still has that exotic pull. I’m noticing friends who really enjoy eating Korean or Japanese nori as a snack, eating or even rolling their own sushi, adding dulse or kombu to soup. Seaweed can be a condiment, a base, a main dish.

The future is bright for seaweed!

Bring on the Ramen: Toronto

Going to Toronto meant one thing: access to delicious food. Ottawa’s culinary scene is certainly not weak but good quality, decent-priced Japanese food is hard to come by (says the ex-Vancouverite). One dish that is particularly missing from the Ottawa food scene is good ramen, and so this became the focus for my trip to Toronto. To have a fair comparison between the ramen shops, I decided to order my favourite miso ramen – with its standard toppings of green onions, cha-shu (pork), corn, and bean sprouts – each time. Whenever I had an option to sit at the counter, I took it.

Stop #1: Ramen Raijin
(Gerrard St E at Yonge)

For dinner, I had the miso ramen for $10. This was my first taste of non-instant ramen in many many months. It was good but I’d say it was more like a warmup for my stomach for what was to come later in the weekend. We arrived at around 5pm on a Saturday and were quite happy to be seated right away. The front seating area is actually just half of the seating capacity for the restaurant but only the front was being used while we were there. As we were leaving, there was a small group of customers waiting.

Ramen

My ramen came with one slice of pork…could’ve used another one. The broth was decent but not quite what I was expecting with a miso ramen.

Miso ramen
Miso ramen

Two things that I realized I enjoy at a ramen shop – the traditional wood-based counters and a good view of the kitchen – were both missing from this place. However, the service was decent and the staff provided a warm Irashaimase (welcome) and Arigato gozaimashita (thank you) to every group of customers.

Shio ramen also from Ramen Raijin
Shio ramen also from Ramen Raijin
An order of gyoza at Ramen Raijin
An order of gyoza at Ramen Raijin

Ramen Raijin on Urbanspoon

Stop #2: Kinton
(Beverly at Baldwin)

We were the first in line for the 11:30am opening time (arriving just past 11am) at this fairly small restaurant. Once the doors opened promptly on-time, it didn’t take long for all of the seats to fill up.

Kinton

I had the miso ramen for $9.50 with regular broth and pork belly. You have a few options here: pork shoulder or pork belly, and light, regular, or rich broth. Despite choosing the regular broth, I still found it was super rich and heavy, making it hard to drink more than half the bowl. The noodles were delicious and the chewiest of all 4 places I visited. The 1.5 slices of pork belly was good but after trying a bite of the melt-in-your-mouth super tender pork shoulder, I know next time, I’ll just go with the pork shoulder. They also offer calpico (hot and cold) for $3, which gets an extra point with me, as it is one of my favourite Japanese drinks.

Miso ramen
Miso ramen

The energy was, by far, the most festive here with animated staff yelling and confirming orders. The service was excellent and everyone was super friendly. A hearty Irashaimase and an equally hearty Arigato gozaimashita from all of the staff in unison bookended your meal. We also had a prime spot at the wood counter with an awesome view of the kitchen. We watched them steam-fry the gyoza, cook the noodles, and prep the ramen for service. Very exciting stuff. Almost feels like you’re right in the thick of things.

Best seats in the house!
Best seats in the house!
Charring the pork
Charring the pork

One neat thing that you may not pick up on if you don’t understand any Japanese (or Japanese geography, for that matter) is that the staff refer to the different seating areas as the different Japanese islands (e.g., Hokkaido, Honshu). All of the tables that I saw were bar height.

Shio ramen also from Kinton
Shio ramen also from Kinton
Spicy karaage at Kinton
Spicy karaage at Kinton

Kinton Ramen on Urbanspoon

Stop #3: Hokkaido Ramen Santouka
(Dundas at Church)

Arriving for an early dinner at around 5pm, we had a choice between a few tables or the counter, but the place was comfortably full (no line yet). Opting for the counter, I was disappointed to find that because of a higher ledge, I couldn’t see as much of what was happening in the kitchen as at Kinton, but at least I could see a bit.

Santouka

I had the miso ramen, in a smaller portion for $9.50. At this place, with their standard ramen, you have an option of up-sizing for an extra $1 or getting a smaller portion for less $1. Unlike the other 3 places, Santouka also offers their version of tsukemen, although instead of getting the noodles on the side to be dipped into the broth, you get the toppings on the side with the noodle already in the broth.

Smaller portion size of the miso ramen with an appetizer of kimchi
Smaller portion size of the miso ramen with an appetizer of kimchi

This was the only ramen that came with some bamboo shoots, some black fungus, and a slice of chikuwa. The pork tasted more strongly marinated than the other places and melted in your mouth. Delicious stuff.

The staff was friendly and the service was good. This place was a lot quieter than Kinton but more cozy than Ramen Raijin. Because most of the seats are at tables, there isn’t much communal seating.

Santouka's version of tsukemen. Toppings come on the side instead of noodles coming on the side.
Santouka’s version of tsukemen. Toppings come on the side instead of noodles coming on the side.

Santouka Ramen on Urbanspoon

Stop #4: Sansotei
(Dundas at Chestnut)

I arrived at 10:50am on a weekday, being the first in line for their 11am opening. One thing to note for this place is that they are closed on Sundays. Although they offer table seating only (read: no counter to watch the kitchen from), it can turn into communal seating as there are a handful of large 6-seat tables. Half an hour past opening, the place was just over half full. Not bad for an early lunch on a weekday.

I had the miso ramen with original noodles for $9.50. You have the option of Sansotei original noodles, thick, or thin noodles. I was also very pleased to see cold calpico on the menu for $3. This was the only ramen shop to include a soft-boiled egg with their miso ramen in addition to two pieces of the most tender cha-shu! The pork was also the wrapped variety (to me, I feel like this is what should be offered with every bowl of ramen), scoring an extra point in my mind.

Miso ramen
Miso ramen

The service was decent and the Japanese pop music was playing at the perfect volume in the background. However, I was quite disappointed that there was no counter seating and the kitchen was hidden behind a wall.

Where is the counter and the view of the kitchen??
Where is the counter and the view of the kitchen??

Sansotei Ramen on Urbanspoon

In summary:
Favourite noodles: tie between Kinton and Santouka (different styles but both very delicious)
Favourite pork: Sansotei
Favourite ambiance: Kinton (far surpasses the other 3)
Favourite broth: Santouka, only because it was rich but easy to drink.