Ramen is arguably Japan’s national dish, but it originates from Chinese la-mian (pulled noodles). In fact, another term for ramen in Japan is chuka soba — Chinese noodles. If you’ve been to China or even a local Chinatown, you may have come across a noodle shop where someone made la-mian by taking a big piece of dough and stretch it out with to the full length of his wingspan, separating it into many individual strands in the process, and doing it over and over until he achieves a pile of noodles. Interestingly, I’ve never seen or heard of any la-mian places in Tokyo. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough or perhaps I need to go to a fancy high-end Chinese restaurant. It’s also possible that the demand for la-mian is limited here, overshadowed by the locals’ affinity for their own iconic ramen.
However, what I have found are plenty of noodle joints that serve tantanmen (dandan mian in Chinese), a spicy Sichuanese noodle dish.
I’ve had a number of variations, but tantanmen usually consists of a spicy sauce or soup, ground pork, chili oil, and scallions. Some versions (including many of the Japanese interpretations I have had) contain sesame and/or peanut paste in the sauce or soup. I’ve also had tantanmen that included vegetables, such as bean sprouts, mustard stems, and/or preserved vegetables. The noodles were traditionally sold by street peddlers in China who carried the food in baskets suspended on each end of a pole called a dan dan. One basket contained the noodles while the other contained the sauce.
Not too long ago, my friends PC, TC, and I checked out the Akasaka branch of tantanmen restaurant Kitsurin (希須林) for lunch. It’s a very popular place during lunch time and there are only seats for about a dozen people, so we went just after the store opened at 11:00am.
Kitsurin’s tantanmen is soup-based and had a rich, nutty flavor that tasted of both sesame and peanuts. Red-orange chili oil overs the tan colored soup, and you can order spiciness level from one to five, with five being the highest (mine was a three). The noodles are topped with ground pork, bean sprouts, and scallions. If you are really feeling hungry and/or deficient in protein, you can order your tantan men with a sliced up slab of tonkatsu, fried pork cutlet. This is, of course, what the three of us did and it was fantastic.
In addition, each bowl of tantanmen comes with a side of rice, which you can top with Chinese pickled vegetables called zasai (zha cai in Mandarin). I’ve found it interesting how the Japanese tend to serve rice on the side with a bowl of noodles in their lunch sets. I don’t see that in neighboring Asian cultures and it seems like an overabundance of carbohydrates.
Needless to say, the three of us stumbled out of Kisurin feeling (overly) full and in serious need of a nap. I highly recommend the place if you are in the mood for spicy noodle soup. And go hungry, especially if you want to order the tonkatsu to go on top.
But as delicious as Kisurin’s tantanmen is and as worthy as it is of multiple return trips, there is something even better out there. Stay tuned for Part 2 of my tantanmen saga.Kisurin Akasaka 3-7-9 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo Business hours: 11:00am-3:00pm, 5:00pm-10:30pm; closed Sat-Sun