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The most amazing noodles and other quick Tokyo meals

Tempura bowl of noodles is the Japanese equivalent of the Pret A Manger bacon sandwich: a quick snack or a light lunch
/ 07:30 AM January 04, 2018

At a tiny store underneath a railway overpass in Tokyo, the chef and I tried our best to communicate with one another. He sounded as though he might be describing the delightful kaki-age in tempura batter that he was currently frying for me. But he might also have been miming the lyrics to “Baby Shark.”

I was, irresponsibly, utterly lost somewhere in the biggest city in the world, so I wouldn’t be able to tell you how to get back to that udon noodle shop—and they were the most amazing noodles I’ve ever had.

The tempura bowl of noodles is the Japanese equivalent of the Pret A Manger bacon sandwich: a quick snack or a light lunch. The British have a cold lump of protein sandwiched between two squishy yet highly absorbent pieces of bread which suck the saliva out of your mouth and the will to live from your soul—eaten while working, while sitting on the bus, on park benches.

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We Filipinos enjoy our bread and sandwiches, too, but for us, they are the gastronomic equivalent of a Fox’s glacier mint. It is something that tickles the palate or whiles away the afternoon, but not something that actually gives nutrition or sustenance—which requires rice.

‘Merienda’

We still haven’t figured out how to manage the quick lunch—cheap, filling and fast—nor the 10-minute snack that could punctuate the afternoon.

This holiday season I’ve been rediscovering merienda, in large part due to a gift crate of bread from Panaderya Toyo, which included knots of pan de sal in addition to sourdough baguettes.

The other reason is that we went away early and were in town for most of the holidays, which means long afternoons of bored, restless children had to be punctuated by a rambling, multicourse meal. So, we would buy bibingka from Via Mare, kutsinta from the itinerant vendor, and have ham and cheese sandwiches from Excelente ham and a block of cheese.

I’d make a hot chocolate with real chocolate chunks from Davao and a dash of single cream and vanilla beans. Then we’d finish up with a bit of cake or mince pies, by which time it would be cocktail hour.

It was all very pastoral, straight out of an old-fashioned Filipino short story. But it also makes you realize to what degree these stories were set among the upper classes, who didn’t have the urgency of work to abbreviate their afternoons.

Tokyo and toddlers

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I do realize I’m a bit late to the party when it comes to traveling to Japan—especially during the years when the yen was particularly cheap and the visa requirements had just been relaxed and everyone was discovering the wonders of bidet toilet seats and well-stocked convenience stores.

We attempted to squeeze in a side trip to Tokyo on the way north to the snow, which was a bit ambitious to begin with. But in between the time that we booked our tickets to our actual departure date, our second child became an extremely mobile toddler. Tokyo and toddlers don’t really mix, which was why we were in desperate need of restaurants that would serve food quickly and efficiently.

So, we ate a lot of quick meals that involved ducking into a little shop, enjoying a surprisingly filling meal with sides and vegetables, and paying at the cashier. Or if the family didn’t want to go out into the freezing cold, I would run down to the convenience store and bring up a plastic bag of hot meals and we would eat them in our hotel room.

I think you can judge a country’s culinary culture as much by restaurants like Florilege, as by the quality of convenience store meals. This got me thinking about the kind of meal we would have to have in London or Paris if we were in a hurry.

London punishes you with bad food in general if you aren’t rich enough to afford daily Ottolenghi, but more so if you need it quickly. Paris is surprisingly unsympathetic to those who can’t make the time for a proper lunch break.

You might get a jambon beurre sandwich. It might be the best bread made by a proper baker, and it’ll have great globs of Normandy butter slathered onto the crumb. But in the end, it’s still a ham sandwich, the kind that lacerates your upper palate and is dejectingly similar on the fourteenth bite as it was on the first bite.

Serendipitous discoveries

Apart from making it downhill in blizzard conditions, enjoying snow monkey life in the onsen, and eat-all-you-can sushi, some of my best memories from the trip consisted of discovering serendipitously good restaurants on the way to a train station or to catch a plane or because we found ourselves at that particular spot when hunger pangs struck.

It was proper food, too, with concessions to utensils for the children and with condiments, sauces, pickles. A lot of the efficiency has to do with clients working with the restaurant rather than against it, in a joint effort to move the process along. Customers pick up their orders, and bus out their trays. Then there’s a little cloth for you to wipe your place clean for the next customer.

All this happens in the length of time it takes for one to reach the counter at Jollibee and order one’s Chickenjoy.

This is not to suggest that we should emulate Japan’s harsh work schedule, which even they are beginning to rethink after years of declining birth rates and employees dying from working too many hours a week—80 is the norm, 100 is not uncommon. But even if most Manila workers are not likely to be victims of karoshi (death by overwork), we do have the most appalling traffic conditions that bookend even the most languid eight-hour job—
over two hours, at least, of hell on wheels going to work and coming home.

If someone clever could invent truly fast food that wasn’t fried, oily and unhealthy, or perhaps portable meals one could eat while stuck on Edsa, this would do more for nutrition, well-being and sanity of the Manila commuter than the umpteenth flavor of tuna flakes in oil. —CONTRIBUTED

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