Thursday, July 22, 2010

Aji no Sanpei 味の三平

About 4 years after Daruma-ken, the restaurant Aji no Sanpei was born onto the scene. In many ways, Aji no Sanpei is far more important, for it engraved essentially what is "Sapporo Ramen" into the world of culinary artistry. Aji no Sanpei invented Miso ramen.

Yes, invented it.

To clarify the importance of this achievement: when ramen comes to the mind of a Japanese person, they will almost indefinitely think of three basic categories in terms of flavor: shoyu, shio, and miso. These are ubiquitously called the "Three flavors", or 3味. The previous two have been discussed before, as the origins of ramen long before in Japan, but Miso is the newcomer of sorts, and Aji no Sanpei at the very least deserves high praise for inventing this whole new species of ramen.

I actually sat down with the owner of Aji no Sanpei, the contents of the interview can be found later on, and I'll link to it when I finish translating it.

Actually, in a bit of interesting lore, Aji no Sanpei buys noodles from the Nishiyama company, whom was created by the cousin of the owner of Daruma-ken. Everything has a connection in Japan I suppose.

Aji no Sanpei also has an old world feel to it, despite being located in perhaps the most perplexing and unique location I've come across for ramen shops: the 4th floor of a stationary store.


Stationary and ramen... I have seen everything. But the idea makes sense; According to the owner, to avoid working late night hours, they decided to pick a shop that had a lot of traffic without being open through the middle of the night. This gave the shop owners somewhat of a life outside of the restaurant since it closed early, which, at least to the owners, was far more desirable than being open untill 2-3 am.

Miso Ramen actually was invented as a concept in pure post war idealism. People wanted food to be healthy, and bountiful, and full of calories and nutrition. Miso was successful because it had qualities that salt and soy sauce didn't, health and calories without extra cost. Perhaps this is why it took off initially.

The owner claims, like many, that his ramen has changed with the time, but I seem to believe otherwise; as do most restaurant visitors of Aji no Sanpei. Which makes sense, in comparison to Miso ramen today, Aji no Sanpei is far lighter, not rich or thick, and the miso flavor itself is surprisingly mild.

There is however, one specific issue. If you search 味の三平 (Aji no Sanpei) in google, one of the suggestions you get is this:

Look at the 3rd suggestion. まずい means literally "unappetizing", or as I like to think of it, "gross".

So... it seems like a fairly large number of people might be dissatisfied with Aji no Sanpei's ramen.

Perhaps we see a trend here, which leads me to the second rule.

2. A store's age is not correlated with it's quality.

A brand new store may have some seriously amazing eats, and an old store may have faded into it's obscurity and old history without evolving quickly with the times.

But how did I think of it? Did I agree with the 3.3/5 rating on Tabelog? Did I think it was "unappetizing"?

Well... I wouldn't go so far as to say that. Perhaps I am biased because the owner was so sincere and honest in my interview with him, so prideful and happy about his ramen and the history he and his family of cooks are responsible for. Perhaps it's because I have  a soft spot for miso ramen, and for cooks who genuinely love their food, their creations.

But... I kinda liked it. It has a very mellow, if almost unintelligible, miso flavor. The stir fried vegetables really show through, onion and bean sprout just the right texture, with stir fried minced pork added for a bit of richness. The pork base soup, which included boiled pig head (yes it's awesome) is murky and clouded and reminds me of a home cooked stock. The noodles are of course delicious and perfect in texture, and not just because they are made by an external company. I was allowed to visit them during preperation, speedy hands and silent maneuvers flawlessly enacting a dance like trance of slicing and boiling, and I saw how each of the 5 cooks for 15 minutes merely practices making the noodles to perfect accuracy.

"Ah... you're over 4 minutes now! Hurry up!" the owner shouted to one of the cooks as he prepared 7 orders of miso ramen simultaneously.

Still... this once again falls into the category of history over substance. Aji no Sanpei is lost in its old school character, and while this is charming, the quality of the ramen itself is good, but not astounding in comparison to ramen today. One should look at Aji no Sanpei for what it is, the origins of what we call "Sapporo Ramen", the first generation in a legacy of quality food.

For the history buff, this place is worth a look, of course. For the gastronomist, this place may be not.

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