Every Lunar New Year, I look forward to food. Friends, family, and fun, too, but mostly food.
Even though my parents immigrated to America years ago and proudly claim to have assimilated to American culture, celebrating Lunar New Year with the people we love has always been a staple of our heritage. The Lunar New Year parties are always an amazing festivity, and the potluck style of the dinner guarantees a variety of wonderful dishes to satisfy anyone and everyone’s cravings.
The preparations for these parties are always a labor of love (emphasis on the labor). It is like Thanksgiving dinner preparations, but the Asian version. My mother, a frequent host of the parties, often spends days in advance preparing the house, and the two days leading up to the party meticulously cooking enough dishes to feed a group of at least 60.
Meats of any (and every!) kind are a cornerstone of the dinner. My mother has always been partial to smoked salmon, and is known among her friend group for having the best salmon dish in town, but she, and all of the other wonderful mothers contribute plentiful types of meats. From spicy chicken to pork to pig ears, there’s something for everyone.
The meat dishes are, of course, supplemented by plentiful amounts of vegetables, noodle dishes, and bao zi (Chinese rolls). My parents and their friends take their spicy food seriously, and it’s not uncommon to see pepper or some other spicy-looking sauce liberally tossed on top of most dishes. The lotus and cauliflower and leeks and chicken dishes are favorites of my family’s. Spicy tofu soup is also a staple of every year’s dinner. As someone who unfortunately can’t handle much spicy food, I usually try to mitigate the burning sensations of too much spicy with copious amounts of rice.
I’ve always had a weakness for the dessert options at these parties. The soft sweetness of the red bean cakes and handmade red bean mochi by family friends complement an otherwise very savory and rich meal. Red bean filling is the most unique part of an Asian dessert dish.
There’s one more dish that I haven’t mentioned: the pork dumplings that my family makes. These dumplings are particularly special to me, because my family actually comes together to help mix the filling, knead the dough, and fold up the finished dumpling into their signature bow shapes. It’s almost difficult to eat the dish that so accurately represents the labor and love that goes into creating a Lunar New Year Dinner.
I have always looked forward to celebrating Lunar New Year with my family. The food, of course, is wonderful, but the sense of joy and community of so many people coming together to eat and celebrate is something unique to this special day.
The waitstaff, excited to finally have people enjoy Santouka’s new location.
Saporo, a Japanese beer, was featured at the opening.
View from inside the kitchen.
The special guests at Monday’s private opening help Mr. Hatanaka open the barrels of saké in the traditional Japanese method.
Since word got out about the opening in early November, the hype for Santouka Ramen’s opening on campus has been palpable. Today, Santouka will finally open its doors to the public, ready to serve its steaming blue bowls of broth and noodles.
Unlike the traditional fast food-style ramen shops of Japan, the Cambridge location is Santouka’s second full-service restaurant, the first having opened in Seattle last spring. Harvard Square, already a destination for those looking for a sit down meal, will surely be the perfect place for Santouka’s second restaurant endeavor. Accommodating both ramen diehards and insta-ramen makers alike, each member of Santouka’s staff has undergone an intensive, two-week training to master the nuances of Japanese culture and cater to the needs of each individual customer.
While it is not the first restaurant of its kind, founder Hitoshi Hatanaka was quick to point out that Boston and Shinagawa, his hometown, share a very similar climate (i.e. bitterly cold winters). In this way, a steaming bowl of noodles, broth, and pork, will warm you right up in the way that Hatanaka had intended when he opened his first shop in 1988. Even the bowl design is taken into account: the thinner, deeper bowls are designed to conserve heat in colder climates. In addition to being a salvation from the cold, the founder explained that the dining room was designed specifically with Harvard students in mind. With two large, cafeteria sized tables at the center, Santouka will be well-suited for blocking group outings, as well as a casual date night. The prices ranges from about $10 to $15 per meal and it’s worth every penny.
Once just a small, nine-seat ramen shop in the Hokkaido region of Japan, Santouka Ramen is now an international business with locations from Malaysia to California. Throughout all this sucess, Mr. Hitoshi Hatanaka seems to have maintained Santouka’s character, as well as his own. At Monday’s private opening, scenes from the hit Japanese comedy, Tampopo, which Hatanaka cites as the inspiration for the opening of his first shop, were shown to instruct the attendees in the proper way to both slurp, and cherish, their ramen.
Without a doubt, you will find the best ramen in Cambridge at Santouka. Santouka has only been able to expand from its humble beginnings to an international chain by staying true to its original goal: serving high quality ramen to its customers. Lots, and lots of hungry customers. Though the noodles are not produced in house, Santouka has decided to maintain an especially keen eye on its broth, which is considered by many to be the heart of any bowl of ramen. With a good broth, noodles are just as auxiliary (or important, depending on your point of view) as the pork or mushrooms. The Tonkatsu broth base is laboriously made by simmering pork bones for twenty hours, extracting every last bit of flavor and fat from the bones and concentrating it into a rich and milky elixir. The addition of other ingredients, especially vegetables, add a sweet tinge to the creamy broth.
The dedication to the broth can also be seen in the amount of space the restaurant has devoted to the simmering process. As one can see from the long, rectangular window along the south wall of the restaurant, most of the kitchen is taken up by eight huge vats of broth, each clouded with the capricious steam from the pork and vegetables simmering below. The vats, lit with green light to emphasize the true alchemical magic constantly at play, can even be seen from Bow Street, enticing any passerby.
Here Head Chef Igo-san stands akimbo, taking a moment of rest before jumping back on the line. A veteran team member from Santouka’s Seattle location, Igo-san is especially familiar with, as well as proud of, the quality of ingredients he gets to work with everyday at Santouka. The noodles are made from a unique blend of wheat made specifically for Santouka that creates a full-bodied noodle which holds onto the broth flavor. While the more traditional ingredients, such as nori, umbroshi, and miso, are imported from Japan, the pork comes from the US to ensure freshness before it undergoes the secret process of cha shu.
At the private opening Monday, Santouka served up their signature dish: Shio Ramen. With a Tonkatsu soup base, Shio ramen is given depth with the subtle addition of sea salt. The noodles are then carefully folded into the cradle of hot soup, and finally a variety of toppings are placed on the top. The result? An impressive steaming bowl teeming with colors, aromas, flavors, and textures, each carefully crafted and balanced for your dining experience. (More information about the ingredients can be found here.)
“Caress it with the chopsticks:” How to Enjoy Your Ramen to the Fullest
Tackling one of these mighty bowls can be intimidating– where does one start? The founder, being so inspired by the Japanese comedy Tampopo, introduced ramen eating technique through one of the movie’s iconic scenes in which an obsessive old man demonstrates with extreme affection how to eat ramen. (It’s definitely worth a look; check it out here).
The bowl, roughly the size of an expanded stomach (foreshadowing much?), is first placed in front of you along with the proper weapons of choice: chopsticks and a deep soup spoon. The soup is scalding hot, and the arrangement of toppings appears too beautiful to be disrupted. But be disrupted, it must! For nothing may stand against you and ramen in your face! First, you pinch off a half dozen strands of noodles, and then, being careful not to sever any indivdiual strand, start slurping them into your mouth. When slurping, it is important to make noise and slurp in air with the scalding noodles in order to cool them down. The noodles soak up and deliver the broth, combining the flavor of the rich opaque pork bone broth and the texture of the full, lush noodle strands.
The central concept behind a good bowl of ramen is combining the variety of flavors and textures found in the soup. When the soup, noodles, and toppings are eaten in flavor-texture combination, innumerable sensations are possible.
The cha shu pork (1) is “the best pork I’ve ever had” (said Dana Ferrante, self-proclaimed pork specialist). Made with the fatty underbelly of pig, the pork is unbelievably tender and bursts with the hot fat flavor before melting away in your mouth. The bamboo shoots (2), harvested as young bamboo and then steamed, offer a subtle earthy taste with a pleasant fibrous texture that stands in contrast to many of the other ingredients. The fish cake (3), a new sensation to those unfamiliar with ramen, is a loaf of pureed whitefish with a very light flavor, standing out not only because of its decorative pink swirl, but also with its chewiness. The wood ear mushroom (4), with a flavor reminiscent of the woods, has a texture similar to the bamboo shoot, but it a bit softer and smoother. Finally, the hard plum (5): with its sweet, vinegar, pickled bite, cuts right through the fattiness of the broth and refreshes the mouth. With so many combinations of flavor and texture to try, there is a new experience in store every time you eat a bowl of ramen.
One last suggestion: eat it fast. The ramen is best when it is piping hot and first brought to the table. When the soup gets cold, the broth will dehomogenize and the noodles will lose their firmness.
“Happiness in a Bowl”
In the words of the owner, Ramen is “happiness in a bowl.” As I took my first loud slurp of ramen and chewed, I could not prevent a smile from spreading across my face. Delicious, hot, and comfortable. The ramen made me feel, well, happy. What can bother you when you are warm and have eaten your fill?
Here I am, Santouka. Signed, slurped, delivered, I’m yours.