Several years ago, Papawow founder and foodtellectual extraordinaire Dave Koch loaned me a copy of Tampopo, the 1985 Japanese Western/comedy about, well, noodles. I’m sure he meant well, but Tampopo ruined noodles.
I must admit that I haven’t seen Tampopo for many years now, so the details are a bit hazy. The essence of the movie is the woman Tampopo’s search for the perfect bowl of noodles. Various scenes describe the essence of a good bowl of noodles. It all starts with the broth. Having made broths, stocks, and soups before, I am fully aware of the time consuming process required to make a deliciously savory, but not-too-salty broth.
The noodles themselves are another critical component – be they udon, ramen, soba (generally reserved for cold soups) or another lesser variety, the noodles cannot be overly mushy or hard. They need to withstand the heat of the broth and the prodding of the eating implements (never a fork) without giving in, and at the same time cede to the tooth with a tiny bit of elastic resistance.
And then there’s the meat. I have had too many udons containing an overly fatty, thick piece of ham. I’ve had tempura prawns with instantly-dissolving panko, revealing naked crustaceans in a slurry of fry. Unacceptable.
The problem with Tampopo is that it leaves the viewer craving the perfect bowl of noodles. I have not, in the years since my viewing of Tampopo, achieved satisfaction. Unfortunately, my noodle experiences since that defining moment have left much to be desired.
Five minutes prior to writing these words, I consumed a bowl of noodles with dumplings – purveyor to remain anonymous – that left me craving something more substantial. The dumplings tasted like poultry seasoning without the poultry. The broth was empty, want of seasoning and excitement. And the noodles were flat, lacking personality.
One peculiarity of this vendor, which I have visited previously, is the over-abundance of vegetables in the soup. Rather than meat or fish broth, I end up tasting only carrots and sprouts. Today’s noodle dish was merely a ghost of something that could have been.
Perhaps my disappointment in noodles is a regional problem. I have not had a decent opportunity to sample noodles in Asia since my search began. The exception was a disappointing ramen bowl in the Singapore Airlines lounge of the Hong Kong airport.
Incidentally, the best noodles I had since Tampopo were from a Japanese restaurant in the San Francisco International Airport. I have spent many hung-over Sundays burning my tongue in a bowl of udon before departing to another place. The broth there is particularly invigorating, and it magically warms my body and alleviates my ailments.
The tempura shrimp often end up naked, but with the appropriate level of care one can negotiate panko and crustacean in the same bite. Despite the positive aspects of this airport miracle, it is still miles away from satiating my craving.
Tampopo initiated my search for the perfect bowl of noodles, and coupled with my search lays ceaseless disappointment. One day, I optimistically muse, my search will prove fruitful. Until then, noodles are ruined.
Tampopo in London
I stopped in my tracks one day when, walking down Fulham Road in London, I came upon a restaurant called Tampopo (www.tampopo.co.uk). What a clever name for an Asian restaurant, I thought, but Tampopo herself would not have been pleased; this is not a noodle shack focused on the perfect bowl of noodles.
Instead it is a multi-location Asian restaurant, serving “steaming noodles to soothe, slow-cooked curries and sizzling stir-fries full of goodness and flavour.” Sounds like goodness to me, but it does not sound like the end to Tampopo’s – or my – quest.