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Sunday, Sept. 17, 2006

WEEK 3

MIRTH ON THE MENU

Noodles with attitude


Staff writer

Chairman Mao Zedong -- who back in 1935 wrote that his nation's basic task was "to oppose the attempt of Japanese imperialism to annex China" -- obviously had some, shall we say, issues with the Middle Kingdom's diminutive neighbor to the east.

News photo
Tatsuo Takeuchi behind the wok at Sanyo Ramen in Yokohama, where meals are served up with generous side orders of humor. ERIC PRIDEAUX PHOTOS

So the Chairman would probably have been surprised to learn that long after he'd done his bit to rout "our enemy, Japan," a popular little restaurant there would name a dish in honor of him.

Surprised indeed. At 400 yen, Mo-Takuto-Mo-Bikkuri-No Gyoza (Even-Mao-Zedong-Would-be-Surprised Fried Dumplings) is one of several curiously titled offerings at Sanyo Ramen in Yokohama City that combines one part pseudo-history with two parts whimsy, a splash of garlic and a dash of salt to deliver a culinary experience no diner is likely ever to forget.

Consider also Shu-Onrai-Mo-Odoroku Ramen (Even-Zhou-Enlai-Would-Be-Startled Ramen). And if your taste buds are not already tickled beyond endurance, how about lashing out 700 yen on a bowl of Yo-Kihi-Mo-Koshi-Nukasu-Chinchin Men (Even-Yang-Guifei-Would-Go-Weak-at-the-Knees-Little-Willy Noodles)?

Little-Willy noodles? What would Yang Guifei (719-756), the fatefully beautiful Chinese royal concubine, say about this edible evocation of a part of the male anatomy? And would Premier Zhou Enlai (1898-1976) be any happier with the peculiar homage made to him?

Tatsuo Takeuchi, the 65-year-old proprietor and creative genius at work in this trailer-sized eatery couldn't care less either way.

"I don't bother with people who can't take a joke," Takeuchi quipped from behind his wok as oil sputtered loudly. And forget about bringing up the Cultural Revolution or Tibet; Takeuchi warns against reading too deeply into his menu's meanings.

"I'm not political," he insists.

Instead, sit down, peruse the menu -- and let it feed your sense of humor, too.

Should you be visiting with coworkers, be sure to honor superiors by steering them toward the 1,150 yen Eriito Teishoku (Elite Set Course), while yourself humbly opting for the ironically pricier 1,250 yen Kabegiwa Teishoku (roughly, Redundant-Worker Set Course). Of course, if you're the one who's boss, then it would be in order to reverse the order.

News photo
The Sanyo Ramen restaurant in Yokohama

Couples, meanwhile, are enjoined to dine at the so-called Romance Seats or in a Royal Box -- in other words, at the counter or, less than an arm's-length away, against the wall. Larger parties unable to squeeze into Sanyo Ramen's claustrophobic interior may be advised to use the euphemistically named Beer Garden or Detached Palace Grounds. For these, read respectively the table and chairs on the sidewalk or an empty lot down the street; either way, wait staff will bring your meal toute de suite.

For his customers' pleasure -- or, more accurately, so he can focus on cooking without having to talk all the time -- Takeuchi has covered the wall with absorbing reading material.

For example, "Mao Analect No. 5," brushed onto a plastic board above the Romance Seats, states: "Water is all-you-can-drink. For men, beer is all-you-can-drink. However, kindly pay for all the beer you have drunk."

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SR's Even-Yang-Guifei-Would-Go-Weak-at-the-Knees-Little-Willy Noodles

According to "Mao Analect No. 6," the communist colossus is purported to have intoned: "The customer is God. Still, there are exceptions."

What kind of entrepreneurial mind would dream up a place like this?

Takeuchi, a native of Aichi Prefecture, was one of 12 children. His parents worked farms, hauled fish -- "whatever it took to feed us." As a youth, he headed east for greener pastures. "You know how Columbus discovered America?" he says. "Me, I discovered Yokohama."

On Feb. 23, 1968 -- he remembers the date precisely -- Takeuchi took his savings from running a street-side ramen stall and opened Sanyo Ramen in a part of town that was rough around the edges but the only location he could afford.

As well, there were six other nearly identical restaurants within soy-squirting distance along the street, and Takeuchi badly needed to distinguish his eatery from them.

Superior ingredients

One solution was the Mao schtick. But Takeuchi knew that comedy alone wouldn't bring 'em in and keep 'em coming back -- so he also resolved to use superior ingredients, such as handmade noodles and the choicest vegetables. He'd be no less fussy about his ramen broth, the product of simmering pig and chicken bones together for three hours.

Wasn't it overwhelming to have rivals on either side? Takeuchi scoffs at the very notion: What good would worrying about that do?

"If you've got a lousy attitude about things, you'll fail no matter how good a location you've found," he shouted above the din of his crowded one-room restaurant, adding proudly that working 363 days a year -- he takes two days off for New Year's -- has helped his store outlive its competitors. "I'm the hungry type," he says with a characteristic laugh.

Speaking of which, over the course of jotting all this wisdom down, I'd developed quite an appetite myself. I screwed up my courage and requested the joint's most popular ramen -- those Little-Willy Noodles.

I had to ask: Did the "chinchin" in the Japanese name really mean what I thought it meant? Takeuchi laughed and would only say, "Any customer who thinks that has a dirty mind." Gulp.

The dish arrived and, like Mao, I was surprised. The handmade noodles and rich, garlicky soup deliciously complemented the slices of pork, and -- wiping the sweat from my brow -- I told Takeuchi so.

One fellow customer, company worker Shige Abe, was of a similar mind.

"The first time I came to this place, I thought it was a bit strange. It is strange. But the gyoza [fried dumplings] are really good."

Now, whenever friends come to town, Abe said he's sure to bring them to Sanyo Ramen. This visit, Abe's tenth, was just such an occasion, and one of the new initiates was David Li, from Shanghai. Asked for his thoughts on the cuisine, Li cryptically replied: "This is Japanese food." Reading between his words, it seemed he was saying: "This is not Chinese food." But he added: "It tastes good."

When I asked, with some slight trepidation, whether as a Chinese person he was offended by the appropriation of the late Chairman's name to garnish a gyoza dish, he was again concise, replying: "No." But then warming to the theme, he effused: "It's fun." That cleared that up.

There was one other issue I still needed to nail down once and for all.

"Mao Analect No. 3" stated that, "Customers who don't notice any changes after eating Little-Willy Ramen are urged to have a health check-up." That had me wondering if the dish wasn't perhaps a type of "stamina ramen" it would have been better to have spurned.

"You know," I said, attracting Takeuchi's attention, "I've heard that some people eat the, um, the testicles of a bull to make them strong."

"Yeah, that's right," Takeuchi said with a chuckle. "Pigs', too."

"Yes, well," I stammered on, since he'd apparently not caught my drift, "you wouldn't . . . There wouldn't happen to be anything like that in this broth, would there?"

"No! No! No testicles!" he said, bursting out laughing. "The only thing in there is my heart and soul."

Sanyo Ramen is a 5-minute walk from JR Sakuragicho Station in Yokohama. For more information, call (045) 231-0943 or visit sanyou.hp.infoseek.co.jp (in Japanese only).


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