A cake is a cake is a cake.

Sous-Bois: mousse au cassis, bavarois au Kirsch, biscuit jaconde, confiture de cassis
Sous-Bois: mousse au cassis, bavarois au Kirsch, biscuit jaconde, confiture de cassis

In one of Will Smith’s celebrated films, The Pursuit of Happyness, there was this line that I could recall:

“I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence and the part about our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I remember thinking how did he know to put the pursuit part there? That maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue and maybe we can never have it. No matter what. How did he know that?”

Amidst an ongoing debate on the pervasive ‘paper chase’ in my country, I thought it was apt to revisit this quote. The socio-cultural sentiment, that qualifications are sieves which separate the successful from the rest, has affected me personally. I am stuck in business school, when I’d rather be in the kitchen. While I am encouraged that there is such debate, it is equally difficult to conceive any imminent change in perspectives. One step at a time, but we must also consider how we relate success to happiness. This is an age-old concern, yet we are still so blind.

Rat race or paper chase, is happiness its attainable goal? Or are we doomed to Sisyphus’ fate in an absurd pursuit, in which we must imagine ourselves happy? Who is Sisyphus anyway? Why does he have such a difficult name to pronounce?

In seeking these answers, let’s not neglect the obvious fact that Sisyphus didn’t have any cake while we do. Because if we can’t have happiness, we can have cake. Let us eat cake.

Last summer, my pursuit has brought me to Tokyo. I didn’t know much about Japanese pâtissiers; I only had chez Hidemi Sugino on my ‘must-visit’ list, thanks to his fame in the blogosphere. By little coincidence, I stayed two blocks away from his unassuming shop. On my third day in Tokyo, I decided to join the queue only 15 minutes before opening. This indifference was duly punished as the signature cake – ‘ambroisie’, was snapped up by those who came even earlier. Disheartened, but unbeaten, I chose four other petits gâteaux to share between my Dad and I. Three days later, I made another visit, only to miss the signature again, but two other cakes made up for that.

All in all, I tasted six cakes out of the 20 over that were charmingly displayed on the cake counter. (You see, I always had a thing for cake counters.) Each of the six has its own merits, but I was particularly inspired by the Framboisier. No photos were allowed, so words will have to suffice. Simply put, this layered cake accentuates our love for raspberries. Alternating layers of buttercream and jaconde offer soft and creamy textures on the palate, while the centre slice of jelly and garnishing raspberries present the refreshing and tangy aspect of this red midsummer gem. A layer of craquelin which sits atop the cake provides a crunchy distinction. With its shades and hues of red, and perfect layering, this cake grabs glances and robs hearts. As a whole, there is contrast, balance, and elegance, notwithstanding the fact that all elements comprise raspberries. Such is a dessert in which the ingredient humbles the chef, and the chef does justice to the ingredient.

The rest of the cakes were delights too. Amber Noix was a classic combination of chocolate, caramel and walnuts. Sous-Bois­ made another berry heaven. Tartelette au caramel passion, a bountiful tart of nuts and dried fruits wallowing in a smooth and rich passionfruit caramel, complemented by a quenelle of vaporous crème Chantilly. Charme was griottes, enough said, and Geometrin had an interesting, enlightening pairing of grapefruit and mint. Perhaps they weren’t all mind-blowing, but in chez Sugino I realized how simplicity doesn’t preclude ingenuity. After all, it takes most skill to execute the basics well beyond perfection.

On my first visit, Chef Sugino walked into the salon de thé from the kitchen. The gray hues of his hair suggested a certain frailty, at the same time an evidence of his dedication in decades. In his chef jacket, apron and clogs too, he glanced across the room in all modesty. He approached two boys accompanied by their mother for an afternoon treat, and they traded some words. I was too far away to hear anything, nor could I understand. Yet from the humble grin Chef Sugino revealed as he returned to the kitchen, I could imagine that to be his happiness, if not, close enough.

You can fly! You can fly! You can fly!

Beware of pixie dust.
Beware of pixie dust.

For the uninitiated, tsukemen is a different way of serving ramen. The noodles are separated from the broth, which, as a dip, is usually thicker than the typical ramen soup. This entails a more concentrated flavor, designed to captivate palates and minds of the young and the old. At the end of the meal, one can request for hot soup to be added to the remaining dip, which transforms it into a comfortable and refreshing finish.

At the heart of Tokyo, a particular tsukemen restaurant took the liberty of substituting the broth with pixie dust. This simple, yet ingenious, gesture makes its humble bowl of ramen magical. In Rokurinsha, there are no chefs; magicians take the stage to conjure bowls of tsukemen for their audience.

Are these the best noodles ever brought into existence? I’ve been told to avoid superlatives, but I can’t help it that Rokurinsha is magical. Highly recommended by a deluge of TV hosts and celebrity chefs, the initial anticipation weighed me down (never trust the media). Yet with each slurp, the skepticism dissipated and my feet lightened. In the last sips from the bowl, I could hardly hang on to my seat. In the following hour, I felt like Peter Pan – floating in the air.

In Japan, ramen makes a casual meal, but serving it is a serious affair. It isn’t difficult to stumble upon a random place and have your ‘life-changing’ bowl of noodles. I remember how, on my first trip to Tokyo, I had the ‘best ramen ever’ in a nameless restaurant. I swore then that I would not have any more ramen back home, but those were the days when dreams were as distant as the stars. A decade later, I realized with great (but readily available) miso, shoyu, or tonkotsu, you can’t really get a ‘bad’ ramen. But some of these can turn out to be really heavy – the fat, the salt, and perhaps a reckless belief in umami. There’s a reason why a spoonful of glutamate paralyzes your taste buds.

Rokurinsha’s broth came across as a bowl of depth. Long hours of simmering with pork and chicken bones, and fish flakes made it incredibly rich. It was a rare experience to have a delicate balance of meat and fish flavors, and not forgetting the restrained application of umami. Apparently, there is some sort of ‘dried fish powder’ in the broth for that. I’m skeptical about ‘using’ umami, but neglecting this aspect of taste can be dangerous. Besides that, the noodles were succulent and chewy, perfect for the intense broth. The accompaniments were indispensable too – chashu, shredded pork, bamboo shoots, and a beautiful egg. The magic is in the ‘unreal’ sense of bliss at the end of the meal, unobstructed by any food lethargy. Pixie dust, I swear.

It is possible that I am still under the psychoactive effects of the meal, so I apologize for any hint of derangement. I visited the flagship branch in Tokyo Ramen Street, and queued for 40 minutes. There’s a new branch at Tokyo Solamachi, a shopping mall adjunct the Tokyo Sky Tree. No regrets for this simple bowl of tsukemen; it’s something to remember for a long time. Bon appétit !

In the Land of Tsukemen.

The Land of Tsukemen.
Nothing beats a bowl of Tsukemen.

There are a thousand and one articles on the internet reiterating the benefits of travelling. I don’t see a reason to encourage people to travel, unless they are on the related industry’s payroll. When our ancestors settled down and took up agriculture, their thirst to explore, so as to understand, only grew stronger. We have never left our nomadic tendencies behind. It is still in our nature to explore the worlds beyond our own.

Silly talk aside, after a year of freshman toil and a summer internship, I decided that I needed a break to simply relax. I had conceived a solo trip but it turned out to be a father-and-son trip, which I didn’t mind. Except that there were fewer bits of relaxing, and more of trying to be a better son. Leading a trip can be more tiring than wandering off on your own. In any case, nothing beats family and my dad’s pretty cool. Thanks Dad.

Japan never disappoints. It isn’t a perfect country, nor can it sway my attachment to Paris, but its wonders are boundless. It tops my list of most-visited countries, yet there remains so much more uncovered treasures, waiting to be discovered on my next visit. And Japan is so much more than Tokyo. Admittedly, for Tokyo, I’ve gotten used to marvelling at its amazing produce, unparalleled hospitality, and endless food basements. On this trip, I sought out a few special places, which have impressed upon me subtly, yet indelibly. By chance, these places line up in their respective categories: Coffee, Tsukemen, Pastry, and Sushi. I will write about these highlights individually, in time to come, otherwise this would make a very long post. In short, dedication is key to excellence, and the Japanese know it best.

Who can walk away from fireworks?
Who can walk away from fireworks?

Moving on from all things edible, this trip also coincided with the Sumidagawa fireworks festival, which also happens to be on my dad’s birthday. I don’t like crowds, but I couldn’t walk away from my first Japanese festival. Everyone had put on their yukata-s, brought bentos for their picnics along Sumida River. Night came and so Tokyo celebrated my dad’s birthday, with lights and sparkles incomparable to the little candle on my dad’s cake, which we had later in the night. Surely the crowd was nearly unbearable, but it is difficult to regret attending such a festival.

No regrets too, to have stayed in Tokyo for six days. It was slightly longer than necessary, but not having to rush from city to city was a blessing. Perhaps it would take a few years before I return to this city, but there is no doubt that I would visit again. Till then!