tukumo ramen: of cheese and the tomme tomme club
Some ideas sound better on paper than in real life. And then there’s the reverse - those things you can’t quite get your head around, but actually do exist. Like bioluminescent deep sea creatures; I was just watching a video today of one particular critter that resembled a translucent red heart with flashing casino lights. Maybe it was in its Halloween costume? The thought is no more ludicrous than using cheese as a topping in a bowl of ramen. And yet, that does exists as well, on a sloping street in Hiroo mere steps from noodle mecca Ebisu in Tokyo’s highly happening Shibuya ward.
If you think about it for a moment though, it makes perfect sense. In fact, cheese has become something of a micro-trend in the world of noodling as of late, with one top chef even bringing his version stateside. The quest for umami, that highly-coveted fifth taste that is all the rage as a buzzword among English-speaking foodies, has long been the pursuit of nearly anyone with a boiling cauldron of soup and a towel wrapped around his head. “Savoryness” is the entire reason for the unbiquity of MSG, flavor as enhanced by the presence of glutamates whether natural or artificially extracted. Cheese is glutamates in spades, and if you look at it that way, I’m surprised that it took so long for ramen chefs to start sinking hunks of the stuff into precious soups like tires into endangered coral reefs.
The French have been doing it for ages, with gruyere atop onion soup. Tukumo Ramen (or “tsukumo”, if you prefer — I’m going with their off-kilter but apparently official Romanization) hasn’t been in business nearly as long, and yet their ganso original cheese ramen is something of an institution about town, nominally popular and limited to a paucity of bowls per day.
Tukumo’s bread and butter is its tonkotsu ramen, by all accounts an above-average thing. Yet it is this cheese miso novelty that attracts the most attention. Unlike the gruyeres of French onion soup or even the liquid reggiano tofu served across the ocean at Ramen California, Tsukumo tops its noodles with a Japanese version of tomme de Savoie it has christened “tomme tomme”, the original wheels of which are made at the restaurant’s own proprietary cattle ranch. The cheese itself is white, with a mellow flavor and a hint of tang. Served in powdered form, Tukumo’s chefs practically dump a snowfall’s worth of the stuff into a single bowl.
As suggested by the waiter, one should thoroughly mix the cheese into the soup and finish about half the portion before adding any tableside condiments. “That way you can have two different tastes,” he said. Fair enough, Tukumo apparently wants to stretch their bang for my buck. I took his word for it and slowly worked the fluffy stuff into the already hearty miso soup. Surprisingly, the powdered cheese didn’t fuse into a stringy, rubbery meteorite as I had imagined it would, but rather dissolved into the soup completely, infusing it with a a slightly oily but otherwise invisible makeover. I was never a huge fan of miso; something about the ubiquity of the bean paste in nearly every corner of Japanese cooking has put me off it, and unless I’m in a specific Sapporo-style mood, I rarely order it. The cheese does adds a considerable dimension to the soup, which I’m not sure I’d like on its own.
It’s a fine bowl all in all. The yellow noodles are fairly rote — by Japanese standards, which means they’re decent enough, though in a soup of this density they’ll expand into a brick before you’ve had a chance to make it to the suggested stage two. Pile on the added toppings and you wind up with one spicy, cheesy, miso pastey mush, a better way to finish off an evening than to start one as you’ll surely be spending the next few hours in a mild digestive stupor. There are, as they say, worse ways to go.
|a huge, fluffy white scoop of "tomme tomme" cheese dominates both the bowl and the center of conversation. dissolving nicely into the soup, it adds a much needed spark of umami and a mellow, slightly-sour sheen.||8.5|
|tukumo's medium-girth yellow noodles are but a pinch above average by japanese standards, perhaps ill-suited to a soup of this density and heartiness. or maybe i just eat too slow. likely, it's the latter.||6.5|
|if, due to its unique properties, you count the cheese as part of the soup rather than a distinct topping, the toppings themselves are mostly a fine hodgepodge of half-boiled shoyu egg, pickled mustard greens and bean sprouts loaded with ichimi chili spice, and all the green onion you could want. there's also a scoop of robust, snappy hokkaido corn and a piece of chashu somewhere in there.||8|
|tukumo has excellent gyoza, wrapped like wontons and grilled to a nice, crispy brown lace. i'm surprised i ate mostly everything.||8.5|
|the indoor/outdoor seating at tukumo's ebisu storefront makes for a pleasant experience on a warm tokyo evening. just steps from ebisu and mere blocks from the epicenter of the world, shibuya, it's in a good spot.||7.5|
|cheese in ramen may seem gimmicky at first, but it makes sense if you think about it. kudos to tukumo for carving this little niche on the tokyo ramen scene; their popularity is well-deserved.||7.5|