THE SPICIER SIDE OF LIFE Demonic flavors at Kikanbou
For those who enjoy the spicier side of culinary life, the options in Japan often fall short. Whether it’s Mexican tamales or Indian curry, Japanese variations tend to accommodate to a milder palate, as per the nation’s traditional food fare. But if you’re yearning for a meal that involves sweating and consuming copious amounts of liquid, look no further than Kikanbou.
This small chain, with locations in both Kanda and Ikebukuro, serves up spicy miso ramen and tsukemen (cold ramen separated from its broth to be dipped). Both are topped with your chosen amount of spice, one of which is a concoction containing sanshou (a Chinese peppercorn that’s so mouth-numbing, it’s illegal in some U.S. states). You can choose from no spice at all to unbearably hot—after all, some people like a little ramen with their spice—to “literally want to be bashed in the head with spice.” (Thus the restaurant’s name, referring to oni—a Japanese demon—and his club.)
The Kanda branch sits on a corner near the train and subway stations. One side is dedicated to ramen and the other, much smaller side, to tsukemen. Both establishments have perfectly aligned their decor with the theme of spice—dim lighting, the bellowing bass of taiko drums playing in the background, and a collection of brightly-colored oni figurines and masks. Customers sit at counters, directly facing the kitchen with a view of the spices being piled onto their food. Water is readily on tap and in close reach—crucial during moments of pleasure and pain.
Before sitting, customers purchase a meal ticket from the vending machine. The most popular pick is Kikanbou’s signature dish, Karashibi (¥800-¥1,250 depending on toppings). After handing the ticket to an employee, you will then be asked to choose your levels of spiciness, for both the shibi (sanshou mix) and kara (another hot spice). The spiciest level is “oni” (additional ¥100), capable of awakening the demon inside of anyone who dares. As a tsukemen lover, the resulting bowl of mastery is glorious and incredibly filling—the broth, meaty with pork slabs and blended with sanshou oil, is heaping with spice. The noodles can be customized to include generous portions of bean sprouts, onsen eggs, and baby corn. Grab a paper bib—just accept that you’ll need it—and commence slurping. And don’t worry, there are plenty of tissues on hand to sop up your runny nose, and maybe even your tears.
Lunchtime can get quite busy, so be prepared to wait along with the salarymen. It’s recommended to start with the futsu futsu (regular) level for both spices, and work up from there on subsequent visits. Because, why would anyone want to destroy their tastebuds while enjoying one of the better bowls of ramen in the city?
Kanda: 2-10-9 Kajicho, Chiyoda-ku. Open Mon-Sat, 11am-9.30pm; Sun, 11am-4pm. Nearest station: Kanda. Tel: 03-6206-0239.
Ikebukuro: 1-13-14 Higashi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku. Open 11am-10pm. Nearest station: Ikebukuro. Tel: 03-5396-4202. www.karashibi.com