What is tsukemen?
Tsukemen つけ麵 could be translated in English as “dipping noodles”. The first part “tsuke” means “to dip in” and the second part “men” means noodles. It’s similar to ramen except that the noodles and the soup are served in separate bowls and the soup is usually thicker. Normally, the noodles are served cold and the soup hot, with “toppings” – additional ingredients served on top . Even though there are many “tsukemen only” places, like the one described in this article, many ramen shops will also serve tsukemen, since the preparation is not so different, and vice-versa.
The dish was invented in Tokyo in 1961 by Kazuo Yamagishi, who was the founder of Taishoken 大勝軒 in Higashi-Ikebukuro. He passed away in 2015 at the age of 80 but until then he used to sit in front of his shop and greet customers who were lined up outside. When I first visited his restaurant, I remember asking him what dish he would recommend from the ticket vending machine, not realising, who he was! Tsukemen is very popular in Japan, although I had never heard of it before moving here. It is definitely something I recommend to visitors since it’s difficult to find outside of Japan.
When eating tsukemen, whatever you do, don’t pour all the soup onto the noodles or all the noodles into the soup! You need to pick up a small amount with your chopsticks, high enough so that the noodles are fully clear of the dish and then slowly lower them into the soup. I usually keep the noodles fully submerged for a few seconds so that they get thoroughly coated with the thick soup, before eating them. If you grab too many noodles at once, there is a risk that some noodles will fall onto the table during the transfer from bowl to bowl. That’s like having the sushi rice fall into the soy sauce or losing your piece of bread in the cheese fondue – harmless, but kind of embarrassing. Personally, I like to transfer several small servings of noodles into the soup, so that I can then eat them without interruptions.
What kind of house is Suzy House?
I first found out about Suzy house. yotsuya mensho suji haus 四谷麺所スージハウス in Japanese, not through some website or by word of mouth, but from an advertisement next to an area map outside the Yotsuya station. I am usually immune to such advertising, preferring an enthusiastic recommendation from a friend, or a good rating on a review site, but I have to admit the name of the dish caught my attention: “Lemon Tsukemen”. Not only did it rhyme but I couldn’t help wondering what this novel combination would look and taste like. Crossing the street, I found another helpful sign saying that the shop was in a backstreet round the corner only 75 steps away!
When I finally reached Suzy House, it turned out to be a small one-storey house standing by itself in front of an office building. There is a door in front, but it is usually closed and one has to look for the entrance on the right side of the house. Next to it, in a nook in the structure, a full-sized tree reaches straight up. It reminded me of a tree house, albeit one on the ground. The roof is actually a glass ceiling, which lets natural light in, complementing the store’s spotlights. I once ate there during a rainstorm and it felt quite cosy, sitting inside with the raindrops pounding on the glass above my head.
The restaurant´s interior is also quite special. The walls are decorated with colourful, expressive paintings. They definitely give you something to look at while waiting for your order. And in case that isn’t enough, you can flip through one of the manga comics that are available to customers on a couple of bookshelves. Even the seating arrangement differs from most noodle places. Usually at a noodle place, one expects a counter along the cooking area with some tables in the remaining space. At Suzy House it’s the reverse. There are 2 tables in the back next to the kitchen and a kind of counter with 3 seats next to the ticket vending machine in the front. There is also one more seat on the other side of the counter. If it’s available, I like to sit there because my food is hidden from sight and I don’t have to worry about people seeing me drop the noodles onto the table!
Can you squeeze a lemon slice with chopsticks?
Suzy House has several dishes to choose from. According to the descriptions above the photos of each dish on the ticket vending machine, the most popular item, first to the left, is the seafood tsukemen with a fish-based soup. The next one and 2nd most popular item is spicy miso tsukemen. The third one, the one that originally drew me to the shop and has apparently been featured on TV and in magazines, is the Lemon Tsukemen. Further to the right, are two vegetable ramen dishes, the left one is spicy, and the right one is described as flavourful, or “Umami”. These aren’t vegetarian dishes, since the soup is “tonkotsu” or pork based and the “toppings” include pork.
One important decision to make when ordering tsukemen is the quantity of noodles. On the vending machine there is a note saying that at Suzy House the amount of noodles is bigger than at other noodle shops. Personally I always go for the smallest size, even if a larger size is the same price, which is the case at Suzy House. From experience, I find that. although at the beginning I love the taste of the dipped noodles, you get sated fairly quickly, because what you are eating has the same taste. Also, it is seen as bad manners not to finish your food, especially staple foods like rice and noodles. If you feel like you want to eat more, they have some good side dishes like gyoza. Another good thing to know is, that during lunchtime, there is an option to get a small bowl of rice for free. Since the soup is quite thick and rich, you can dip the rice into the leftover soup and enjoy it that way. After a small size (200 gr.) of dipping noodles, 3 gyozas and a small rice, I felt quite full!
The most interesting part about the Lemon Tsukemen is that the noodles actually come with 4 slices of lemon on top, which you need to squeeze yourself in order to add the fresh lemon juice to the soup. You shouldn’t do them all at once but progressively, to enjoy the change in taste. As expected, the slight sourness in combination with the richness of the soup was very satisfying, and I couldn’t stop till all the soup was gone. The shop recommends you do the squeezing with your chopsticks in order to keep your hands clean. There is a four-step picture process printed on the counter. I gave it a try and found it nearly impossible without actually using a finger to hold the lemon slice in place. Even then I couldn’t fully get all the juice out. So I gave up and used my fingers. Luckily there were tissues and an apron on hand so I was able to stay relatively juice free. As I was sitting in the seat behind the counter, shielded from view from other other diners, I couldn’t really see how other people did it. On the plus side, nobody witnessed my repeated failed attempts!