"Have car will travel for ramen" was the title of the email. Stanley's parents were in Hong Kong, and he was ready to share his ride. With a carload of lucky friends, he braved rush-hour traffic to make it down to San Mateo by 5 pm, but we were silly enough to stop first at Ichiban Kan. By the time we arrived at Santa Ramen, the line stretched down the block. After counting the chairs inside and then the heads outside, to make sure we would at least get in during the second seating, we joined the other hungry pilgrims.
An hour later, to celebrate the season, I ordered shoyu broth with citron peel and seaweed. Santa Ramen makes a very rich bowl of soup, so the lemony bits were perfect counterbalance.
On the way back the City, we stopped at my favorite Japanese market, family-owned Suruki Supermarket, where the entire staff goes out of its way to answer even the most basic questions. A couple of yuzu a.k.a. citron made their way into my basket. I couldn't wait to release their lovely flowery fragrance. The fruit's sharply sour juice is balanced by deep notes of tangerine in its peel. A high ratio of seed to pip and a thick, bumpy rind reveals it strength: zest, zest, and more zest.
If you aren't able to track down the fresh fruit or if you prefer convenience, ask for yuzu juice. Look for ingredient labels that list nothing except the fruit itself and a slightly clouded liquid (Rule #138: The more clarified an infused or pressed liquid, the less flavor it carries.) Expect to splurge a bit; this small bottle was almost $10 but as soon as I twisted off the lid, I could smell the yuzu's distinctive fragrance.
You'll also find it highlighted in different condiments, such as dipping sauces or pickling salts, or in other base ingredients like miso and vinegar. Even if you can't read Japanese, you'll recognize the bumpy, round, yellow fruit on the labels.
My favorite ways to enjoy yuzu:
Vinaigrette -- Whisk the juice with a lightly flavored oil, delicate vinegar (champagne vinegar is really nice for this), salt and white pepper. Variations include adding a hint of ginger (grate half an inch of a very fresh root and then squeeze out a few drops), a tiny dab of Dijon mustard (not enough to actually taste!) or a quick stir of honey. Dress a simple salad, such as escarole leaves and paper-thin radish slices, watercress and toasted almonds, roasted golden beets, or blanched leeks. Drizzle over quickly seared seafood or use as a dipping sauce for steamed crab.
Pickles -- When making kimchee or tsukemono I toss in some julienned peel (for quick pickles) or wide strips (for longer fermenting ones).
Clear Soup -- Prepare a clear broth from scratch, such as dashi or consomme. In a pinch, use a good-quality chicken or vegetable broth (preferably made with sweeter vegetables). Gently simmer small cubes of silken tofu, very thinly sliced carrots (this is your chance to use those flower-shaped cutters!) or a few leaves of baby spinach. Garnish with thin slivers of yuzu peel.
Broiled Salmon -- Stir the juice and grated peel into white miso, mirin, sake, and white pepper. Spread over center-cut strips of wild salmon and broil, skin-side down, until almost opaque at the center.
Noodle soups -- Sprinkle slivers of yuzu peel over hot soba or fresh ramen soup. Garnish with strips of roasted nori.
Creamy desserts -- Substitute for regular lemons in custard tarts, mousses, curds, or cake fillings.
Hot Tea -- Steep the peel in just boiling water, squeeze in some of the fresh juice, stir in a spoonful of lavender honey, and snuggle down with a good book.
Japanese markets in the Bay Area:
71 E. 4th Ave.
1737 Post St.
Tokyo Fish Market
1220 San Pablo Ave.
10566 San Pablo Ave.