How can you live again childish flavor Sicilian’s memory at a Japanese Restaurant in Brooklyn? Sea Urchin Mazemen: brothless ramen generously topped with Sea Urchin, orange peel, shiso leaves, and nori seaweed narrow as blade of grass.
I ate this terrific Mazemen at Yuji Ramen, a small traditional Japanese Restaurant, with just 12 seats in three sharing tables in a zen atmosphere difficult to describe.
It was by chance that the man seated nearby suggested to me that I try this dish, telling me that he came to this restaurant every week from Upper Manhattan simply because he loves it. So I did. I did not yet know what ‘Sea Urchin’ was and I was surprised to discover that it is the Italian riccio di mare, a rare and delicious Sicilian shellfish. I was even more astonished to eat them with tagliatelle.
It took me immediately back to those Sunday lunches in Palermo with my father in a terrible restaurant on the sea on the street that takes you to Messina. It is a little restaurant with plastic tables, plastic chairs, plastic tablecloths and those waxy paper napkins so stiff that they seemed to be made of plastic too, but with incredible fresh and delicious shellfish and perfectly home baked bread. I used to go there once a month, when my father took me there to assist at the opera at the Massimo Operahouse. I love Palermo, it’s a unique city, with an old and ghostly beauty, noise from the many famous food markets and the scent of Arabia, the south, the see, Spain, France and of course Italy… the smell of orange! That was it! It was the inspected orange hint in the Mazemen that dragged my memory out of the slumber.
Wait a moment… orange and tagliatelle in Japan Restaurant?! I can understand the sea urchin because Japanese geographic terrain is similar to the Italian one with many rocky coasts… but orange and tagliatelle?
I asked more information at the cook, a nice and helpful lady. She introduced me kindly in the magic harmony of this plate. What I call tagliatelle are just brothless ramen made with standard flavor instead of buckwheat and the use of orange is for balancing the sweetness of the sea urchin, because in Japan (and in Maine, from where my fish was) there is a colder water than in Italy and so the Sea Urchin is less fatty and more sweet than in Italy or Greece.
Little by little I was understanding more… their mezemen were tagliatelle-shaped spaghetti. Both in Italy and in Japan they arrived thanks to the Chinese culture many century ago. The same happened to the citrus. I was wondering about how similar and strange was a Chinese influence in food in two countries so far, one at east and one at west.
That night, coming back to my Williamsburg home, I started to think of the meaning of the word terroir, a French term that in Italy we immediately and happily made our own, and that underlines the importance of land and culture in flavors and taste.
If the terroir exists, how could I eat in a New York’s Japanese Restaurant a dish more Italian than in Palermo? The answer came to me from an American chef, Anthony Bourdain, in an article about his food trip all around the world: “Food is politics: most cuisine reflect an amalgamation of influences and tell a story of migration and conquest, each flavor representing a sedimentary layer of history” (New York Times, 2016). He is right and once again I have the proof that travel is important to understand better your own identity.