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The sheer variety of tantanmen in Tokyo reveals just how far this noodle dish has traveled from its Sichuan roots. Once sold by walking street vendors carrying their noodles and sauces in baskets attached to poles, there are now nearly as many interpretations of dandan noodles as there are restaurants.

Traditionally, the noodles are dressed in a spicy sauce containing preserved vegetables, chili oil, Sichuan pepper, minced pork and scallions. Many chefs include sesame paste or peanut butter; Shanghainese or American Chinese styles tend to be sweeter, with greater emphasis on nuttiness over spiciness. In Japan, tantanmen seems loosely defined, a chance to innovate; in some renditions, merely adding sesame paste is enough to call it tantanmen.

Broadly speaking, there are two categories of tantanmen: shiruari (soup) and shirunashi (soupless). Both styles have their own merits, but I find the latter more to my taste — the textural integrity of the noodles is better preserved with a mere slick of sauce, rather than softening in hot soup; the spices come through with greater clarity without the dilutive distractions of broth.

The white sesame tantanmen at Aun comes cloaked in velvety, tongue-tingling sauce complemented with dried shrimp and braised meat. | ALEX FISHER
The white sesame tantanmen at Aun comes cloaked in velvety, tongue-tingling sauce complemented with dried shrimp and braised meat. | ALEX FISHER

Aun

If there were a blueprint for tantanmen, Aun’s white sesame rendition would be it. At spice (karasa) level 5 and numbing-spice (shibire, courtesy of freshly ground Sichuan peppercorn husks) at level 4, there’s almost nothing to improve upon. I love the springy linguine-esque noodles cloaked in velvety sauce, the dried shrimp singing their savory, sea-salt counterpart to the braised minced meat topping, beguilingly sweet from Pixian broad bean paste and Hatcho miso. Each element balances the other, the whole affair greater than the sum of its parts. Would I go back? Yes, yes, a thousand times over.

One note: While most black sesame versions of tantanmen tend to disappoint, Aun’s is the rare beast worth mentioning. It’s a rougher, grittier version of its white sesame sister, the sort of bowl I imagine slurping in the shadows of an alleyway, chased by a few drags on a cigarette.

Yushima 3-25-11, Bunkyo-ku 113-0034; 03-3834-6350; szechuan-aun.com

As if Yunrinbo’s intriguing, full-bodied bowl of tantanmen weren’t enough, you can also order a side of māpō dōfu for even more spice. | FLORENTYNA LEOW
As if Yunrinbo’s intriguing, full-bodied bowl of tantanmen weren’t enough, you can also order a side of māpō dōfu for even more spice. | FLORENTYNA LEOW

Yunrinbo

In Malaysia, the word jelak describes the nausea caused by overly rich food, when the palate is worn out and you’re sick of eating. This is true of most tantanmen, which often suffers from diminishing returns as you eat. Not so at Yunrinbo. A mellow yet full-bodied dressing of Shanxi black vinegar and sweet bean paste lightens the heft of slippery, al dente whole-wheat noodles. Its aromatic, house-made chili oil is the stuff of spice market dreams, and in each slurp an ever-changing ratio of sesame seeds and crushed nuts to noodle, pork and pickle ensures consistent interest until the bottom of the bowl.

The best part about eating at Yunrinbo is being able to order a set of tantanmen and māpō dōfu, the latter of which is among the very best in Tokyo.

Sudacho 2-chome Kyodo Bldg. 1F, Kanda-Sudacho 2-12, Chiyoda-ku 101-0041; 03-3252-8088; kandayunrin.com

Tan Tan Tiger’s tantanmen is a hearty tangle of thick, chewy noodles enveloped in a brilliant red sauce. | FLORENTYNA LEOW
Tan Tan Tiger’s tantanmen is a hearty tangle of thick, chewy noodles enveloped in a brilliant red sauce. | FLORENTYNA LEOW

Tan Tan Tiger

I can’t speak for anyone else, but to my mind, there are two styles of noodle dishes — the “dry” kind with sauce and soup noodles. Everything else is mostly cultural window dressing. What is Vietnamese pho but a cousin to Thai kuaitiao nuea pueay or Lanzhou beef noodles?

Even if we nitpick over wheat types, 100% durum pasta still behaves like most noodles. Which brings us to Tan Tan Tiger’s tantanmen — a tangle of thick, chewy noodles enveloped in a brilliant red sauce laced with pickles, prawns and minced pork, a fragrant, tongue-tingling affair oddly reminiscent of a ragu of the highest caliber.

Apologies to all the Italians out there, but given the choice, I’d take this tantanmen over spag bol any day.

Higuchi Bldg. II-101, Arai 1-23-22, Nakano-ku 165-0026; 090-4439-9151; tantantiger.com

Stirring at least 30 times before eating at King-ken is crucial to helping the aged chili oil, shoyu and house-made sesame paste cloak the noodles in a gorgeously creamy sauce. | FLORENTYNA LEOW
Stirring at least 30 times before eating at King-ken is crucial to helping the aged chili oil, shoyu and house-made sesame paste cloak the noodles in a gorgeously creamy sauce. | FLORENTYNA LEOW

King-ken

The mark of a truly excellent dish is that you want to eat it all over again right after you finish. Such is the magic of King-ken’s tantanmen which, despite its unprepossessing appearance, continues to occupy valuable real estate in my daily thoughts.

This is tantanmen stripped down to the essentials, each element working in concert with a tangle of thin, supple egg noodles. It begins with the perfume of Sichuan pepper — far more potent than any other tantanmen shop in town — and escalates into pure gustatory pleasure. Stirring at least 30 times before eating is crucial: this helps the aged chili oil, shoyu and house-made sesame paste emulsify, cloaking the noodles in a gorgeously creamy sauce. Adding an onsen (hot spring) egg is essentially mandatory. Those looking for a balanced meal with protein should look elsewhere; this is for the day when nothing but noodles will do.

Sigma Bldg. 1F, Shibakoen 2-10-5, Minato-ku 105-0011; kingken.world

At Mendokoro Nakigoe, spice fiends should go for the sesame-heavy “special” soupless tantanmen, rather than the regular one pictured here. | FLORENTYNA LEOW
At Mendokoro Nakigoe, spice fiends should go for the sesame-heavy “special” soupless tantanmen, rather than the regular one pictured here. | FLORENTYNA LEOW

Mendokoro Nakigoe

One of my best recent winter experiences involved slurping hot tantanmen out of a plastic cup while standing knee-deep in snow. The salty MSG burn of instant noodles tastes like a gourmet meal when you’ve been assaulted by bone-chilling winds for hours. Mendokoro Nakigoe’s soupless tantanmen is bizarrely reminiscent of that instant tantanmen, albeit genuinely delicious: there’s a similar umami buzz, a gentle burn at the back of one’s throat.

Spice fiends should go for the “special” soupless tantanmen; the standard bowl is a rather sedate affair, even at its hottest and most numbing. What stands out here is the sesame-heavy sauce, which has the rough, pebbly texture that comes with grinding sesame seeds by hand. It pairs beautifully with the springy, curly noodles.

Magome Sunny Bldg. 1F, Minamimagome 5-39-12, Ota-ku 143-0025; 03-3778-3903; bit.ly/mendokoro-nakigoe

The tantanmen at Piriri is practically comfort food, so add an egg to make it extra lush. | FLORENTYNA LEOW
The tantanmen at Piriri is practically comfort food, so add an egg to make it extra lush. | FLORENTYNA LEOW

Honorable mentions

175°DENO (Shinjuku MS Bldg. 1F, Nishishinjuku 7-2-4, Shinjuku-ku 160-0023; 03-6304-0175; 175.co.jp) serves a solid bowl of tantanmen — sloppy, richly sauced and all the better for extra dollops of its signature chili oil available tableside. Its chief allure lies in its location: stumbling distance from Shinjuku Station, and therefore the obvious choice for noodles in a hurry.

Once you get past its occasionally erratic opening days, Kokokara (Nichihara Mansion, Sangenjaya 2-9-24, Setagaya-ku 154-0024; bit.ly/tantanmen-kokokara) is well worth a jaunt. This is a tantanmen for those who aren’t masochists: even the chili heat of “extra-hot” is surprisingly restrained. The freshly made noodles are the real star here — they have a lovely, sticky bite — and a judicious hand with the toppings feels prudent rather than parsimonious.

Over in Kanda, Piriri (Kanda Kajicho 3-5, Chiyoda-ku 101-0045; 03-6811-6925; piriri.hygge.co.jp) ticks all the boxes for a reliable and uncomplicated bowl of tantanmen. There’s no scrimping on the toppings, while the noodles fall somewhere between spaghetti and tsukemen (dipping noodles). A distinct lack of crunch — even the mizuna greens soften pretty quickly — places this tantanmen squarely in the comfort food zone, so you may as well add an egg to make it extra lush.

Though Mendokoro Honda (Kanda Hanaokacho 1-19, Chiyoda-ku 101-0028; 070-7793-3979) is better known for its shoyu ramen, the tantanmen isn’t to be sniffed at. The amply proportioned bowl is heavier on the garlic, soy, and sesame than numbing or chili heat, but powerfully flavored nonetheless — almost excessively so. You may wish to skip breakfast prior. To those about to join the mile-long queue, we salute you.

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