Boy is it good to be back in Burlington. The first several days I was here were warm and sunny, with gorgeous sunsets over Lake Champlain and more stars than I’ve seen in a long time. I was sitting on the beach with my girlfriend, looking out across the lake at the Adirondacks, and realized that if someone were to ask me why I missed mountains so much, I wouldn’t be able to give them a satisfactory answer. After all, they’re nothing more than really big piles of dirt and rock, right?
Of course not. There’s credence there, though; they don’t really do much other than sit there and look majestic. Except that is something. You don’t need motivational posters when your windows do a better job anyway. And that’s why I pine for huge piles of rock and dirt: surrounded by flat, developed land, it’s more difficult to remember how beautiful and amazing our world is. Society’s great, but so are lakes and rivers and forests and mountains.
Not that I’m here to bash society. Without it, we wouldn’t have art, and without art, nobody would have thought hard about how to make food fun (also I’d be out of a job). What’s fun about fun food is that everyone does it differently, even within cultural groups. So then the differences from culture to culture can blow your mind.
I couldn’t imagine being Marco Polo, crossing the mountains that divide continents to see things few Europeans had ever gotten the chance to lay eyes upon. I want to witness, knowing everything I know right now, their first experience watching people eat soup with a pair of sticks. Personally, I love it. I have an aversion to fork-and-knife dishes because I can’t eat them as quickly as I’d like, and with my attention span what it is, I might not even be hungry by the time I’m halfway through my meal. With chopsticks, it’s part of the process to get my face all up in my bowl, and it’s a much more efficient (and fun) process.
Gaku Ramen is a Japanese-inspired Church Street hangout specializing in—you guessed it—ramen. They offer several varieties of the traditional Japanese comfort food, from Miso soup to spicy pork tonkotsu (which I got) to a totally vegan version in vegetable broth.
Now, they say spicy, but this is a restaurant opened by Americans, three college buddies. One is a surgeon, one is a restaurateur on both coasts, and one has been a Japanese language and history scholar for twenty years. Having recently done a stint in Thailand, I had to add a fair amount of the ground dried chilis to my bowl to bring it up to runny nose levels of spicy.
All in all, though, it was thoroughly delicious. Vegan does not mean flavorless, particularly when there’s soy sauce, ground sesame seeds, and chili powder (with seeds) on every table. The original vision for the place—and the reason for naming it “Gaku”—is to provide a relaxed atmosphere (with good, traditional ramen) for students to spend time studying or getting work done. In fact, that’s what gaku means: study. I’d say they succeeded; Gaku Ramen is a comfortable, relaxed place to eat, work, or just hang out.