In the Crunchy household, we eat a lot of foods that might not typically be considered child friendly. Spicy Chinese food. Things with eyes. Things with tentacles. Anna is surprisingly good about it — “I like so much fish eggs” — but she’s still three, and still sometimes looks at something and decides it’s not for her. When that happens, one of our most effective replies is, “you liked this when you were a baby.” She stops, looks at the mystery food again, pokes it with a chopstick, and says, “I liked this when me a baby?” (Nod, nod, nod.) And then, usually, she’ll try a bit and realize that she actually does like it.
When Anna was a baby, almost two years old, we took her to a spaghetti shop in Nagoya called Spaghetti House Yokoi. Yokoi, like most Japanese spaghetti shops, is very unpretentious and an excellent place to take a small child for lunch. Yokoi makes a regional specialty called ankake spaghetti, or “anspa.” On the baffling spectrum of Japanese spaghetties, ankake lies somewhere between the “hmm” of tarako fish eggs and the “seriously, wtf” of Nagasaki’s Turkish rice. It’s a plate of extra thick noodles covered with sauce — ankake literally means “covered with sauce” — in this case, a thick, peppery, brownish-red, vaguely Chinese-tasting concoction. The whole setup is then piled with toppings. The basic options are “country” (カントリー), which means vegetables, and “Milanese” (ミラネーズ), which for some reason means three kinds of meat, but it gets weirder from there. Yokoi sells a mixed meat and veggies version called Milakan (ミラカン, Milan plus country), a three-meat and fried shrimp version called Ebinese (イビネーズ, shrimp plus, um, “nese”), and Meatball, which is spaghetti, topped with sauce, topped with three mini hamburgers, topped with a fried egg. This is not fine dining, but it is delicious.
One year-old Anna ate about a quarter of my Ebinese that day, including both the shrimp and her weight in sliced up sausages, so that’s the version I decided to make at home. As far as I can tell, the professional way to make the sauce is unsurprisingly complicated. It involves making a roux from vegetables and spices, like curry rice’s demented cousin, and then cooking it for days (!) to impart as much flavor as possible, before thickening it with starch and pouring it over slightly over-cooked, 2.2 millimeter-thick noodles. The Ebinese is topped with thinly-sliced red Wiener sausages, ham, Japanese bacon (which is basically also ham), button mushrooms, and two panko-crusted fried shrimp.
Obviously, this presents a few problems for the home cook, namely, “prep time: three days.” But that hasn’t stopped the internet, or me, from trying to recreate it at home. I found recipes online using a stunning variety of flavorings to recreate Nagoya ankake sauce. Every recipe featured some combination of onion, beef flavor, tomato flavor, lots and lots of pepper — one of the Forbidden Condiments, and the reason we had to re-convince Anna to eat a plate of meat and ebi-fry — and a thickening agent. But beyond that, people used everything from ponzu sauce to grated apples to curry cubes to chili peppers to approximate the secret flavor of the original. Being an American home cook, I also had to adapt to the lack of red Wiener sausages and disappointingly flavored Japanese bacon in our local markets, and used too-fancy German wursts and Swedish ham from the local German grocery store.
My recipe is below, and I’m pretty happy with it, though you really should go to Nagoya and try the original.
Sauce Ingredients. For 3 people.
- 100g beef — You’re going to throw this out, so don’t buy too fancy beef.
- 1 onion
- 200ml water
- ~200ml tomato juice — Different recipes suggested using canned tomatoes, canned tomato sauce, or canned tomato paste for the tomato flavor, but I found that a combination of tomato juice and ketchup (next ingredient) resulted in the smoothest sauce that still had decent tomato flavor.
- 1 tbsp ketchup
- 2 beef soup cubes
- 2 tbsp sake
- 2 tsp Worcester sauce — Okonomi sauce or tonkatsu sauce is also fine.
- 1 tsp black pepper — I’ve toned down the pepper a little bit for Anna, some of the recipes I found advised using “so much pepper that you’ll think you put in too much,” so feel free to double this if you want.
- 2 tsp soy sauce
- 2 tsp Chinese black vinegar — this is my secret ingredient. I remember having a distinct impression of, “oh this sauce tastes kind of Chinese” in Yokoi, and adding the Chinese black vinegar (this stuff) is my attempt to recreate that. It’s very optional though, so feel free to skip it.
- 1 chili pepper — optional, and possibly not even noticeable.
- 1 clove garlic — also optional, also possibly not noticeable.
- 4 tbsp potato starch — You may not need all of it, add it slowly until the sauce is as thick as you want.
- 8 tbsp water for the potato starch
Toppings. For 3 people.
- 200g thick spaghetti or Bucatini — the spaghetti should be “at least 2.2 ml” thick, according to my internet sources. I couldn’t find that around here, so instead I used something called Bucatini, an Italian pasta that’s 3 ml thick, but hollow, with a tiny hole running through the center of it. Normally, I make 100g of spaghetti for one person, but considering the amount of STUFF we’re going to heap onto this thing, 200g for three should be sufficient.
- 1 frankfurter — this really should be like eight-ish small red Wiener sausages, like the kind you’d find cut into octopus shapes in a bento box.
- 3-4 large slices of ham — in the original, this is a mix of ham and “bacon,” but bacon in Japan isn’t crispy bacon like in America, or smokey speck like in Austria. The closest I can find to it here is the pre-cooked packages of watery “Canadian bacon,” which I don’t love. So instead I used a few slices of some fairly expensive, very fatty ham from the German grocery store that are marketed as “Swedish ham.” I know nothing about Swedish food, or whether this ham is authentically Swedish, but it’s delicious and I shall continue using it.
- 3-4 button mushrooms — just plain old white mushrooms, like you’d find on a bad pizza.
- 6 deep fried shrimp — breaded with flour, egg, and panko, then deep fried. You can leave this out if you just want a Milanese instead of an Ebinese.
- Butter for frying the noodles — Yes, you’re going to boil the noodles and then fry them.
- Cook the spaghetti/Bucatini, and set aside. You don’t have to keep it warm because you’re going to be frying it again later.
- Deep fry your shrimps, and set aside. You do want to keep these guys warm.
- Thinly slice the frankfurter and ham. They should look like little wisps of meat, not chunks of hot dog.
- Mix the 4 tbsp potato starch with 8 tbsp water and set aside. You’ll need to stir this again before you add it.
- Chop the onion into slices and fry in oil until the slices are translucent.
- Add the beef and chili pepper to the onion pan.
- When the beef is just cooked, add the ketchup, beef soup cubes, sake, Worcester sauce, Chinese black vinegar, garlic, tomato sauce, and 200ml water. (That is, everything except the pepper and the potato starch/water mixture.)
- Simmer the entire sauce mixture on low for about 10 minutes.
- Strain the liquid part of the sauce into a bowl and discard solid bit. (You can keep it in there if you want. I tried it that way once, and it was… less good.)
- Return the liquid to the pan, bring to a low simmer, and add the pepper.
- Then add the potato starch/water mixture one spoon at a time. Stir and slowly add more until the liquid is thick and goopy. You’re aiming for a viscous liquid, still pourable, like a thick gravy. When it’s ready, put it on very low heat and cover.
- Heat a pretty generous lump of butter in a large frying pan or a wok. When it’s hot, add the mushrooms, sausage, and ham, and fry briefly. Then add the pasta and stir fry everything together until it’s all hot.
Put the pasta and the meats on the plate, pour sauce over it, and then gently place your fried shrimps on top. Add some Tabasco if you like your spaghetti spicy. (This seems weird, but Tabasco is a normal topping for Japanese spaghetti. Yokoi has a bottle of Tabasco on every table.) Then mix everything together and eat.