Saturday, March 1, 2014

Gaijin Tips for Eating Ramen

As a kid I carefully calibrated the ratio of water to flavor packet contents for just the right amount of salty broth to eat with packages of dried ramen noodles. Eventually I worked up to the styrofoam cups of soups that contained dehydrated vegetables and, my favorite, the bits of egg. Elevating ramen to the finest of foods seemed unimaginable back then, but in soup and noodle cultures the world over it has been and is being done. However, it has taken a while to land on the shores of America, and it might be awhile before it takes root in the hinterlands.

In Seattle I became acquainted with the Vietnamese version of beef broth and rice noodles known as pho. Seven years of pho eating in Washington, D.C., where there are a surprising number of pho restaurants, honed my family's passion for soup and noodles. Our son slurped his first rice noodles from a bowl of pho when he was six months old.

Our Japan hometown, Kamakura, is a tourist destination with lots of noodle options-- thick white udon noodles, dark and light buckwheat soba noodles, chewy curling yellow ramen noodles, and still more kinds like somen.  For five glorious years we ate noodles to our hearts' content. On weekends my family lined up at Miyoshi, a clean well-lit udon shop, for its smoky tori-jiro chicken stock and made as you watched udon noodles with a side of tempura. Our favorite soba was at Nakamura-an with its darker, country style, buckwheat noodles. However, we found the ramen master in Yokosuka, right outside the back gate of the Navy base.

First, we had to figure out how to buy a ticket for what we wanted. Ramen shops are small and often use a ticket machine instead of a cash register. Money is inserted, buttons are pushed, and a ticket is printed with the selected order to set before the chef. Though we were illiterate in Japanese, we were quick studies. Hit or miss, I ate what my ticket bought or traded it with my more adventurous husband.

While diners waited, the silent ramen master prepared each bowl with the choreographed moves of a dancer— shaking baskets of noodles, scooping sauces, and laying roast pork over clear broth with yellow noodles aesthetically arranged with a twirl of the chopsticks amidst the sounds of slurping diners, the ping of timers, and the simmering pots with thermometers nearby. Each bowl was garnished with green mizuna leaves, sheets of crisp black nori, and two red goji berries. These five colors of washoku Japanese home cooking-- black, white, yellow, green, and red-- made for a visually appealing bowl of hot steaming ramen that was also amazing to eat. Sadly, the shop moved.

Later a ramen shop opened in Kamakura that made a double soup, two stocks such as fish and chicken, combined just before serving. As far as I know, it's still there by the Tokyu. I went mostly during the day, eating beside delivery truck drivers, business men, and the occasional woman. 

Then my husband retired from the military and our days in Japan ended. 

Our new hometown is a college town, and probably like many university campuses has an influx of Asian students, mainly from China. They are not the passionate foodies I witnessed in Japan sniffing out the out of the way places, willing to wait hours for good food, and snapping photos of every meal. Instead, I see tables littered with partially eaten food and soup bowls coated with grease. You have to ask for the Chinese Chinese menu to even get a noodle bowl, but then they cater to these indiscriminate eaters. Though craving ramen, how to make it has eluded me. Until I spend the time refining my recipes for noodles, soup stocks, and making the components, I'll keep wishing that someone else will do it for me.

Gaijin tips for eating ramen:

  • Don't talk, Eat!
  • Eat it hot!
  • Eat it quick, it’s supposed to be hot
  • Slurp! Suck in cool air along with a mouthful of hot noodles and fat
  • Don’t mind the noise, eat the food
  • Don't talk, Eat!
  • Ramen is not gluten free
  • Dribbles on your chin are to be expected
  • Drink all of the broth
  • Noodles should be chewy, springy
  • Ramen is everyone's food, rich or poor, man or woman
  • If you're desperate for ramen, you can make your own

This is a clip from the udon shop, Miyoshi, in Kamkura-- we are eating zaru udon or cold udon. I never thought to take a photo of hot ready to slurp ramen.

Eating zaru udon at Miyoshi

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