To hear some food writers tell it, ramen is the Next Big Thing. Not, of course, the 6-for-a-dollar instant noodle kind that you survived on when you were in college, but the proper, artisan-made Japanese noodle soup of the same name. The good news, for those of you who’ve been living in ramen deserts, is that several Japanese ramen chains are opening up shop in big North American cities. That, as we’ll see, is the bad news, too.
On the surface, ramen is nothing more than a bowl of broth with some noodles, vegetables and three thin slices of roast pork, and nobody could call that “fancy.” But in Japan, people take ramen seriously and obsess about it endlessly, making it the perfect fusion of junk food and high cuisine.
Ramen varies strongly from place to place; from the type of noodles (thin, thick, and frizzy) to the flavoring for the broth (soy sauce, pork bones, salt or miso). In the southern island of Kyushu, for instance, ramen means very thin, straight noodles in tonkotsu, or pork-bone based broth. It’s no use looking for a different kind of ramen in Kyushu because, as far as they’re concerned, that’s the only acceptable way to make it! That, incidentally, is why I steer clear of ramen shops where you can choose the kind of broth or the style of noodles. In Japan, that’s not up to you: it’s the chef’s job to pick one kind of ramen and learn to make it perfectly.
The exception to all this tradition-bound localism, of course, is Tokyo: a city so big and crazy they’ll try any gimmick imaginable to sell you a bowl of noodles. On a recent trip there, I gaped in shock at the TV as a food journalist showed us the latest batch of crazy, shameless ramen fads. One segment showed a poor woman eating a massive block of roast pork dumped willy-nilly in the middle of a ramen bowl, another showed noodles floating in a mysterious, jet-black coloured broth. But the worst is the recent trend towards private-seat ramen shops, where you eat in a kind of individual booth designed to remove anything that could possibly distract your attention: the concept is to literally force you to concentrate on the ramen.
Watching all this craziness, I wanted to cry: “All I want is the simple ramen from Ichiban!” In a flash, the thought took me back to my childhood. Ichiban is the tiny, unpretentious mom-and-pop ramen shop in Kyushu where I’ve been having pork-bone ramen since childhood. My mom used to eat there, too, when she was a high school student, and even after she left town to go to university, she would come home just to eat ramen there. Grandma also liked it, and went often enough to make friends with the couple who ran it—I have vivid memories from when I was little of seeing my grandma actually help out washing dishes there when the shop was full and they needed an extra hand!
At Ichiban, we always knew we would be greeted with a smile and a question about our family. We heard the owners talk dozens of times about how the main broth pot in their kitchen had never been fully empty in all the years we’d been going there: new broth was just continually added decade after decade after decade. In a way, they’d only made broth once.
As you’d expect, Ichiban’s pork-bone ramen was very good: only they knew the recipe, and no other shop made ramen quite like that. A food critic may not have called it the best in the world, but it felt ours. So, on that recent trip to Japan, going to Ichiban was top of my to-do list.
Imagine my grief when, arriving in Kyushu, my mom told me we couldn’t go there anymore. The old chef, she said quietly, died recently. The shop has shut down. I was stunned. And so I was let loose in Kyushu to try to fill the ramen void somehow. Listlessly, I went to Hakata—known as a big ramen city in Japan—and ended up at a ghastly tourist trap called Ramen Stadium: a kind of ramen-themed food court with different stands selling sanitized, corporate versions of ramen from different regions of Japan.
Hoping against hope, I ordered a Kyushu-style pork bone ramen. But it was far too salty and oily and just not right at all. Looking at the artificial atmosphere, at the plastic menu and the barely-trained teenagers in the kitchen, and I realized I’d made a big mistake: once your childhood ramen shop is gone, there’s no going back.
Ramen is a strange dish. Cheap and simple though it is, everyone has some deeply held personal belief regarding it; everyone has some story to tell. That’s why ramen is one of the most interesting dishes to explore today. It’s the kind of food you talk about; you consume it not only with your tongue but also with your story.
For me, ramen will always be about Ichiban—a tiny, unfussy, family-run shop—where a true artisan feeds wonderful food to his regulars year after year. As a business model, it couldn’t be any simpler. For sure, Ichiban never dreamed to open a shop in New York.
It’s sad to realize, but it won’t be the artisans who open up shop internationally: it’ll be the sprawling multinationals. And so, the kind of ramen coming to a neighborhood near you is much more likely to be of the Ramen Stadium kind than of the Ichiban type.
And yet maybe, if the same family runs your neighborhood chain shop for years and those years stretch into decades, one day, you can take your children there and, if you’re extraordinarily lucky, one day your children can take their children. And in the span of three generations, you’ll have built your own web of ramen nostalgia from scratch.
Kanako Noda started helping her mom make dinner in Shiga, Japan, at the age of four. An artist based in Montréal by day, she evangelizes on the Japanese way of eating by night. "There's a fantastic, dazzling variety of Japanese dishes that Americans keep missing," she says, "because they can't see past the thick undergrowth of sushi bars everywhere." Kanako believes in real food made by real people using real ingredients, and is allergic to food gimmicks, straight-from-the-lab ingredients and diet fads of all kinds. Most of all, she's into introducing Westerners to Japanese common sense on what you should eat, when, how much, how and with whom. Her Japanese home cooking recipe blog is at KanakosKitchen.com.