What We Talk About When We Talk About Ramen

What We Talk About When We Talk About Ramen

The first time I visited Japan, I asked a policeman to recommend a ramen shop.  He seemed both irritated and confused.  The question was too general for him.  “What kind do you like?” He said, exasperated. At that time in my life, I did not even know there was more than one type of ramen. “Soy? Miso? Tonkotsu?” He demanded. I got flustered, the cop got annoyed and I spent the next twenty years, figuring out exactly what kind of ramen I like.

The core elements of Ramen are basically: Broth / Flavor / Noodle / Toppings.  From city-to-city, the broth meanders to the milky pork-bone style found in Kyushu to the clear pork-chicken soups associated with Tokyo.  Apart from the regional variations, broths can range from creamy chicken to light sea-bream broths to porky bowls so thick with fat that they resemble custard; some shops mine the depths of umami with powerful niboshi (dried sardine); others break with tradition making duck and beef broths. The most common three “flavors” aka “Tare” are soy, miso, and salt; these are sauces to which broth is added; as with the broth, these Tare are identified with different regions: Hokkaido ramen is famous for Miso; Tokyo’s “Chuka Soba” is soy sauce.  Ramen noodles are made with alkaline water which gives the noodles a yellowish cast and the ability to stand up to scalding hot soup.   The noodles range from the thin, straight, al dente noodles of Hakate Ramen to Kitakate’s thick, slightly curly and pugnacious style. The classic ramen toppings are nori, roasted pork, menma (fermented bamboo shoots), hard-boiled egg and green onions; however, the range and style of ramen toppings are infinite, varying from city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood, even block-by-block.  A Jiro-Style ramen (a nod to the original Ramen Jiro shop) is distinguished by a massive, vertical pile of bean sprouts and pork slices; the Tokyo neighborhood of Hachijoji has its own distinct bowl that uses diced onions as a topping; new school shops arrange micro-greens with tweezers to create incredibly beautiful tapestries that dance atop the soup.   Beyond regional styles, there are a bewildering amount of ramen sub-genres: Tan-Tan Men (a take on Sichuan Dan Dan Noodles), Wonton Men (with wonton), Tenman (stir-fried cabbage, salmon and pork) just to name a few.  And…of course, there are the offshoots — Tsukamen (ramen where the noodles and soup are served separately aka Dipping Noodles) and Aburasoba (“soupless” ramen where the noodles are served with essentially the “Tare”).   To make this all the more confusing, there are hundreds of different names for all these styles and sometimes a few different names all mean essentially the same thing…Morisoba and Tsukamen for example.  A brief glance at Tokyo’s best English language ramen guide Ramenbeast.com lists the following terms for different bowls of ramen: Niboshi Ramen, Koumi Tori-dashi Tokusei Ramen, Niboshi-soba Ajitama-iri, Shoyu Tokusei Ramen, Madai Ramen, Tokusei Shamo-soba, Ajitama Chshu Chuka-soba and on and on and on. In this context asking for “ramen” is bound to get the side-eye.

There are somewhere between 6000 and 10,000 ramen shops in Tokyo alone.  They cover all the regional styles; they engage in mash-ups, celebrate eccentricity and tradition.  Some shops are purists, offering one style that they have perfected; others offer up a wide variety of broths, noodle types and tare. In the space of a few blocks, you could find ramen layered in fiery chili powders and pastes and another with a recipe that has not changed in sixty years.    The great Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin posited in his classic work “The Work of Art in the Age Of Mechanical Reproduction” that the (then) new art of photography had the ability to become truly revolutionary as the photographer was freed of the “hand” of tradition that defined the “aura” of an art form like oil painting.  In a similar way, Ramen is still a “new” food in Japan.  It was created by Chinese immigrants in Yokohama and originally called Shina Soba or “Chinese Noodles”.  As the dish did not have centuries of tradition behind it — as many Japanese foods do — there are not a ton of rules to define what Ramen can or cannot be.  I was faced with this dilemma, basically straddling the edges of what I understood of ramen when I came into contact with Aburasoba.

As mentioned, Aburasoba is “soupless” ramen.  I had been intrigued as the concept seemed antithetical to what I thought of as ramen.  I live close to Hagan, one of the most famous spots serving this style, so I decided to take a long, pleasant walk and try.  Hagan is steps from the Sakuradai Train station.  It is a part of town that I love, local, residential but buzzing with a certain energy that emanates from the many universities that surround the  Ekoda neighborhood.  Hagan looks like a shack: well-worn plastic overhang, dish towels drying on a rack, stained walls, steamy glass doors, cinderblocks propping up an air conditioner caked with grease.  Six or seven people — students, salarymen and construction workers patiently waited.  Inside the shop, the air is smoky, cubes of pork belly are charred en masse with a blowtorch.  My reading glasses steamed over while I tried to decipher the offerings from the ticket machine.  When my bowl came to the chipped linoleum counter, it was ugly.  Cubes of pork, oily black from flame-seared fat, nestled against an egg topped with chopped negi. Underneath lay a tangle of thick noodles, slick with the soy tare, layered in what I thought could be bonito flakes, various powders and maybe black pepper.  After tasting my first bite, I was even more confused. I could not break down the flavors of what I was eating — was it fishy? Salty?  Garlicky? No clue.  The noodles themselves are serious. Sticky with sauce, yet fulsome, springy.  A perfect chew.  I am not really a fan of the blowtorch in food…It gives a taste of propane that overwhelms natural flavors.  I tend to think it is a lazy move.  This afflicted the pork in my bowl and that propane taste, caught in the burned fat, carried over to the entire dish.  There are a variety of sauces on the counter-top to be added, so I experimented.  A little vinegar.  A little white pepper.  A little chili powder.  Each addition gave a new layer, an insight for me of how this dish could be enjoyed.  I had eyed what I thought was a jug of water on the counter, but I noticed customers adding it to their bowls;  I did the same, finding it to be a light, hot broth.  I swirled it around the bottom of my dish with my last noodles, and the remnants of the sauce.  I supped it all down and left kind of fucked up.

Did I like Aburasoba?  I have no idea.  It existed so far outside my context of ramen, that I felt I did not have the criteria to judge it.  What would have been my reaction if Aburasoba had been introduced not as ramen, but as a form of pasta?  The noodles were the king of the dish and they were delicious, powerful even.  The sauce intriguing.  Perhaps it was a little like walking into an Italian restaurant and ordering carbonara and getting a soup with eggs and bacon and parsley.  Weeks later, I still am undecided about Aburasoba; however, it has stuck with me; it has made me think deeply about not just the dish, but food itself.  I ate my first oyster when I was about 12 and I hated it…But, that briney, rich taste mixed with shallots and vinegar lingered. I pondered it for a long period until I came to realize that I was in love with the bivalve.  If anything, Aburasoba, by confounding me so thoroughly, solidified my belief that Ramen is one of the great revolutionary dishes within Japanese cuisine — both ever-evolving and respectful of its immigrant roots.

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