Tuesday, 30 June 2015

My love for Japanese Ramen

If you are my friend on Facebook, there is no way you could have missed my growing obsession fascination with Ramen (ラーメン), a Japanese noodle soup originally from China. It comes in many, many different variants and local flavors, being a popular dish all over Japan. In the West you might know Cup Ramen but believe me that is but a poor example of the delicious tradition that is Ramen cuisine.

I guess I had my first real Ramen back in 2010 when my then Japanese girlfriend urged me to visit Ichiran Ramen. Being rather helpless and having no idea what's so special about Ramen, I ate this first bowl of delioucisness in a more naive fashion. I remember clearly that I was thinking "woah, this stuff is heavy on garlic. How do they get the meat so tender and the egg so so perfectly balanced between soft and hard?!" It was a good memory and I took my stepbrother to Ichiran the year after, not just for the taste but also for the experience that comes with Ichiran.

Fast foward to 2013 when I deciced to live in Japan. Being without a lot of money, I had to find a way to keep my belly and wallet full. Difficult task. I didn't eat a lot of good food back then. Lots of instant food and quick meals from Matsuya near the station where I lived. One day I decided to give the neighboring Ramen shop a try. I was quite hungry that day and bored of the sad food I had for the whole week. Yes, bad food can actually make you sad.  The main reason this place attracted me was the use of strong colors in their shop design. Simple red and black with white Kanji, reading 横浜家形ラーメン, Yokohama family-style Ramen. As with most Ramen places, ordering was done via a vending machine. Insert the money, choose your Ramen and toppings, get a ticket and hand it to the staff. Easy, especially for foreigners.

I think at that time I realized how unique and rich Ramen can taste like. I loved the taste immediately. The thick noodles, the rich broth with a dance of garlic, salt, fat and sweetness. The soft meat and a the perfect half-boiled egg. Additional some nori seaweed at the side and some slices of ginger added a whole different kick to it.

One Ramen to rule them all!
This particular style and very much popular style of Ramen is called Tonkotsu Ramen (豚骨ラーメン), meaning that the soup stock is made from boiled pork bones. Other basic soup stocks are Miso (味噌), Shio (塩) and Shoyu (醤油) and even fish based. While each has their unique taste my all-time favorite will always be Tonkotsu. Rich flavored broth, fatty but soft pork slices, thick round noodles and the half-boiled soft egg. Bliss.

What tips the scale for me is the type of noodles though. The Ramen could be amazingly delicious but when they are using those cheap thin instant Ramen type of noodles, I'm turned off. It almost ruins the whole experience. I prefer the thicker noodles, almost like the one you get when you eat the Ramen variant called Tsukemen (つけ麺), where you dip cold noodles in an often very spicy broth. Amazing taste most of the times, but I am just not a fan of cold noodles.

For many Japanese Ramen is nothing but a quick and filling meal, perfectly after a night of heavy drinking (the equivalent of a Döner Kebap). They eat it super fast, doing the infamous noodle slurping sound "tsurutsuru". I wasn't particularly fond of this noisy way of eating food but as with many things in Japan I got used to it eventually. It's actually quite practical when done right. It's much easier to eat the steaming noodles this way than by the Western method. I can't help but to feel rushed when doing it though.

For me, eating Ramen is not only about the taste of the meal, it's the whole package. The atmosphere of the shop, the selection and arrangement of the toppings, the mix of colors, the type of table (preferrably a wooden one), the decoration of the bowl and other details. All together they can make a hot bowl of noodle soup taste like a warm embrace, a kiss of flavors to make a grown man smile upon such an evanescent thing as food.

Of course I am not the only one who loves Ramen more than as just a meal. Many of my friends enjoy the same unhealthy "hobby" sometimes, foreigners and Japanese alike. Most of them enjoy hunting for new and yummy Ramen places too, so sometimes we pick a place with high review scores and head to another Ramen adventure. With some I even went to the annual Tokyo Ramenshow where we stuffed ourselves with at least 3 bowls each, some of us even 4 in one afternoon! It was a great way to experience Ramen from different parts of the country. The presentation wasn't the prettiest due to the plastic bowls, but there were some fascinating flavors no doubt. Can't wait for this year's show!

The health aspects of eating Ramen for a hobby should not be unmentioned. The dish is heavy on oil, salt and occasionally MSG. I tried to balance that by not eating Ramen too often in a month but while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak. My growing belly tells a story of its own (not just Ramen, there is too much yummy fattening food here in this country, damn).

Without further ado, here are some pics from my Ramen collection.