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Ramen empire

In Japan, America and beyond, ramen is much more than a noodle.

A charcoal maker prepares noodles for breakfast at a garbage dump in Tondo, Manila, Dec. 9, 2007. (Darren Whiteside/Reuters)

TOKYO – The cravings come about once a month. The trigger is a familiar triumvirate
of hunger pangs, limited time and a visceral desire for liberal doses of salt, grease and carbohydrates.

At times like these back home in the U.K., I would head to my local fish and chip shop or curry house, in the same way an American might reach for the delivery pizza menu.

Here in Japan, filling that hole means a brisk walk to the nearest ramen joint — purveyors of generous bundles of noodles bathing in a stock soup and topped with slices of fatty cha-shu pork.

This is comfort food Japan-style. Though its origins are Chinese, ramen has captured the imagination of millions of Japanese in a way no other imported dish can match.

All but a few of the country’s 47 prefectures lay claim to a variety on the ramen theme, from the miso-based Sapporo variety in the far north, to the “tonkotsu” broth of Kyushu in the southwest.

Tokyo alone is home to thousands of ramen restaurants, ranging from the cheap and cheerful street stall to a members-only establishment where a bowl of noodles can cost 3,000 yen ($31), four times the average price.

Bookstore shelves heave with ramen guidebooks offering analysis from noodle geeks whose singular passion has turned them into minor celebrities. The message is clear: ramen, not sushi, is Japan’s de facto national dish.

While the aesthetics and form that accompany a meal at a decent sushi restaurant have their charms, ramen’s humble origins as a quick fix for ravenous workers lend themselves to invention, flexibility — even fun.

As the food for the Everyman, it seems appropriate that after decades as one of Japan’s best-kept gastronomic secrets, ramen is going global, converting skeptics into inveterate slurpers in major U.S. cities and beyond.

In the Setagaya district of Tokyo, the odyssey has already come full circle in the form of a ramen restaurant run by a chef who hails from the “wrong” side of the Pacific.

Ivan Orkin is under no illusions that, when he started out, the first wave of diners was drawn as much by novelty value as the need for sustenance.