Ramen empire

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.

 

But two years on, the New Jersey native is confident that visitors to Ivan Ramen leave with happy memories of homemade noodles that just happen to have been made by an American.

“I knew opening a ramen shop was a crazy idea, and that it would either be a huge success or huge failure,” said Orkin, 46.

His gamble has paid of in spectacular fashion, thanks to generous media coverage, rave reviews on respected foodie websites and good, old-fashioned word of mouth.

He concedes that winning over discerning Japanese diners might have been harder had he opted to open a sushi restaurant. “People are more open to the idea of an American cooking for them because ramen is maverick cuisine. It’s the only Japanese cuisine that doesn’t have a rulebook. It’s the total opposite of sushi, like the final frontier. People who are otherwise uptight let their hair down when they eat a bowl of ramen.”

One of his compatriots has taken the idea of ramen consumption as a philosophical credo in a very different direction in his recently published memoir.

In "The Ramen King and I," Andy Raskin credits Momofuku Ando, inventor of ramen’s oft-lamented instant cousin, with curing him of his infidelity and other personality defects.

Like all people struggling with compulsive behaviour, Raskin, 44, was told to submit to a higher power. His book is an entertaining, frank account of how he came to choose the nonagenarian founder of the Japanese instant noodle giant Nissin as his spiritual guide, and where Ando’s wisdom eventually led him.

Ando, who claimed to eat his original Chikin Ramen every day, collated his reflections on decades of struggle in the business world in "Fundamental Misunderstandings of Humanity," a book that was to have a profound impact on Raskin.

Raskin’s accidental introduction to the thoughts of chairman Ando prompted him to seek an impromptu meeting with his muse, who in his Osaka backyard in 1958, had perfected the instant ramen fry-and-dry method still in use today.

Following Ando’s death in 2007, aged 96, his funeral was held at Osaka Dome baseball stadium and attended by thousands of mourners, including Raskin.

“I chose Ando as a godlike figure on a whim,” the author said from his home in San Francisco. “But the more I learned about him the more I realized that [his employees at Nissin] really did see him as some kind of cult-like figure.”

Ando’s legacy lives on in the form of a snack food that, despite persistent concerns over its salt and fat content, is the nearest thing we have to global cuisine.

The year Ando died people in more than 40 countries slurped their way through 97.8 billion packets of the stuff, or roughly 15 packets for every person on the planet, according to the International Instant Ramen Manufacturers Association.

It is little wonder that of Ando’s many sayings, Raskin’s favourite is “Jinrui wa menrui” — Mankind is Noodlekind. An extravagant claim, but one I shall no doubt ponder the next time the craving returns.

More GlobalPost dispatches on Japan:

The Hatoyama dynasty

Naked, drunk and incoherent in Tokyo

Holy mackerel: A breakthrough in tuna science?