To visit Japan on a quest for great food is like jumping off the tallest diving board into the deep end of the pool. Only imagine for a moment the pool is filled with noodles and you are wearing a suit made of meat. In other words, (just in case my analogy is lost on some), to get to the bottom of Japanese food is scary, vast, and it is messy.
In Japan we ate things we didn’t think were edible (ie raw chicken and raw horse). We tasted things that left us speechless (a single bite of tuna I nearly wept over, for example). We indulged so much that our tummies cried out for mercy (kobe beef and crab brains, galore!) We sampled and slobbered our way from East to West, North to South. Though, no matter the city or the local specialty, it was Ramen that had us by the gut. One waft of it in the air and we were no longer in control of our actions.
Like ramen-zombies on a quest for more pork laden broth, the idea of a day without the stuff became unthinkable.
The origins of Ramen are considered unclear. Some say the origins are Chinese, a simple bowl containing noodle and broth. Story has it that at the turn of the century Chinese vendors were selling this Ramen, along with gyoza on the streets of Japan. After World War II, many Japanese returned from China, now more familiar than ever with Chinese food, and opened restaurants that featured this winning combination.
It was the Japanese that embraced the dish, transforming it over the last century into the formidable icon that it is today. Ramen has morphed into more iterations worldwide than can be covered here. It is a labor of love dish that is now as diversified as the country itself.
In Japan, you will find neighborhood Ramen shops; small and discreet, crammed with after school kids or salary men, shouldering up to one another on tiny stools. There are cool shops that play jazz music, places where the line wraps up the block lunch rush after lunch rush. There are train stations with a dozen Ramen shops on one floor competing for customers. Fukuoka has a Ramen Stadium. There are late-night Ramen stands wedged onto sidewalks, Ramen places that are open 24 hours a day, and Ramen shops in gas stations on highways. There are hole in the wall mom and pops, and fancier upscale versions (both of which probably use the vending machine system for ordering). There are roadside pit-stop Ramen shops that hand cut their noodles, there are standing only Ramen shops in train station basements and even on the train platforms themselves. Here, people stand around a counter to tuck in for a quick bowl while they wait for their train to arrive. There are TV shows that time how quickly a Ramen place can serve up their signature bowl. The show itself is a room of commentators in a studio watching the footage and reacting to the speediness of each Ramen shop!
Though, looking at it from a social perspective, Ramen eating is a very private act. One often orders and pays from a machine that spits out tickets that are then handed to someone working the line. Seating is typically propped up on stools, diner-style, not tables and chairs. Some even offer cubicle-like separations which allows for the individual diner to slurp in solitary peace. You can be in and out in a matter of minutes without much more than a nod exchanged. Although, we heard that for Japanese women, it can be considered strange to dine on ramen alone. For reasons I’m still not entirely clear on, it can be considered outright ballsy to do so. Apparently, many women don’t feel comfortable slurping in public, or indulging in such a fatty rich food. (This is one of those social norms that I not only don’t understand, but I think should be crushed immediately. Ladies, Ramen is freaking delicious, get over it.)
Speaking of slurping. Oh the slurping! When you eat Ramen, you have to master this technique or all is lost. Slurping is the only way to consume the noodles while the soup is still piping hot. It would be a shame to miss out on those few moments when the bowl first hits the bar.
The slurping action, if done properly, allows you to suck in cool air at the same time as the noodles – like an instant air conditioner for your mouth.
All around you the sound of slurping can be heard, a beautiful (albeit gross), symphony of people chowing down together on their bowls of Ramen. Try it!
Then there are the soft boiled eggs. Not everyone has them in their bowl, and I can understand why. The gooey, creamy, custard center of a perfect soft boiled egg is the icing on an already rich cake. For us it was almost always required, because…fat. Once you break open the egg and nuzzle its center down into the broth, it seems to just bring the whole bowl home. Coating the noodles and everything else in its wake.
There appears to be a kind of method to people’s Ramen preferences. The way someone might order their coffee with 3, 4, sometimes 5 specifications, Ramen ordering can involve the same routine. Because, once you start eating Ramen on the regular, you know how chewy you like your noodles, how rich you like your broth, how hot, etc.etc.
The truth is, I can’t really get into all the different bowls and talk about the variety of components, the distinguishing characteristics of every broth, every noodle or slice of pork. If I did that I wouldn’t get to play outside. Instead, I will simply photo dump a bunch of our favorite bowls. This way, we all have something to look forward to.