Ramen is a term blanketing Japanese wheat noodles served in a thick broth. Something that has become very popular in Vancouver as of late, but is prepared very differently in every different region of Japan. Each removing or adding different ingredients, in order to make it their own. Some places give you the option of having your broth made with either meat or fish, and others a choice of a soy sauce or miso flavoring for the soup. Ramen is typically topped with “chashu”, thinly sliced cuts of fatty pork; “negi”, a vegetable similar to scallions or leeks; and “nori”, sheets of dried edible seaweed.
My first bowl of ramen in Japan was at a food court in DiverCity, Odaiba. I choose this bowl of ramen based on what I have had and found familiar, from previous experiences in Vancouver. In this case it was the murky beige of sandy broth, the bold orange of a soft boiled egg yolk, and the spiral of a pink and white patterned fish cake slice. Though as it is often the case, what appears in photo, isn’t always what you get in person.
This style of ramen was served with the soup and noodle separate. Presentation was not taken into account. The pre-boiled egg was dumped whole into the bowl, the two slices of pork sank to the very bottom, and the sheet of black nori was the only colour added to the mound of thick yellow noodle. But at least it tasted good. You grip a few strands of noodles and dip them into your bowl of soup. You allow them to soak up some of the sauce before you slurp them up. Overall better than most I have had in Vancouver. But not as good as my second ramen experience. See below.
I was in Shibuya to try a more authentic bowl of ramen. At this point I am very familiar with the machines used to order. Push button vending machines that provide quicker service than a waitress taking orders, and offer a more fluid meal preparation during busier dining hours. You insert your money and make your selection with a push of a button. Any change is returned with the push of another button.
Truth be told, I actually came in because the clerk opened the door and invited me in. Originally I was coming in close just to check out prices and compare dishes offered, still deciding where I wanted to dine. But after she took the time to open the door and went through the trouble of inviting me through the threshold, I felt too bad to just walk away.
I was directed to one of the available bar seats facing the kitchen. Here I gained a telling look into the preparation of ramen. Noodles are made to order, and added to broth that is prepared ahead of time. Similarly all the ingredients are every at the ready, stored in individual tins, until they are needed for assembly. Each tin looked like recycled bulk Heinz ketchup containers.
Once again I selected my ramen based on the prospect of enjoying it with an soft boiled and by the colours most familiar to me. Squinting at all the small images on the machine. Sadly, not really considering what the area’s national type of ramen was.
Either way the chef’s wardrobe choice, a tee with the wording “no noodles, no life” across the back, gave me confidence in his skill. Watching, it seemed like he moved from muscle memory. The noodles were cooked in a special contraption. A stainless steel vat of boiling water, with a sheet of metal over it. The sheet had holes cut out and was left to rest over the basin. These holes were the perfectly sized circles, made to fit a deep basket in each. The baskets would hold a single serving of noodles and cook them in a contained area, thus making it easy to scoop out when el dente.
When assembling the bowl, first goes in the noodles. A few hard shakes of the basket ensure excess moisture is dredged. Next three large scoops of pre made broth is poured to fully coat all the stands. A good broth takes hours to make, doing so the day before is standard. This allows all the flavour of the pork bone and pork fat to be slowly incorporated into the soup. And finally with hand in several tins, the chef dresses the ramen with the appropriate ingredients.
As mentioned, this version of ramen has its noodles already submerged in broth. My bowl had two fatty chunks of pork, a halved soft boiled egg, a few bean spouts, shredded raw cabbage, green onions; and three types of seaweed: a shredded brown, a leafy green, and a sheet of nori added in last to complete the bowl. Each element had its own spot, and everything was highlighted in harmony. Taste wise, the fat of the pork was perfect, it melted in your mouth, any more would have made you nauseated. The noodles themselves were surprisingly light. I was able to almost finish the whole lot. Good thing as there was a lot of them for a smaller serving, and a certain lightness was needed to balance out the richness of broth and pork.
It was very hot shop, and made even more so when having to ingesting hot ramen. It had me sweating and wondering how was it possible that the other patrons were able to continue eating in their down filled jackets? And here I was stripping down to my tee. Sadly, I forgot that Japan etiquette requires I slurp my noodles and bring the bowl directly to lips for sipping soup. Thus showing appreciation to the chef. I hope my empty bowl was as clear of a sign that I enjoyed what I had.
The staff were constantly moving. Two, the server and the chef. When it slowed in the restaurant, and the server had assured those of us dining in were well taken care of, she proceeded outside to usher more customers in. But when one of her patrons left she immediately came back to bus their table and handle the used dishes that were left behind. Similarly, as soon as a new guest would enter, she would follow them in. Then ensuring that they were greeted appropriately and welcomed thoroughly. And when all the above was comfortably achieved she would begin primping each setting. Checking that all the containers were filled, and that all the jars were full, essentially finding work to keep herself busy. She almost seemed relieved when someone came in or someone left. Something to do to keep the day rolling I guess. 10 hour days, doing the same repetitive action are norms here. The chef would keep him self busy in a similar fashion. Preparing noodles and washing dishes, anything to prep and keep his hands moving. All the while two hardly spoke. Only to call and confirm the understanding of orders going into and coming out of the kitchen. A very different retail environment than in Canada for sure.
Would I come back? – Yes.
Would I line up for it? – Yes.
Would I recommend it? – Yes.
Would I suggest this for someone visiting from out of town? – No.
I am not particular about my ramen, I don’t know enough about it to be. But what I do know is, I liked what I had, and would not hesitating coming back here for more. Though realistically from store to store, the ramen I saw through windows and the bowls of ramen that were printed on menus looked fairly consistent. But the great thing about such places is that it is not out of the norm to eat alone. It was nice to be able to enjoy a space, with the company of others, and yet not feel the need to make small talk with them. You come in to simply enjoy the food and the space. Don’t deny your cravings.