A new apartment building coming up on 44th Street and 11th Avenue in Manhattan will have a ramen noodle restaurant among the shops on its ground floor. Nor surprising , since New Yorkers have a yen for ramen . It may not be as stylish as sushi but , on a cold winter day , there is nothing like a big bowl of piping hot ramen.
For me , the word ramen evokes memories of Larmen Dosanko , a noodle chain that used to be popular in the New York of the eighties and nineties . I don’t think the made-up name has any significance ( there’s no such thing as” larmen “) but the catchy name rhymed with ( Where in the World is ) Carmen San Diego ? , a geography game that was popular at the time . To be frank , I don’t remember much about the quality of the ramen served at Larmen Dosanko. What I do remember of the Warren Street branch is placing my order and watching it being prepared . The chef would place a portion of noodles in a mesh ladle/basket and immerse it in a cauldron of bubbling broth . In scant minutes , he would fish it out , add the meats and toppings in a large bowl and pour broth over them . On a cold day , it was a light but fulfilling meal.
I know there are still oldtimers who yearn for Larmen Dosanko and its successors in New York and elsewhere but they are as nothing compared to ramen aficionados in Japan . Over there , ramen followers are almost a cult. They discuss ramen and its nuances much as Americans talk about barbecue . They eat ramen daily , often more than once a day. One man estimates he has eaten over 21,000 bowls of ramen in his life ; he eats ramen at every meal and often in between meals . There have been at least two movies centered on ramen . One of them ( Tampopo, 1986) was very good , the other ( Ramen Girl -2008) mediocre but both give us some idea of the place of ramen in the Japanese food pantheon . Tokyo alone has more than 5,000 ramen shops , many of them with their own die-hard regulars . We were in Tokyo early this year and it was easy to tell which served good ramen and which did not . During lunch hour , the good ones had customers waiting in line outside in the bitter cold ; at the others you could just walk in and get a place at the counter.
Ramen can be described as Chinese style noodles , cut rather than handpulled , served in a meat broth along with toppings such as sliced pork, scallions and nori. ( dried seaweed). Rarely, the broth is fish based and the toppings consist of processed fish cakes( kamaboko) instead of meat. Ramen can be divided into 4 major categories depending on the type of broth. They are Shio ( ” Salt) , Tonkotsu ( “Pork bone “), Shoyu ( ” Soy sauce”) and Miso ramen . The last is a uniquely Japanese type which only came into being about 50 years ago.
Japanese ramen fanciers , however , take their categorisation of ramen to a whole other level. One ramen blogger counts 22 different regional variations of ramen depending on the broth , the toppings and the noodles. In Yokohama , there is a Ramen museum which gives the history and the culture of ramen. On its ground floor are eight ramen joints representing some of the famous varieties from around Japan and they are a magnet for ramen fanciers.
Ramen is much written about by bloggers , some of them American expats in Japan . Typically , they are enthusiastic reviews of the ramen joints they visit and they have beautiful photos of bowls of ramen . Two that are worth sampling are www.abram22.com compiled Abram Plaut ( 31) a native of San Francisco and www.ramenadventures.com, the brainchild of another American , Brian Mackduckston . Both have lipsmacking photos but the best I’ve seen ( photowise ) is the montage of photos by ramenbeast on tumblr.com. Seeing the wonderful bowls of ramen makes you want to drop everything and rush out for some yourself.
Instant ramen , made by pouring boiling water on dehydrated ramen noodles and seasonings , were invented by a Taiwanese-Japanese named Momofuku Ando in 1958. They were an instant success both in Japan and abroad . Marukan , the leading manufacturer of instant ramen noodles , makes over 3.6 billion9 yes, billion , not million ) packets a year. Instant ramen is cheap , filling and convenient even it has practically no nutritional value.At one time , you could get four , even five packets for a dollar ; preparing and downing two packets is comforting and gives the illusion of fullness. For impoverished students who don’t know how to cook it’s a godsend . However , I think the Japanese carried their love of instant ramen too far when they voted instant ramen the greatest invention of the 20th century in a poll in year 2000. BTW , karaoke came in second and the Sony camcorder third. Go figure.So popular is instant ramen that there is even a Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum in Ikeda City near Osaka.
I’ve eaten my share of the instant variety but it is not a patch on the real thing . Going to New York City for ramen is not an option but I can get a decent bowl of ramen at the H=Mart in Edison . If I want to go further afield , there is the food court at the Mitsuka shopping mall in Edgewater. Though it is a longish trip, the ramen there is very good a fact attested to by the long lines at the ramen stand there .
Ramen also has a Hawaian cousin , saimin, which we sampled on a visit to Kauai . Saimin is a hybrid , a noodle version of the Hawaian mixed plate which I have written about before . Basically , it consists of soft wheat noodles in a hot broth with toppings like cabbage , green onions, sliced spam , linguica , nori and kamaboko. On festive occasions there would even be some gyoza, Japanese potstickers , thrown into the mix.The ingredients are an indication of its beginnings when Japanese , Chinese , Filipino, Portuguese workers labored side by side on the plantations. They ate lunch together and the blending of the cultures resulted in the saimin of today.
In Hawaii, saimin noodles are served at sporting events and in school cafeterias. We sampled them on a visit to Kauai at Hamura’s Saimin restaurant , little more than a shack but a magnet for foodies. Seated on backless stools at a crowded counter, elbow to elbow with locals, we started out with barbecued beef and chicken satays and then polished off a big bowl of saimin each . The food , island ambience and the friendly locals made it an experience to remember. I wish that I could go back for another bowl. This time though , I’d save space for a slice of the Lilikoi ( passionfruit) pie .