There are some foods, it seems to me, that have become cults. In the U.S, there are barbecue and pizza both of which have aficionados willing to argue passionately about their favorites and what makes them better than the competition. In Japan , there is the cult of ramen which I think is more widespread and passionate than anything we have in America.
The Japanese love for ramen has to be seen to be believed.In Tokyo, there are more than 5,000 ramen restaurants , many with their diehard adherents. Last January, my wife and I were in Tokyo for a brief visit and we saw for ourselves how devoted Japanese are to their ramen. When we went for a walk in our neighborhood we saw lines of Japanese salarimen, bundled up against the cold, waiting patiently outside their favorite ramen shops for a place at the counter. Meanwhile, other ramen shops on the same street were practically empty, their product apparently not good enough. In the documentary The Mind of a Chef, David Chang visits a legendary ramen shop in Tokyo subway station where the line to get in runs upwards of an hour.
There are scores of blogs about ramen, and those are only the ones in English; there must be many times that number in Japanese. All of them have beautiful photographs of bowls of ramen and descriptions of visits to the restaurants where they were sampled.One of the best is a video blog http://www.ramenbeast whose lovely photographs make you want to head out immediately for a bowl of ramen.
Ramen seems to have caught on in America too, just as sushi did 25 years ago. In its annual issue on the Best Eats in NYC, New York magazine has a separate listing of the best ramen joints in New York. Imagine the best french fries, the best pies, the best burgers … and the best ramen!
There was a recent article in the N,Y, Times about Ivan Orkin, an American who went to Tokyo and opened a very well regarded ramen restaurant, Ivan Ramen. I was familiar with his exploits , because he is prominently featured in one of the episodes in The Mind of a Chef. Orkin has a ramen establishment in New York City as does David Chang who opened the popular Momofuku Noodle Bar. Chang and Orkin are not content with merely recreating traditional ramen but go to extraordinarily lengths to make a distinctive product. In the case of Chang, his ramen stock is made from roasted pork neck bones, chicken parts, dried shitake mushrooms, carrots, scallions etc and takes the better part of a day to prepare. Makes we want to visit Momofuku Noodle Bar and sample it for myself, and I will when the weather is a little better.
Sometimes, however, I wonder at the fuss about ramen. The Sun Noodle Co. in Teterboro, N.J. makes 140 different types on noodles to satisfy the demands of ramen shops nationwide. The noodles come in a variety of shapes, widths, lengths and chewiness; They can be wide, thin, straight, curly, wavy, firm, soft etc. I understand the need for some variety. Noodles have to be able the broth stick to them ; thin broths need wider , curvy noodles and thick broths are better with thinner noodles and all of them must retain their firmness when they are served. Still, one hundred and forty different types of noodles seems excessive. Can there be possibly that much difference between them ?
At the end of the day, ramen is just a noodle soup. Yes, the broth can be complex and superior, the noodles just the right blend of firm and chewy. It can be good , even very good but, it is still only a noodle soup. I can’t help feeling that the fascination with ramen has a lot to do with the human need to compare and classify and discuss with others. As with barbecue or pizza, it gives us( in the words of the Bonnie Raitt song), ” something to talk about.”