Bowled over by Ramen

A ramen revolution took place this past year.

Freshly made noodles

Though our region’s numbers pale in comparison to Japan’s, which by some estimates has upwards of 100,000 ramen restaurants, a new legion of chef devotees joined traditionalists in seeking to perfect the humble, yet blissfully sublime bowl of Asian noodle soup.
In our November / December issue, Culinary explorer Jay Friedman slurped up the soup scene, visiting izakayas, traditional (and some non-) Japanese food and drink establishments, from portland to Seattle and Vancouver, BC.

His journey starts in the beating heart of ramen culture—Tokyo, Japan.

TOKYO, JAPAN—While eating my third bowl of ramen in three days, I had my ramen epiphany. It was at Ichiran, where I sat like all diners do in an individual stall that provides privacy. Walls blocked the neighbors to my sides while a bamboo screen in front shielded me from the server. All my focus, as intended, was on the bowl before me. After a spoonful of broth, a slurp of noodles, and a bite of fatty pork, I realized ramen was one of the most fantastic foods to be found.

I had to have more.

The next day I had my fourth bowl at Ivan Ramen, where I met Ivan Orkin, a gaijin from New York who was inspired by the Japanese cult-classic movie about ramen, Tampopo. Orkin moved to Tokyo to fulfill a dream of being a ramen shop chef. “It’s the one maverick cuisine with no rules,” he says.

Ramen as cuisine?

Many of us relate to ramen as the ten-for-a-dollar packages of instant noodles we ate during our struggling college years. That’s certainly the case for local chefs such as Jonathan Hunt, of Boom Noodle in Seattle, and Gabe Rosen, of Portland’s Biwa, who journeyed to Japan to experience the real stuff.

For many North American chefs, ramen is soul food that makes a comforting, complete meal.  For consumers, transitioning from ten-cent packages at home to ten-dollar bowls at a restaurant can be a bit daunting.

Not to mention the number of choices, including:

• Type of broth—chicken, pork, or a combination of the two, with seafood sometimes added

• Tare, or seasoning, ranging from shoyu (soy sauce), to shio (salt), and miso (fermented soybean paste)

• Toppings, like corn, bean sprouts, eggs, and even a pat of butter for extra unctuousness.

Noodles are another prime consideration.

There are wavy and straight varieties, coming in different thicknesses and cooked to varying preferences of doneness. But don’t let the choices overwhelm you. Some restaurants serve one bowl with no options, while others spell out recommended combinations. Part of ramen’s allure is that it’s meant to be simple, yet complex.

Catch ramen fever and you’ll want to try out all the combinations to find your favorite. Ramen is best eaten with reckless abandon, like ribs or burgers or ice cream sundaes.

And, yes, you should slurp.

At a good ramen shop, the bowl comes quickly, the soup super-hot. Push aside politeness and dive into the bowl. Slurping the noodles not only aerates and cools what you take in, but it keeps the noodles intact. An important cultural side note: noodles represent longevity to Asian people.It’s said that you should eat your ramen in seven minutes or less to enjoy it at its best, alternating bite and broth, to produce a warm and fulfilled feeling. That’s the sensation I experienced during my ramen exploits in Tokyo.

But you don’t have to go to Japan to get a great bowl.

Following are a few of my favorite ramen restaurants from across the region: Portland | Vancouver B.C. | Seattle

Read more in our  November / December 2011  issue of Northwest Palate magazine.

Handmade noodles at Portland’s Boke Bowl, Photo by Tim Parsons.

Featured slide photo: A bowl of ramen topped with smoked pork shoulder and a halved soft-boiled egg, among other toppings, at Portland’s Biwa. Credit: Jay Friedman.

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