Let me first share the little about Ramen that I have retained, as it is a lot more in depth than I had ever realized. A proper bowl of ramen consists of 4 basic elements:
1. Broth– Usually a blend of pork, chicken (which doesn’t seem common in my area), seafood, and/or veggies; each shop creating their own
2. Tare –This is the strong, salty flavor essence at the bottom of each bowl. Roughly speaking there are 4 types of tare, each helping to determine the “type” of ramen
a. Shoyu – loosely speaking, the most common base
b. Miso – also common
3. Noodles– There are a variety from thin and straight to extra thick and curly and everything in between, each cooked differently – soft, regular, chewy…and whatever is in between
4. Toppings– Most containing a thin slice of roast pork, scallions, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, and spinach or seaweed. Others can include: minced or ground pork, fishcake, soft boiled or raw egg, nori (seaweed paper) , ginger, garlic, butter, corn, miso-chili-garlic paste, chopped white onions, chives, scallions
There are many varieties of Ramen, but most shops specialize in one style and offer a limited menu. Which makes total sense; if you do something well, stick to it, and they do on both accounts. Ramen is a craft, sometimes recipes are past down from one generation to the next like a gift. No exaggeration it is an art, to say the least, and you can feel it when you walk in the door. People here take their ramen seriously; and by-golly, after you have a bowl of this stuff, you will too!
After a day at the Ueno Zoo, we met up with friends who gave us a quick tour of the Tokyo market before taking us to one of the hundreds of ramen shops that were housed amongst the chaos.
Briefly, the Tokyo market is this crazy-loud-awesome-gritty-jam-packed-intimidating outside market that has just about anything you could possibly need, want, or think of - fresh fruit on a stick, fried ‘you-name-it’, fresh seafood galore (some of it still moving, like turtles bound with rubber bands), clothing, fur, leather, and more shoes in one space than I have ever seen in my life. Most of it cheap, rare, or super fresh; it’s completely rad.
So we cut through this dark and narrow alleyway, straight out of Blade Runner, and come out in front of a ramen shop that looks like just about every other small ramen shop on the street. Later I would refer to it as the paradise and every synonym alike.
Like most shops, it was small. A rectangle room with L-shaped bar seating (maybe 12 stools) wrapped around the kitchen area and a vending machine ordering system up front. You push the corresponding button with the picture of what you want…or think you want depending on whether or not there is an English menu, deposit your money and put your printed ticket on the counter for the chef. We did not have an English menu, but we did have friends who could help give us a loose interpretation of our options. Grant ordered Ramen with pork, butter, and corn and I ordered spicy ramen with pork, seaweed and a soft boiled egg. We were kindly instructed by friends to also order the dumplings to start and a small bowl of rice each to pair with the ramen.
We hung our coats on the wall hangers behind us, poured our own water (which is acceptable in this case and at most ramen shops if the glasses and pitcher are easily accessible) and sat on our swivel stools at the counter. I can hardly express the joy and excitement in our anticipation of what was to come; like giddy children we watched and waited.
The simply plated dumplings came first; a juicy and flavorful treat teasing our taste buds in preparation for what was to come. There was a very small amount of soy sauce on the plate and no more was needed beyond that, though we did add chili paste to the sauce to give it a kick.
Then came the ramen; Giant steaming bowls of perfectly cooked noodles and bean sprouts topped with fresh green onions (larger than what we see back home) and a thin slice of roasted pork. There are or can be a number of things placed on your table to add to the ramen, including: minced or pureed garlic, chili paste, white vinegar, chili oil, soy sauce, mixed chili powder, fine black or white pepper. The minced garlic and chili paste were a fabulous addition in this case.
To describe the rich, salty flavor of my bowl of ramen would be a miss any way I try; it would be crude to say “It was the best thing I have ever tasted”…but in that moment, it may well have been… though, still a bit of an understatement. The well thought out creation was put together in a way that allowed the flavor to almost change, each bite was better than the last. I think I had a giant grin plastered across my face from start to finish.
We’ve since been to one other ramen shop…twice. It’s walking distance from home which, I fear, is a danger to our budget and yet, SO worth it. This place has a different feel, a slightly younger and more relaxed vibe in the kitchen; you can tell they’re serious about the craft but they have fun with it, and you can taste it in the ramen. The noodles are a bit chewier and the spices a bit spicier, as if to say “hey dude, you can handle it, you got this!” I’m still not sure what the base was, but it was awesome, we just pointed to a picture on the menu because the broth looked redder than the others, which we thought meant “spicy”, and boy did it ever! It rocked us. …we walked back the next rainy day and pointed to the same picture.
To me, a Japanese ramen kitchen is magic. It’s like the fascination people have with the behind the scene of anything glamorous on the outside, like the Circus or Broadway or Disneyland; all of the secrets and stories that must be hidden in each. You just have to keep hanging around with the hope of learning another dark and special little secret every time you have the privilege to slurp down a bowl.
I could go home happy!
But then again, there is more ramen to discover out there…