[From May Issue 2012]
When I first started eating ramen, really eating the stuff, in the winter of 2008, it was all about food. Having just moved to the capitol, I was jobless and hungry. Short on money and long on free time meant I could wait in the longest lines to try the most popular ramen. What started as merely a search for a good lunch soon turned into a mission of grandeur; a mission to understand this food and the fascinating culture behind it. I found that ramen is so much more than just soup and noodles.
Ramen is the ultimate Japanese comfort food. The umami-rich soup is enough to melt away even the worst stress. Hard day at the office? A rich miso is the cure. Sore muscles from running the Tokyo marathon? A simple shio ramen will replenish the salt and carbohydrates necessary for a speedy recovery. Hung over from an all-nighter in Shinjuku? Some creamy tonkotsu (pork broth) is better than any hair-of-the-dog.
Ramen reflects local culture. No food in Japan is as diverse as ramen. From the southern tip of Kyushu, where local kurobuta (black pig) plays an important role, to Sapporo in the North, with its locally produced miso, shops have taken the best from the community and created memorable bowls that couldn’t be made elsewhere. Some started as gimmicks to attract tourists, like a maguro (tuna) ramen in Kanagawa’s port city of Misaki, Kanagawa Prefecture. Others, like Kitakata’s shoyu (soy sauce) style in Fukushima Prefecture, were a result of the pure water, abundant in the mountainous part of Honshu.
Ramen is for everyone, regardless of status. At a maximum price of around 1,000 yen, almost anyone can enjoy a bowl when the craving hits. The frugal student sits next to the billionaire CEO. Both get the same meal. There are no reservations, so they both wait in the same line. Even though they go home to very different homes, they are equals at the ramen shop’s counter seating; smiling ear-to-ear as they slurp away.
Ramen is artistic; a beautiful thing to look at. A donburi porcelain bowl is a blank canvas that can hold a work of beauty. A perfectly charred piece of pork and specks of vegetable greenery top the noodle. A thin layer of chicken oil tints the soup a shade of yellow. Toppings, like a soy-soaked egg, draw the diner’s eye. A gorgeous bowl has more cell phone photos taken of it than most celebrities.
Ramen is trendy. Anything is possible in a bowl of modern-day ramen. From rare, high-quality ingredients like imported Iberico ham, to illogical choices like tropical fruit juice, the only rule is the end product. If it is good eating, the ramen world will welcome you. If it isn’t, you won’t last long.
The search for ramen can be intensive as there are so many different stores. Walking and eating can be taken to another level; with photography, blogging, and meeting groups of like-minded food lovers. I took my obsession of shooting food, paired it with the search for excellent ramen, and created a website. With hundreds of quality bowls in my past, and hundreds more in the future, I hope my passion will help bring as many ramen-craving individuals to their next meal as possible.
Text : Brian MACDUCKSTON