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Saturday, Sep. 1, 2012

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FOOD

Welcome to ramen land


By STEVE TRAUTLEIN
Special to The Japan Times

When I heard that ramen had become popular in my hometown a few years ago, I can't say I was surprised. We New Yorkers, after all, consider ourselves aficionados of down-home, stick-to-the-ribs cooking. Hot-dog carts, takeout Chinese joints, 24-hour delis and hole-in-the-wall falafel shops all help fuel our around-the-clock lifestyle.

Ramen fits right into this scene. Springy noodles nestled in a rich broth spiked with meat and vegetables ... How could we — or anyone — resist? In fact, ramen's popularity and versatility call to mind another New York specialty: pizza. Much as different types of crust, cheese and sauce create distinct flavor profiles in a pizza pie, bowls of ramen vary according to their broth, noodles and toppings.

Pizza and ramen share another quality, too: They can't be faked. Although both dishes are inexpensive and widely available, they require considerable skill to prepare. As the Japanese have recently discovered, pizza made with freshly tossed dough and topped with bubbling mozzarella puts mass-produced pies to shame.

It's nice to see folks back in New York starting to appreciate noodles in the same way. When I was growing up, the only ramen available was the instant variety sold at grocery stores in square plastic packs. It was the quintessential junk food — cheap eats for indigent students and lonely bachelors. Little did I know that in Japan, instant ramen was being elevated to an art form — literally so, as Yokohama's Cup Noodles Museum proves.

Coming from such a noodle-challenged background, I suppose it's no surprise that my first bowl of authentic ramen in Japan remains so vivid in my memory. It was 1998, and although I can't recall the exact name of the shop — it was somewhere on the fringes in Takadanobaba — I'll never forget the dish. Noodles with heft and flavor! House-made chashu and freshly chopped scallions! And then there was the broth. Supple and intense, the tonkotsu soup seemed to distill the entire essence of pork into a few cups of liquid pleasure.

That experience, I was glad to discover, is in no way unusual. Just about every expat I've met here shares my enthusiasm for ramen, and those who don't tend to be newbies who have yet to enjoy their first bowl. Foreign ramen bloggers document their obsession with otaku-like fervor, and even top international chefs can be found slurping when they're in town.

And now you have the chance to tell the world about your own passion for ramen. Yahoo! JAPAN is looking for expats who love the dish so much that they want to help promote it overseas. As an official Ramen Ambassador, you'll help spread the word by making videos, contributing to a cooking guide and planning "ramen tours" for foreign visitors.

For details on how to apply, see the Yahoo! JAPAN ramen page (http://ramen.yahoo.co.jp/oversea/index02.html) — and get ready to engage in some noodle diplomacy!

The Japan Times is proud to be collaborating with Yahoo! JAPAN on its "Ramen Ambassador" project, in which several expat ramen fans living in Japan will be selected to help promote ramen to the world. Our very own Steve Trautlein, who documents the underbelly of Japan's culinary culture in his monthly Everyman Eats column, is the campaign's official reporter. For more information about how you can become a Ramen Ambassador, visit the Yahoo! JAPAN campaign site (http://ramen.yahoo.co.jp/oversea/index02.html). And for past coverage of ramen from The Japan Times, see our ramen campaign page here (/life/ramen.html).


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