Day 2: Ramen
Ramen has become synonymous with Japanese noodles – which is odd considering they are actually Chinese noodles and Japan has plenty of its own traditional types. But somewhere in the twentieth century, Ramen took hold of the country and wrapped its slippery and floury strands around Japan and the people have never looked back.
Ramen is best described as a big bowl of steaming broth, filled with noodles and a few meat and vegetable toppings. There are lots of variations of each of those elements, though, which is perhaps one of the reasons the dish has become so popular. There are little ramen bars and restaurants on corners all across the country but each has its own special techniques.
It’s not quite clear exactly when or how the Chinese noodles made their way to Japan or why they became known as ‘ramen’. But the Japanese still spell the word using special characters reserved only for foreign languages, reminding everyone constantly that it is not originally a local dish.
What separates it from the Japanese varieties is the way the noodles are made – with wheat, flour, salt, water and a special alkaline mineral water called ‘kansui’.
There are then four types of broth commonly used: A salty clear one which is the most common, a creamy one which comes from boiling pork bones and fat for a long time, a brownish one with lots of soy sauce, and one based on miso.
For my meal, in a traditional little restaurant in the Meguro area of Tokyo, I chose the creamy broth called ‘tonkotsu’. The toppings that came with the dish were the pretty standard ones – sliced pork, onions and seaweed.
As you might expect, it’s a slightly messy meal but slurping is accepted (if not expected!). You use your chopsticks to eat the noodles and the toppings and then there’s a spoon to drink as much of the broth as you like.
Plenty of condiments are also available if you would like to make it spicier, add some more soy and crush some garlic in.
My lunch cost 980 yen (US$10.40) as part of a set with some gyoza dumplings, rice and pork slice. It would have been about 100 yen less without the set. And there are plenty of ramen place that are cheaper – this was quite a nice one.