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More than a dish of noodles, ramen in Japan is an experience and a tourist attraction

TOKYO– Spicy, steaming, gooey ramen may be everyone’s favorite Japanese food.

In Tokyo, long lines wrap around blocks and waiting an hour for ramen is normal. What awaits you may just be a dip, but a hot bowl of ramen rarely fails to hit the spot.

Often cooked before your eyes behind dirty counters, the noodle dish here starts at around 1,000 yen ($6.50) and comes in various flavors and local versions. There is salty soy-based “shoyu” or “miso” paste. Maybe it’s red-hot spicy with a hint of chili. Sometimes there is no soup other than a sauce to dip the noodles in.

Curly noodles are lighter than the darker buckwheat “soba” or “udon,” which also tend to be flatter or thicker.

Ramen has also gained popularity in the United States, South Korea, and other countries. Retail sales in the United States have increased 72% since 2000, according to NielsenIQ, a sales tracker. In the 52 weeks ending April 13, Americans purchased more than $1.6 billion worth of ramen.

Versions beyond the traditional soup are appearing in restaurants, said Technomic, a research and consulting company for the restaurant industry. Del Taco, a Mexican chain, recently introduced shredded beef Birria Ramen, for example.

Packaged ramen that is easily cooked in hot water at home is called instant noodles; It is pre-cooked and then dried. The story of how Momofuku Ando invented instant ramen in a backyard shed in 1958, when food was still scarce, is a legend in Japan. He then found food giant Nissin Foods.

Although convenient, instant noodles are not the same as the ramen served in restaurants.

Some Japanese frequent ramen shops two or three times a week. They come out drenched in sweat and smacking their lips.

“I’m probably a talking ramen bowl,” says Frank Striegl as he guides a dozen American tourists through the alleys of Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya district in what he calls “the ultimate ramen experience.”

The crowd is led behind a rickety door, sometimes up narrow stairs, to a dimly lit table where ramen is served in tiny bowls, practically the size of a latte cup, or about a quarter of a ramen bowl. normal. This is so that guests have enough room in their stomachs to try six different types of ramen, two at each location during the tour.

One restaurant, Shinbusakiya, offers “Hokkaido classics” from the northernmost main island, while another, Nagi, offers “Fukuoka fusion” from the southern main island of Kyushu. Includes a green ramen, similar to pesto pasta. Syuuichi, which means “once a week,” features curry-flavored ramen.

“Of course, it’s not just about eating delicious ramen, but also about learning about it,” said Striegl, a Filipino-American who grew up in Tokyo. He calls ramen “people’s food.”

“Many countries around the world have their own version of ramen,” he said, “so I think that’s why it’s an easy dish to understand. “It’s a dish that’s easy to get behind.”

As tour participants savored their noodles, Striegl described a brief history of ramen: Its roots date back to the samurai era, when a shogun became infatuated with Chinese noodles, beginning the ramen localization journey that continues today.

Katie Sell, a graduate student on Striegl’s tour, called ramen “a kind of comfort food, especially in the winter. Get a group of friends together, go eat ramen and just enjoy it.”

Kavi Patel, an engineer from New Jersey, said he was glad to have included the humble ramen on his tour of Japan, along with more established attractions like the ancient capital of Kyoto and the deer park in Nara. “I’m having a lot of fun,” he said.

While ramen has never been more popular in Japan, places where ramen is sold have struggled due to the pandemic, the weakening of the Japanese yen and the higher cost of wheat imports and energy, according to a study by Tokyo Shoko Research.

One of the beneficiaries of the pandemic is a home delivery service for professionally cooked frozen ramen. Called, it has about 500,000 subscribers in Japan.

Another Tokyo operation, Gourmet Innovation, has signed up with 250 of the country’s top ramen shops to sell packaged versions of its soup, noodles and toppings, to be heated in boiling water and served at home.

Co-founder and executive Kenichi Nomaguchi, who hopes to expand his business overseas, says ramen and animation are Japan’s most successful exports.

Why ramen? Unlike pasta or curry, ramen is difficult to replicate at home, she said. Making it from scratch involves hours of cooking broth, with pork, beef or chicken, various fish or bonito flakes and “kombu” seaweed. Some populations use oysters.

In addition to the different broths and soup flavors, onions, grated garlic, ginger, or sesame oil can be added for an extra kick. Toppings may include bean sprouts, roast pork, boiled or raw eggs, seaweed, fermented bamboo shoots called “menma”, chopped green onions, cooked cabbage, peas or corn.

Some insist that a bowl of ramen is not complete without a slice of narutomaki, a white fish cake with a pink spiral pattern.

Unusual varieties include coffee ramen and ramen topped with ice cream or pineapple.

Named after a legendary Tokyo restaurant, Jiro-style ramen includes heaps of vegetable toppings, enormous steak-like roast pork, and grated spicy garlic in a fatty pork-based broth.

“The impact is important. So the pork has to be big to make it really memorable,” said Kota Kobayashi, who serves Jiro-style ramen at his chain, “Ore No Ikiru Michi,” which translates to “The way I live my life.” ”.

Kobayashi is a former professional baseball player for the Yokohama Bay Stars and played with the minor league Cleveland Guardians before switching to his ramen business.

“When I left baseball, I chose ramen as my way of life,” he said with a smile.

You can get philosophical about ramen. One cultural difference he has noticed is that Americans tend to leave off the noodles and drink all the soup, while Japanese people mostly do the opposite.

And flavor is only part of what makes ramen good. Entertainment also needs to be provided, Kobayashi said.

In his restaurants, the chopsticks are kept in a box on a shelf, so first-time visitors ask where they are. Regular customers go directly to that box. Kobayashi shouts, “Welcome back,” making the customers feel a connection, even if he doesn’t remember anything about them.


Dee-Ann Durbin contributed to this story from Detroit.


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