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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Beyond the styrofoam cup

Buttered corn miso ramen, Cafe Kubo, Houston, TX
"$8 for a bowl of ramen?"

We don't have too many ramen shops in Houston - most of the Japanese restaurants in town are sushi joints. The other items are an after thought. Consequently, for many locals, their image of ramen remains that of the bag of dried noodles to be boiled and swirled with salty flavoring from a packet - the sub $1 starving student meal.

The idea of spending $8 for ramen seems preposterous.

Shio ramen, Santuoka, Los Angeles, CA
But of course, there's more to ramen than that. Though Japanese in attribution, ramen derives from Chinese noodle soups. The inventor of the instant ramen, Momofuku Ando, died in 2007 after a celebrated life of changing how the world eats this cherished and flexible dish. Likely, David Chang probably named his NY restaurant after the man; after all, the ramen from the Momofuku cookbook involves a 7 hour broth.

Ramen can engender a reverence and a passion for its myriad forms, and its perfect execution. Perhaps nothing better characterizes this online than the blog Rameniac. After all, despite the simple ideas of the dish — alkali noodles, broth, some condiments — people debate greatly about the different ways to a perfect ramen experience. 

In Manila, I encountered Ukokkei Ramen Ron, a man obsessed with the perfect ramen dish - to be point of being a "ramen Nazi". The restaurant closes when he feels that the food is no longer worthy of being served, with clear signs that leftovers are not to be taken home. The prime of the dining experience is only to be had there, and that is devotion bordering on fanaticism.
Don't let the happy disposition fool you. 
So, how is the ramen? Well, delicious. A deeply flavored broth, toothsome noodles, reverentially prepared and served. And that's the Zen part of eating good ramen - it isn't a simple break and boil thing. It's comforting and elevating at the same time.

Ukokkei Ramen, Makati, Manila, Philippines.
By the way, the secret to his ramen broth? He uses black silkie chickens.

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