In my upcoming cookbook, Nanban: Japanese Soul Food, I describe what I call my ‘ramen moment.’ It was 2004, I was 20 years old, and I had eaten ramen before (both the real kind and the instant kind), but none like the ramen I chanced upon at Daikokuya one drizzly night in downtown Los Angeles. It was my first experience with tonkotsu ramen, with its rich broth of liquefied pig, and that was probably a major part of my revelation. But more importantly, it was just plain good. The kind of good that makes everything else around you fade away into a quiet murmur and a soft focus. It was hypnotically flavorful. And it was addictive – I ate there about twice a month, sometimes more, until I left LA in 2006.
Eight years on, after a research trip to study noodles in Japan followed by a two-year working holiday there, I still adore good ramen and I am delighted to be living in London while the whole city has a ‘ramen moment’ of its own. This occurred to me when I came across an article about ramen written by Rachel Khoo, of The Little Paris Kitchen fame. My initial reaction to the article was self-righteous anger. Who the hell is Rachel Khoo to be writing about ramen? What does she know? Why not ask me to do it, or Ross Shohnan, or Emma Reynolds, or Barak Kushner, or The Skinny Bib – someone who actually knows ramen?
(I felt much the same when I noticed craft beer getting more mainstream press. It’s great that everybody suddenly gives a shit about good beer, I thought, but what the hell were you people drinking five years ago?)
Then I realised this sort of reaction was mostly borne out of petulant jealousy, and also, there’s a damn good reason why ramen geeks might not be the best people to write about ramen for a general audience: we’re too geeky. We’re talking about variations in the moisture content of noodles, splitting hairs over trotters and tails, and debating the relative merits of dried sardines versus toasted flying fish fins. This level of discourse is fun and interesting to people who are really invested in the ramen biz, but to people who are relatively new to ramen, it’s indecipherable gibberish. And what’s more, it doesn’t actually contribute to a better appreciation of ramen among the general population.
It’s easy for city-dwelling food nerds like me to nod in agreement with David Chang’s ‘State of Ramen‘ editorial, forgetting that there are millions – maybe hundreds of millions – of people in the US and the UK who have never even heard of tonkotsu, much less tried it. Chang says he wants New York ramen chefs to stop making so much tonkotsu and branch out into other styles (and personally, I agree with him), but that’s like asking people to stop making so many cheeseburgers or so much pasta with red sauce. The bottom line is that vast swathes of people find tonkotsu ramen irresistibly, unconditionally delicious, and those swathes demand to be fed. Well-made tonkotsu is like the heroin of ramen – it’s a huge, instantaneous rush, and it’s very, very addictive.
I would love to see ramen diversify in London, as Chang would in New York, but we’re probably not at that phase yet – and we’re definitely not at that phase outside of London, where good ramen is still relatively unknown. Which is why, for most people, a ramen article by Rachel Khoo may be more valuable than one written by Chang, or by me. I remember when I was a ramen newbie in college, I read sites like Rameniac and the (sadly now defunct) WorldRamen.net to learn about some of the world’s best bowls and what made them special. Chang calls out that sort of indulgence in ramen cyberporn as a major cause of the decline of regional ramen variations (which is his main beef with tonkotsu). But I’m not sure I totally agree with his condemnation. The dispersion of ramen ideas online may lead to a homogenization of global ramen culture, but I think that’s a long way off, seeing as a global ramen culture is still well under construction.
Which is why I’m happy that Khoo’s article and others like it exist. I’m guessing she’s recently had her ramen moment, and she’s encouraging others to have theirs. She’s writing from the exciting perspective of someone who has just had a revelation, like I did ten years ago. Ramen is a beautiful thing, and I think it has nearly universal appeal – a life without experiencing a great bowl of ramen is like never having tried pizza, or ice cream, or curry. So if you haven’t had your ramen moment, isn’t it time you should?
How to have your ramen moment:
- Go to Japan: flights are incredibly cheap right now!
- If you can’t go to Japan, just go to your nearest good ramen shop. There are more of them than you might think, including places in Aberdeen, Shrewsbury, and Bristol. (Note: you will not have a ‘ramen moment’ at Wagamama.)
- Buy my book, and make good ramen at home!
Robert Sietsema has written an excellent piece on how the ramen boom is actually really annoying.