It's just soup. It's just soup. It's just soup.
I find myself repeating this dullard's mantra to myself every time I'm swept into what I've started to refer to as "The Ramen Conversation" — which consists mostly of declarative yelling.
This broth is horrible!
That is not authentic!
You're calling this pork belly?
These noodles are store-bought!
For many reasons, some obvious and some not, the craved-by-humanity category of Japanese noodle-and-broth soup known as ramen has the ability to incite zealotry in anyone physically able to lift chopsticks. Our city has long lacked a ramen identity, but more and more local options are presenting themselves each day. Couple this burgeoning "scene" and its combative constituents with Philly's propensity for tearing down pretty much everything, and the city's become a ramen battleground ahead of the armies even arriving.
We've been bombarded by high-end burgers and pelted by artisanal pizza, but ramen is new here. It's shown up, but sporadically, like that errant raindrop that strikes your cheek so lightly you can't tell if it's raining or not. It's about to pour. Get a spoon.
For all the hand-wringing and histrionics surrounding it, the basic definition of ramen is so straightforward it's almost annoying. Like any Asian soup, it's just flavored broth, noodles and toppings. Variations on those pillars, of course, can get ultra-nerdy and confusing.
Originally infiltrating Japan from China in the mid-19th century, when the Japanese began cooking and serving shina soba, or "Chinese-style" soup, ramen in the intrinsic format we recognize today — meaty broth, chewy wheat noodles, roasted pork, various vegetables — began showing up as street food in the 1920s. Ramen secured eternal international recognition in 1958, when former banker Momofuku Ando invented instant ramen and founded Nissin Foods. (Just add water, son!) It might not seem this way, but it's a relatively contemporary addition to Japanese food culture. "If you see people in an old-timey samurai movie eating ramen, you know there's a problem," says Frank Chance, associate director of the Center for East Asian Studies at UPenn.
Over the past 100 years, ramen (theorized to be a linguistic appropriation of the Chinese term "la mien," hand-manipulated noodles) has been enthusiastically adopted as the go-to budget dish of the Japanese, and the island nation is rapaciously protective of it. "There's a ritualized affection for any kind of eating in Japan," says Chance, who's lived, worked and studied in Japan and travels there yearly. "[Ramen] is a food that generates a lot of passion. It's a very simple food, but it's the kind of simple that people just love."
"It has this mystique," writes New York chef David Chang in his 2009 autobio-cookbook Momofuku, named for the noodle bar many credit with kickstarting intense neo-interest in ramen on the East Coast. (The noodle bar itself? Named for Ando.) "But it's soup with noodles in it, topped with stuff. That's it. I love ramen, but the sanctimony that's often attached to it is a bit too much."
Of course, Chang possesses the cred to make such whatev-who-cares proclamations, then turn around and release a fanciful 174-page full-color periodical centered entirely around the topic. "There's nothing comparable in America to the Japanese obsession with ramen and its variations," he says in the 2011 debut issue of Lucky Peach. "Not the burger craze, the pizza craze, the barbecue craze. They don't even come close to the ramen craze here in Japan."
Indeed, every region in Japan lays aggressive claim to its own style of ramen, and listing them all here would likely cause you to get frustrated and go nuke a Cup Noodles in dorm-room defiance. But there are a handful of extremely common umbrella ramen categories worth digesting — shoyu, or soy-based; shio, a lighter, prettier style flavored with salt in lieu of soy; miso, clouded with fermented bean paste that can range from delicate to intense; and tonkotsu, with a stock derived from hard-boiled pork meat and bones and aromatics. Examples of each of these soups are either currently available in Philly or soon will be. From what I've seen, Americans seem to rhapsodize the most about tonkotsu, probably because We the People love us some fatty shit.
The particulars of the venues where ramen is distributed to the audibly slurping masses — called ramen-ya — vary wildly. "In Japan, [ramen-ya] range from the street-side shanty to upscale places where they play only Miles Davis on the stereo and the cook is dressed like an artist," says Chance. "But the best ones always seem to be the little shop around the corner that doesn't look like anything from the outside."
My recent frigid experience waiting for a stool at the minuscule Totto Ramen, stuffed into a low-ceilinged, amazing-smelling subterranean broom closet in NYC's Hell's Kitchen, lent brothy credence to Chance's claim. As I stood inside the temporary weather enclosure framing the steps leading down, a silent member of a frostbitten Greek chorus, I kept catching judgmental fragments of pedestrians' conversations as they power-walked by. I mean, it's OK. Is it really that great? Waaaay too hyped. Ugh, that stuff is bad for you. I wanted to roundhouse them all in the face but I didn't want to lose my place in line. One hour and 45 minutes later, I was at the bar, thawing out my brain with an amazingly precise chicken paitan soup topped with blowtorched-to-order pork-belly slices the size of playing cards. Badass noodles with unapologetic al dente bite. And a sand-tan boiled egg, the kind that crumbles into pieces with a lazy nudge, filling the bowl with silky yolk shards that scatter across the surface of the broth like breath-blown dandelion seeds.
Really simple. Really fucking good.
Crushing that tremendous bowl, and dozens of others, has left me wondering: How long will it be until our city is overtaken with fully realized ramen-ya experiences like this? If the rabid local reactions to ramen-centric pop-ups, the choleric dialogue surrounding the soup and the insatiable demand for new options count for anything, the audience is there, and the audience is hungry. But early dissatisfaction and harsh rebukes among area ramenheads suggest aspiring soupmeisters should proceed with caution.
"There are 100 million people in Japan, right?" asks Yuichi "Ben" Watanabe. (For what it's worth, it's more like 126-ish million.) "Well, 100 million of them eat ramen. Everyone loves it."
Watanabe, the former chef of Aoi Sushi (now Aki) on Walnut Street, is the stone-faced kitchen capo at Ramen Boy, Philadelphia's first dedicated ramen restaurant. Making soup for 20 years, Watanabe is a native of Yokohama, which also happens to be home to Japan's only dedicated ramen museum. Open since Feb. 10, his two-years-in-the-making Chinatown parlor fielded huge crowds the moment it began filling bowls with broth and chewy housemade alkaline noodles. "We just opened the door, didn't tell anyone we were open," says Ramen Boy co-owner Nelson Tam, also a partner in the nearby Yakitori Boy. "But people just started coming."
It's a populist dish for sure, but so is spaghetti and meatballs. What the hell is it about ramen that makes it so magnetic, especially in a place like Philly, which has long lacked comparative material?
The soup's unique standing within the Japanese cooking canon might have something to do with it. "Traditional Japanese flavors are very simple and elegant, and ramen is a counter to that," says Stephen Simons, who's aiming to open Royal Izakaya & Sushi with partner Dave Frank and chef Todd Dae Kulper before the summer. "Ramen is a dish full of complexity and layers, and it's often muddy and delicious." In early 2011, they hosted a pop-up centered around Kulper's hakata-style tonkotsu ramen at their Khyber Pass Pub and were surprised by the hardcore turnout. They opened the doors at 5 p.m.; by 5:05, every seat in the place, including at the bar, had been commandeered.