Monday, March 26, 2007

The Ramen Continuum

Mmmm, ramen.

There are many wonderful variations on the ‘noodles and broth’ theme throughout the world, all with their own tastes, textures and presentations. There's Vietnamese Pho, light and fragrant yet full of the rich flavor of beef and the crunch of bean sprouts. And Japanese Udon, thick and slippery, soft yet chewy. There's the classic Italian torellini in brodo, little soft navels of rich meat in egg pasta, gently simmered in an unadorned meat broth. Of course there’s chicken noodle soup, the childhood/sickbed favorite that even the most sophisticated palates rarely outgrow. And there's another Japanese noodle called Soba made from buckwheat flour, grainy and with a serious chew, often dipped in a side bowl of broth just to be different. There's a simple dish of rice noodles and broth that I had for breakfast in Thailand where the fun is in twirling the accompanying tray of condiments and deciding what to spice your breakfast up with (sliced thai chiles in fish sauce, please!)

There are many more still, enough that, if you live in a decent food city like I do (Boston) with a lot of different ethnic restaurants, you might find that you have a different favorite every few weeks or months that you exclusively dedicate yourself to. Vietnamese food was mostly new to me when I moved to Boston in 1999, and so when I discovered the wealth of Vietnamese restaurants in this city Pho duly occupied most of the part of my brain devoted to noodles in broth for a while. And of course I still love it and eat it a few times a year.

But it seems I always return to ramen eventually. What does ramen mean to you? For me, ramen means many things. I see myself sitting at Eli Kurtz’s kitchen table while in high school, eagerly slurping down 25 cent packages of Top Ramen, beef flavor. I remember eating oodles of the same stuff during college as it was cheap and quick. I remember slowly starting to develop myself as a cook during late college and after and experimenting with the basic packaged ramen recipe, adding steamed vegetables, spicy condiments, black mushrooms, eventually substituting my own (not entirely homemade) broths, or even just soy sauce and sesame oil instead of the little packages of caked MSG.

I remember seeing a memorable movie called Tampopo, probably my favorite movie about food . A young woman’s quest for the perfect ramen recipe to serve in her small restaurant is the core of this wonderful movie that mixes many different cinematic metaphors (western, gangster, Godard, slapstick), yet retains an easy and charismatic warmth as it experiments and cuts from one storyline to another.

My current appreciation is largely due to one of my favorite places to eat in all of Boston, Ken’s Ramen. It resides in a small space right next to the asian supermarket Super88 in Allston. It serves a few different styles – soy sauce, clear salt, miso, and a thicker, cloudier broth that I forget the name of. I usually have the soy sauce flavor. I think the different styles mostly refer to how they salt the broth, as all of them except the miso are clearly meat broths.

The broth, of course, is the key to superior ramen, as it is to most soups around the world. Ken’s is light yet rich, with great depth of flavor, never overwhelming the springy texture and eggy taste of the crinkled noodles, the soft greenery of chopped spinach or the butter-soft slices of pork belly that lie atop the carefully swirled noodles. The briny, musty crunch of pickled bamboo shoots provide the requisite sharp contrast to rest of the comforting ingredients.

Still, I feel that there are two places in the ramen continuum that I have yet to visit, two places I need to go to fully understand and appreciate ramen. Number one is to experience ramen in Japan. To see what rises to the top in a culture devoted to this humble noodle of Chinese extraction, and to see the grand spectrum of styles and recipes in a place where every corner has its own humble (or not so humble) shop dishing it out to hungry people. Number two would be, of course, to make the real stuff myself. But how far to really go in this venture? Would I really make the noodles from scratch? Is that even possible in a home kitchen? Would making a real ramen broth from scratch be enough? Is this a stupid idea anyway? I don’t think ramen is made at home in Japan except from the little packages- the real stuff is for eating out. But still, I'm probably influenced by the romance of the movies, but it seems like a great adventure.
Anyway, here’s to ramen!

No comments: