You’ve never had ramen, not if you think it’s a square pack of dehydrated noodles that, treating one side like an ink stamp, can be pressed into cuneiform script. True story. Real ramen is a quick, dirty meal for the salaryman on his way home from a twelve hour day. It’s just a step up the evolutionary ladder from junk food, incredibly salty, and the stock can involve hardy amounts of lard. A steady diet of ramen will give you high blood pressure and love handles.
“The dirtier the ramen shop, the better the ramen” is a common saying. The best ramen is served in cramped dives tucked neatly into every corner of every city in Japan, the seating wrapped around the kitchen like kennels. You’ll have to squeeze in if you want the working man’s meal.
Ramen immigrated from China on the heels of Westerners. Most had been living in China and when they came they brought their Chinese servants with them. And those Chinese servants brought ramen. The first restaurant to serve it was Tokyo’s Rairaiken in 1910, though they called it Shina soba. Shina was a derogatory word for China and the name was quickly changed to Chuka, a more neutral word for Japan’s western neighbor. The word ramen only came in much later in 1958, when the instant noodles popularized the name.
Restaurants like Rairaiken were staffed with Chinese, but Japan’s invasion of China (which the current administration likes its young people to believe was a “foray”) many Chinese were forced to leave Japan. That left their cooking jobs to be filled by native Japanese, who learned how to make the foreign noodle. Many Japanese who learned the trade began carting their appropriated cuisine around in mobile stalls. Menkui, a local Kofu ramenya (ya meaning shop), began as one such portable cookery until the owner set his cart down on a small plot of land and built a restaurant around it. The cart still sits proudly in the center as Ken-san indulges in the occasional glass of beer between orders.
Like any respectable ramenya, it’s not a nest of overpriced food-fashion, it’s just good food and good folk having a good time. It’s ripe with that pleasant “locals-only” atmosphere that makes you slightly nervous about breaking some esoteric rule. But fortunately, there aren’t many things the uninitiated need to know.
Only to slurp your noodles. It’s a polite nod to the chef that shows you enjoy his ramen. The amateur will likely sacrifice a shirt or two to oily splatters, but it’s a small price to pay for enjoying the humble peat of the many layered Japanese cuisine.
There is too though, a man rule. Ladies can scoop up noodles with chopsticks and place them in the spoon for easier delivery, but for guys it’s considered effeminate. Leave those spoons alone, guys, unless you’re breaking apart your chashew (roasted pork fillets.)
Ramen comes in many varieties, but the Big Four are miso, soy sauce, salt, and tonkotsu. Miso ramen is a Japanese invention, the added miso making a thicker, tangier stock. Soy sauce ramen is well rounded and versatile. Salt is lighter, and more delicate. Hearty and thick, Tonkotsu’s stock includes visible chunks of lard for a milky consistency. There are also regional varieties catering to local tastes.
If your a first timer and not sure which to order, go with miso. I usually order negi (leek) miso ramen at unknown ramenya. You have to try hard to make bad miso ramen, though there are places that do it quite successfully. The ramen in the picture is the spicy miso at Aoba, on the fourth floor of Kofu station’s Eclan department store, which I frequent. Miso is always a solid choice.
While finding ramen is easy, finding good ramen is quite hard–unless you do happen to speak a little Japanese. If you can, ask the locals where the good stuff is. They’ll know, because when a ramenya is good, people know. Everyone in Japan is a ramen connoisseur.
And wherever they direct you, they’ll know the owner by name. Because ramenya are tiny and the chef cooks it right in front of you. We talk to the owner, we know him; he smiles–or as some are know for, never smiles–and laughs at our bad jokes, throwing in a few of his own now and then as he serves up what he makes everyday, hundreds of times a day, very well.
And that’s why people love it, because ramen doesn’t come from national chains, it comes from our neighbors.