Saturday, June 04, 2005

The Ramen Devas: Ramen Enlightenment

At times I am horrendously embarrassed to let people know that I collect Hello Kitty items. However, I am always reminded how the queen of kawaii ensnared me into her evil trap. It is a trap of innocent cuteness wrapped around an interesting topic/subject with a giant hook of creative, miniaturized detail wedged down the middle. Its that hook of detail that sends me into Google mode. I will want to know why Kitties are dressed a certain way. Is it for a festival? When and where is it and what is the festival for? Why is that weird bird is perched her head and why is she sitting in a hangiri? As usual there is little wasted detail on these regional/limited Kitties and I always enjoy what I end up learning.

So my obsession from the most recent shipment? Ramen: How could a certified starch queen not know the true nature of this wonderful food? I am grateful to Kitty for opening my eyes to the possibilities and for showing me the path to Ramen Enlightenment.

Stage One: EARTH : Its fast, filling and cheap... but is it ramen?

The Dry Pack: What I thought was ramen
Revelational Source: College Dormitory Cooking

Ramen isn't the dried block of stuff that became a pantry staple for every college student who grew tired of macaroni and cheese variations. I sort of understood that when my mom made me a bowl of some ramen that was sent from my aunt. This was a partially dried variety with a very simple shoyu broth. I thought that this ramen was the best thing I had ever had but as usual, my mom crinkled her nose and said "Its not that good. Its not as good as real ramen." So I offered to unburden my mother's shelves of this inferior noodles but she said that my Dad really liked them and I 'd get too fat eating them so she'd hang on to them.

Stage Two: PERIPETIA : Is this what the dry stuff is trying to be?

Miyako Frozen Pack: What I learned ramen could be
Revelational Source: ANA Supermart

Fast-forward to about a year ago - I found some Miyako frozen nama ramen. It was a difficult choice to make since my habitual flavor choices involved small foil packages of chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, mushroom -- and if I was really adventurous creamy chicken (ugh). The Miyako selection was strange; I had a choice of miso, soy-vinegar or salt. What the heck was this I thought. I decided that since I liked miso soup, miso would be the logical choice for a first try.

I'm not sure if it was because the noodles had been frozen and then defrosted, but it was quite a challenge to cook the noodles. In all honesty, it was a noodle massacre. The noodles lost and my victory was a shallow one with over-cooked, broken strands and little end bits that had clumped together. Yet, despite its unattractive appearance it was better than the partially dried version I had shared with my mom over a decade ago. Who knows how good they could be when I learned how to cook them properly!

Stage Three: TRUTH : Ramen Is

Hakata Ippudo's Tonkotsu Ramen, live and unedited!:
What I learned ramen truly is
Revelation Source: Hello Kitty's Four Ramen Devas limited series

My noodle massacre gave me new-found respect for ramen; for those who know how to cook it and for the food itself. When I found the Hello Kitty "Four Ramen Devas" limited series I knew this was a signal for me to reach for the Google button. Oh what fun I had and oh what a sticky process - I can't read Kanji (chinese characters) and my katakana/hirigana skills are that of a two-year-old dog. Thank god my mac displays them all, thank god for Google's language tools, Jim Breen, and foodie blogs. I would have gone insane without them.

Kitty Teaches the Path of Ramen Enlightenment

My latest additions: netsukes and memo pads from the limited "Ramen Devas" line

The name itself should give you an idea of just how serious ramen is in Japan. Devas, in Hinduism and Buddhism refer to "exalted beings" - charismatic, shining ones who are on a higher realm than normal mortals. Clearly, a good ramen chef will make or break that hot bowl of pleasure so the ones that excel at their craft earn the adoration of the mortal, slurping peons.

Kitty introduces her choice of exalted ramen masters:

Kitty does the vogue as she poses as the "ogre of food". She's not kidding about her stance: this is serious business buddy.

Sano-san of Shinasobaya - Considered by many as the first name in ramen, this is where every ramenista-in-training should begin their lessons. Sano-san emphasizes the importance of selective ingredients and the time needed for proper preparation in order to cultivate a profound flavor. His soups appear to be simple (emphasis on the clear shoyu and shio varieties) but are said to be rich in flavor. The use of the Nagoya cochin (a special breed of chicken) for his soup base, special wheat for his noodles and the chashaomin are hallmark features of Shinasobaya.

> sorry, no homepage to be found

Kitty pays tribute to the Donald Trump of Kyushu by donning the trademark Ippudo bandana or tenegui. It is to remind us that even though Kawahara is thinking of a global ramen market he still cooks and sweats behind the counter when he's needed

Shigemi Kawahara of Ippudo - Ippudo specializes in tonkostu ramen - a version that comes from Hakata, Kyushu. The broth for the noodles is white and creamy, made the marrow of pork bones (nice and fatty!) He opened his first restaurant in 1979, and opened the first Hakata Ippudo in 1985. Now president of Chikara no Moto (a food service company) Kawahara is changing the look and feel of traditional ramen houses, expanding its menu and taking the franchise overseas. Right now, Kawahara is hoping to open 60 ramen shops in China by the 2008 Beijing Olympics and hopefully an Ippudo in New York. Sounds good to me. When is Ippudo coming to my neck of the woods?

> Ippudo's homepage:
> non-flash version:
> Chikara no Moto:

Kitty emulates the dramatic draining-of-the-noodles stance that has become part of Nakamurasan's pop mystique

Shigetoshi Nakamura of Nakamuraya Co. Ltd - He is the young, twenty-something ramen genius of Fujisawa City, Kanagawa. I guess the best analogy I can use to sum up the web reviews of his work: the Iron Chef Morimoto of Ramen. Nakamura has become somewhat of a sensation not only for his ramen but for his rapid ascension to the top of the noodle pile - all done without the lengthy apprenticeship that is sometimes expected of the best Ramen Devas or "ramen oyajis". Like Kawahara, Nakamura would like to change the concept of traditional urban noodle houses, making them oriented towards family dining and expanding the menu to include European inspired entrees and patisserie.

> Nakamuraya:

Kitty dons the Menya Musashi uniform of red-shirt, brown pants and her favorite, the tenegui. Now she's ready for the long line of customers waiting outside for some hot ramen!

Yamadasan of Menya Musashi - One of the most popular "ramen-yas" in Shinjuku, Menya Musashi specializes in shoyu ramen - a ramen served with a clear soy-sauce seasoned broth. Many fans of the tonkotsu varieties won't stick-up their noses at this traditionally "lighter" variety because of the stock it's master chefs brew: a blend of a fish and pork broths, served with thick noodles. Yamada also takes a spin on the "simpler" variety of stock by keeping his menus in synch with seasons.

> sorry, no homepage to be found



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