Wednesday, June 23, 2010

We're ramen (and I hope you like ramen too)

Nothing especially interesting has happened since my last update; last friday and saturday involved drinking beer while eating sushi and singing karaoke, and drinking beer while watching movies, respectively. Nevertheless, I'm in the mood for blogging, so this post shall be one of my glimpses into an aspect of Japanese (pop) culture.

Today I want to discuss noodles. While a lot of bullshit may be talked about Inuits' snow jargon, I can personally vouch for Japanese having at least three commonly used words for noodles. Nobody ever refers to them generically, but instead specifies the type of noodle in question: soba, udon, or ramen.

As a bit of a tangent, you also rarely hear fish or other seafood spoken about generically. This is a country that takes fish very seriously, so while us Brits are happy with fish and chips, the Japanese would want to know exactly what species is under the batter. Conversely, it is not uncommon to see dishes here advertised as containing unspecified 'meat', which would surely set alarm bells ringing back home.

But, noodles. Udon are the fat pale ones made from wheat, while soba are the thinner brownish-grey ones made from buckwheat. The distinction between white and brown bread is a fairly good Western analogy. Historically, soba was stigmatised as peasant food, because buckwheat is essentially a weed that grows anywhere, whereas proper wheat requires proper fields. However, here in Yamagata, soba is favoured as a point of pride. The mountainous terrain here really isn't much use for arable farming, so the hardy buckwheat plant got the region through some tough times. I'm struck by the similarity to the Scots' penchant for oats, which the English deemed suitable only for horses.

Talking of weeds (yes, another digression - what of it?), I learned today that marijuana grows wild around these parts. I was confused by a poster at school that had pictures of the iconic fan leaves, alongside photos of poppies. Asking a teacher, I gathered that the poster was instructing you to report any sightings of these plants to the police. The draconian drug laws here make the UK look positively progressive, so you can rest assured that I won't be going on any suspicious foraging expeditions in the mountains anytime soon.

Back to soba. Now that we have entered the hot and humid summer months, people like to eat cold soba. One is given a big pile of greyish noodles on (not in, on) a slatted bamboo box. Accompanying this is a bowl of dilute soy sauce with bits of spring onion floating in it, to which, if you are any kind of man, you will add a raw egg. One dips a chopsticks-ful of soba into the bowl and then eats it, though to watch a Japanese person do it, the action looks more like inhalation. Squid tempura (also cold) is a popular side-dish to round out the meal. So all-in-all, quite a challenging dish for the gaijin palate. Not bad once you get used to it, though.

That brings me to ramen. There are precious few things Japan likes about China, but ramen - Chinese wheat noodles - is undoubtedly one of them. Ramen fulfills a role similar to the doner kebab at home, namely that of late-night food of choice for the inebriated. However, unlike doner kebabs (to anyone except me), they are also enjoyed as a hearty meal when stone-cold sober.

Within the basic framework of noodles in some kind of broth, there is a lot of scope for variation. The three most popular bases are soy, miso, and salt. The last one strikes me as rather unimaginative, not to mention unhealthy. Every region has its own style, and Akayu ramen are actually modestly famous. I suppose this stands to reason - Akayu is a bit of a party town thanks to its onsen (hot springs) which attract tourists, and after an evening of bathing, drinking far too much, and sexually harassing hostesses, you're going to need some ramen. Anyway, Akayu-style is miso with a generous dollop of fiery chili paste, which I believe is made from locally-grown chilis. Supplementing this are the standard ingredients: char siu pork, bamboo shoots, some leafy vegetable, and a single slice of kamaboko, a weird substance made from processed fish. It's good stuff, but as a resident of Akayu I would say that.

The reason that this is on my mind is that today and yesterday were bento days at school, meaning that the school lunch service was suspended and therefore one should bring a bento (packed lunch). This happens whenever some event is on that means that the school has substantially less than 100% of its students - this time it was a track and field competition. Yesterday it caught me out, necessitating a run to the shop. But today I came prepared with a bowl of Ryu Shanhai instant ramen (literally, 'Shanghai dragon' - ryu means dragon, and should be pronounced as a single syllable, which I didn't realise as a Street Fighter 2-playing 12-year-old).

Japan is of course the brithplace of the instant noodle, and they've raised this much-maligned convenience food to an art form. I'd gone for the top end of the market; Ryu Shanhai is Akayu's number one ramen shop (actually, I think it has spawned a small franchise), and in a massive publicity coup, you can buy a dehydrated approximation of their spicy miso ramen (containing four - count them, four - different sachets) in the supermarket.

My fellow teachers were quite amused by my choice of lunch; I'm not sure whether they were simply happy that I was flying the Akayu flag, or if they thought it was ridiculous that I was eating the freeze-dried facsimile when the actual restaurant was just down the road. At any rate, it was a good conversation point. Everyone has an opinion on what the best ramen joint in town is (there are plenty to choose from) - while Ryu Shanhai is the most famous, not everyone thinks its reputation is deserved. Apparently their recipe is oilier than most, which puts some off. I don't eat ramen all that often, and when I do I am quite often smashed, so I don't have a particularly well-informed opinion on this question. Nevertheless, I claimed that Marie's favourite ramen shop (Shin Ryu - 'new dragon' - are you spotting a theme here?) was my favourite, which got some approving nods.


  1. I was interested by the 'birthplace of the instant noodle' mention. Check out this link for some instant noodle factoids, apparently they're a major world force.

    Now I will resume thesis writing.

  2. Nice link! I think it perhaps overstates the importance of instant noodles a little, but it's still very interesting.

    I give your procrastination an 'A'.

  3. Are you watching the world cup? is there as much hype as there is in England (and by association Scotland)? I have £1 at 400/1 on Japan to win the whole thing.

  4. I haven't watched any of it. The time difference means that most of the matches are past my bedtime. I wanted to go to a bar to watch one of the Japan games that was on a weekend, but apparently watching soccer (as of course it's called here) in pubs isn't really the done thing.

    There seems to be some hype, but since I can't really understand the media I'm pretty insulated from it.

    Your speculative flutter is looking a bit better after the Denmark match.

  5. I bet a fiver on Japan, betting that they would finish bottom of their group. Their success has surprised and disappointed me.

  6. Do you know Ryu Shanghai has a shop at the Ramen Museum in Shin Yokohama? And the line is always LONG, like a 45min wait long!

    Kanagawa and Tokyo ramen is gross. I love Yamagata Miso Ramen!!!


  7. Yep!!!

    Ask Alda about it, she's been there too!