Sunday, May 8, 2011

A touch of Ramen


In Tokyo today for a last meal before we all head back to Manila after our spur-of-the-moment trip to Japan, my friends requested we return to a ramen shop I took them to on our first day together last week. It's a large and friendly place right smack in the middle of Shibuya and it's an outpost of a famous ramen shop from Osaka.

"What would you like to have for lunch?" I had asked them, when I met them in front of Omotesando Hills last week. On the way to our rendezvous point, I'd already been thinking of where to take them, and had about a dozen places in mind -- many of which I myself wanted to go and eat at because I'm so rarely in Tokyo these days.

One of them was Maisen, my fourth-favorite tonkatsu place in this part of the world, which is about a five minute walk from Omotesando Hills. The first three tonkatsu places are much better but they're a pain to get to from Omotesando, so I was quite happy to settle for #4, which serves a very decent kurobuta tonkatsu with a special grated apple sauce.

I also had in mind two very nice French restaurants including one very old-fashioned place called Chez Pierre. Nothing very fancy and stiff, but excellent food nonetheless. And I had not been to either in ages. So eating out with my friends from Manila was a good opportunity for me to revisit these old haunts.

RAMEN FOR LUNCH

Well, it seems my friends had all already had a conference about what to have for lunch that day, and the verdict -- passed unanimously before I'd arrived -- was for a first meal in Japan of ramen. It turns out they're all ramen addicts, which was slightly unfortunate for me, as that is probably the one Japanese food I have very little feeling for. If I had to choose where to eat along a street full of restaurants in Tokyo, the ramen shop would be the last place I would choose. There's absolutely nothing wrong with ramen, of course, and many Japanese are fanatical about it which is why you'll see a ramen shop every hundred meters or so in Tokyo; but I'd personally have anything else before ramen.

OUTVOTED BUT NOT OUT-EATEN

But since I was outvoted last week, I gamely took them to Kamukura ramen, which is the best ramen shop I knew of in that part of town. It started out pretty small and purist but now it's part of a hugely successful chain known for maintaining the quality of its ramen. It doesn't have a Michelin star or anything near that -- yes, there is a ramen shop with a Michelin star -- but it's pretty good as far as I'm concerned. Well, everyone loved it so much that they made me promise to join them in Japan and take them there again on their next trip sometime in December.

And that was also when I was having my next bowl of ramen in Japan, I thought.

But today, everyone had the hankering for that very ramen again, so off we went to Shibuya for a last hurrah before Manila. Frankly, I was fantasizing about a very civilized sushi lunch at Kyubey in Ginza, but this was a democracy and, even if I was driving and interpreting for everyone, I was outvoted again.

THE ESSENCE OF RAMEN

What makes a ramen very good?

Well, the life of a good ramen (at least for me) comes in three parts:

1. Very good soup. The soup is broth made from all kinds of vegetables and meats, depending on the shop, and it's usually made to boil for hours or days. The best broth is flavorful but not overly strong as that will kill the overall taste. Like most famous ramen shops, Kamukura's broth ingredients are top secret and they reportedly guard this secret so zealously that the soup is made in two batches in two separate factories, and then these two concoctions are combined and then used in the restaurant. This way, no one employee has full information on the broth; so he or she can't just quit work one day and start a ramen shop to rival Kamukura.

2. The firmness of the noodles. Just like with Italian pasta, noodles should be firm and chewy but not at all undercooked. Soft noodles are a big turn-off as this will make the dish feel like a big bowl of mush. Kamukura's noodles are done a wee bit short of al-dente so that they turn just right as they are being eaten from a piping hot bowl of broth.

3. Juicy slices of tonkotsu. The slices of pork are the finishing touch and they make or break the ramen, as far as I'm concerned. You want thinly-sliced pork with just enough ratio of meat and fat. Meat that is too lean will be dry and will feel like cardboard in the ramen; while meat with too much fat will be too oily to eat and enjoy. Not very many ramen shops get this right all the time, but so far, on the two times that my friends and I visited Kamukura in Shibuya, the tonkotsu was absolutely heaven -- so much so that I wished I could take some home to Manila.

OPTIONS FOR RAMEN

There's lots of other optional toppings to order for your ramen including a hard-boiled egg and other vegetables, but I'm a bit of purist and so I wanted as much as possible to have my ramen simplest so as to enjoy the broth and the noodles -- and of course the tonkotsu. There was also garlic, spicy miso and spicy scallions on the table in case anyone wanted more stuff to spice up their (ramen) life.

FAMOUS CUSTOMERS FOR RAMEN

Kamukura ramen in Shibuya is a quick-paced, no-fuss shop but it's filled with the signatures of famous people from Japan and abroad who've come and had ramen here. They have a very funny way of welcoming people to their shop as well. Instead of the usual "irrashaimase" (which means welcome in Japanese), they shout at "Greeting desu." I have no idea why this is so, but it certainly made us all laugh last week.

It also has an interesting philosophy written on large signs on its walls: The first time you visit and taste their ramen, you'll be surprised because it's a ramen taste you will never have had before; the second time, you will be surprised because you will discover a new taste completely different from your first time; and the third time you visit, you will come to understand the original taste of Kamukura ramen.

Well, we had the same ramen twice (#21, which is ramen with tonkotsu and lots of green onions; no egg) and I don't think we discovered any new tastes; but the second time, we certainly liked it just as much as we did on the first visit.

And, just in case you're wondering, yes, I'm a ramen fan now. Maybe my tag line should now be "My never-ending Ramen life...."


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