I thought I was so cool. I could boil water in a saucepan. I could tear open the plastic packaging that contained but two items: rock-hard and waxy dried noodles, and a small foil flavor packet emblazoned with Japanese characters. I could plunge the noodles into the boiling water, and time it for a couple of minutes. I could open the flavor packet with my teeth and stir it into the water and noodles, all the while marveling at how those little green dry specks would transform into something that may or may not have once been a shred of green onion. Or parsley. It didn’t matter, for I was twelve years old, and it was obvious that I was a brilliant chef. I had mastered Sapporro Ichiban ramen.
Throughout my teens, Ichiban dried ramen was the go-to lunch when my mom was either too tired to cook, or as was more often the case, just plain uninterested in providing the necessities of life for her increasingly hairy and smelly offspring. Left to my own device, my experiments were ever more culinarily badass. Perhaps a version of ramen with the addition of broccoli would be in order. Maybe even a hard-boiled egg. Genius. Pure genius.
When I first left that hotbed of stern parental culinary tutelage and went on the road as the sound-man for a rock band, Sapporro Ichiban became an essential item in the road-warrior survival kit. It was cheap, somewhat filling, and pretty darn hard to screw up. Sometimes, we could afford the vegetables to add into the mix, but more often we could not. To put it mildly, the quality of the band was accurately reflected by our financial status.
Years went by. I moved from twiddling knobs at the sound-board to playing bass. The bands gradually got better, and by 1987, I found myself in a decent club band with a 4 month house gig in Honolulu, Hawaii, six nights a week 9:30 PM until 3AM. Unable to afford a car, I would take long hikes in the daytime in order to alleviate the boredom that inevitably sets in when the novelty of being in a tropical tourist town wears off. One day, I found myself in the Ala Moana shopping center, a large mall. I saw a steamy window in a small little storefront that said “Ramen”. I decided to try it, so I went in. What arrived was not the ramen I remembered making, to say the least. There were slices of pork, a couple of tempura prawns, yellow(!) noodles, bean sprouts, and slices of hard-boiled egg. There was deep-fried garlicky something on top. Shocking. After a couple of slurps, I even began to suspect that the broth did not come from one of the little foil flavor packets. There was something else going on here. I began to doubt my kitchen genius.
Since then, every once in a while in my travels I would get a glimpse of the majesty that is a good bowl of ramen. There was a good one in financial district of Frankfurt, Germany, where there is a large population of Japanese people. A pilgrimage to Tokyo, where strangely, there is also a substantial Japanese population, yielded another transcendent ramen moment. I began to realize what the Japanese had known for a very long time: ramen is edible art. Some ramen chefs in Tokyo are as famous as rock stars, and the quality of ramen creation is taken very seriously. Most importantly, there is the broth. It can be miso, pork, or chicken based. Spicy or not. Rich or lean. In any case, it’s the foundation that everything is built on. Then there are the noodles, usually an alkaline yellow noodle that should be served somewhat al dente.
Once those two bases are covered, it’s game-on. Stewed bamboo shoots maybe. Slices of BBQ pork. Prawns. Seaweed. Egg. There is even a curious trend that has come into vogue that sees canned corn being added to the mix.
Some foodie friends (you know who you are) turned me on to Kintaro Ramen on Denman Street in the West End, and I am forever in their debt. The ramen served here is nothing short of spectacular. Everything is handmade (except for the noodles, perhaps), and it shows. Four huge vats of broth bubble in the open kitchen, each containing rich, medium, or light pork-bone broths, or a miso based broth. The chefs meticulously lay out 6 bowls at a time, and precisely assemble every bowl to order, gradually adding each ingredient, building layers of complexity and flavor. Like sitting at a really good sushi bar, it’s as much fun to watch as it is to eat.
When your bowl or ramen is served, be prepared. This is not a light meal, but it’s oh so good! I think it safe to say that it is the best ramen I’ve had anywhere. Others must agree, because there is almost always a line of people waiting to get in. So long as the lineup is ten people or less, it’s worth standing outside and waiting to get in. Much like the Tian Tian Chicken stall at the Maxwell Road Food Court in Singapore, where the lineup can be 40 minutes for a three dollar serving of chicken and rice, your patience will be rewarded.
My regular order is the medium Shoyu broth with fat BBQ pork. $10.95. Last time I ordered it and the waitress asked me if I wanted lean or fat pork. “Fat” I replied, and she smiled broadly, giving me the knowing look that seemed to say: “Skinny gaijin knows what’s best”. I’ve only been able to finish it all once, and when I did, I felt somewhat like an anaconda on a riverbank with an antler protruding from my mouth.
Okay, so it’s time to face some grim facts. I am not, nor have I ever been a kitchen genius, despite the aforementioned ability to open a foil flavor packet with my teeth. There. I said it.