A cheap lunch has drawn me to Tokyo. It is a long way to travel to save a couple of quid on fast food, granted, but since I started visiting Japan around 10 years ago, I have become obsessed, haunted, by one Japanese lunch staple in particular: the salty-savoury flavours, steamy-meaty aromas and chewy-soft textures that lurk in a proper bowl of serious, seductive ramen.
Japan, too, is in the midst of its own colossal, collective ramen fixation. This is the so-called "ramen boom", which, in Tokyo alone, sees a new shop open every day; where each week countless newspaper articles and magazine features are published about it and TV shows are aired; not to mention the blogs (oh, how many working hours have I burnt browsing those back home?) and guidebooks which contribute to the ceaseless chatter on what you'd think would be the relatively limited subject of noodle soup. Ramen might be Chinese in origin, but the Japanese have made it their own. A new manga has just been launched here; its hero is a cat who runs a ramen shop.
Within minutes of checking in, I leave my hotel, wild-eyed and desperate for ramen, any ramen. The first place I come across is a dingy, greasy, narrow shop with all the charm of a Kwik-Fit waiting-room. Here I buy a token from the machine at the door, hand it to the chef and sit expectantly at the counter. It is a tonkotsu, or "pork bone", ramen, one of the four main categories – along with soy, salt and miso – which together head an almost infinitely diverse ramen family tree. As with many of the most memorable culinary flavours – well-hung game, the funkier French cheeses, offal – a proper tonkotsu should taste faintly of the barnyard, but this one has tipped fatally into the realm of animal bottoms.
My second bowl, an hour or so later, is at Mist, one of the new wave of upscale ramen restaurants targeting women, on the top floor of the chic Omotesando Hills mall. A waitress takes my coat as I enter – not something I have ever experienced at a ramen restaurant. Inside, all is moody lighting and glittery stainless steel. I choose a miso ramen, which, at 1,400 yen (£10), is double the price of my first. It is an improvement, but doesn't make my hair stand on end as some ramen can.
Clearly, with about 4,000 ramen shops in Tokyo alone (and 80,000 in Japan as a whole), I need guidance. As evening arrives, I meet Rickmond Wong at Shin-Daita station in western Tokyo. A Chinese-American from LA, 35-year-old Wong is the author of rameniac.com, one of the handful of English-language ramen blogs I follow avidly. Wong is a self-employed web designer, a job which, he explains as we walk to a nearby ramen joint, allows him to travel as often as possible to Japan to indulge his passion for ramen.
"Really, the best ramen in LA would only get a bronze medal in Tokyo," he sighs. Why doesn't ramen travel, I wonder? "The water is so important," he says, echoing what several of Japan's top kaiseki chefs have told me. "And you can get away with selling lesser ramen in London. There is a lack of education, but that is changing." (For what it's worth, Wong names Brewer Street's Ten Ten Tei as the least worst of London's offerings.)
We are heading for Basanova, a ramen restaurant owned by a chef from Fukuoka who has recently handed over the ' reigns to Keizo Shimamoto, a Japanese-American, also originally from LA. Shimamoto is now "living the dream", as his blog, goramen.com, puts it, of becoming a ramen chef.
As we arrive, Shimamoto, 32, with a dinky goatee and back-to-front baseball cap, is busy studying the viscosity of his pork broth, holding a sample of the soup up to the light in a refractor, a common tool of the modern ramen chef. "I'm looking for a rating of between five and 10," he explains. "Beyond 10 and it gets too thick, it's more of a sauce." Last year, Shimamoto travelled the length of Japan eating 55 bowls in 21 cities in 28 days. "I probably eat at least two bowls a day," he reveals.
Basanova's signature green-curry ramen is indeed thick – and frisky for Japanese palates, I'd imagine, but delicious. As the last guest leaves, Shimamoto invites me into the kitchen. Very few Japanese people get to venture into a ramen kitchen, let alone a gaijin, and I spend a good hour sticking my nose in the stock pots (which consume more than 20 kilos of pork bones and 10 pig's heads every three days), sniffing the roast pork and trying to decipher the ingredients of the tare.
The tare, or foundation sauce, is the soul of a bowl of ramen. Usually soy sauce-based, it might also feature the cooking juices from the pork, as well as sake, sugar, mirin and dashi, plus ginger, garlic, onion oil and, well, anything else the chef's whim dictates. "Is this the most important element of ramen?" I ask Shimamoto of his dark and syrupy potion. "Kind of," he replies. "But really great ramen is about a balance between the broth, the noodles, the tare and the topping."
The next day Shimamoto and Wong kindly invite me to tag along on one of their ramen expeditions, along with another American blogger, Nate Shockey, 27 (of ramenate.com). A graduate of Stanford and – soon – Columbia, Shockey has been studying contemporary Japanese literature in Tokyo for a year-and-a-half. Fluent in written and spoken Japanese, he is considered the ramen scholar of the three.
Aside from the risk to their health of indulging almost daily in what for all its myriad charms is a fatty, salty dish, all have made quite alarming sacrifices to follow their ramen passion. Wong has a Japanese wife back in LA and must spend a fortune on air fares ("I am actually thinking of moving here so that I don't feel I have to eat ramen all the time," he jokes); Shockey, as well as being Jewish (he doesn't eat the slices of roast pork), has been a fervent vegetarian from the age of 10; and Shimamoto broke up with his girlfriend of seven years to move to Japan to train as a ramen chef.
Our first stop is Tetsu, a renowned tsuke-men or "dipping ramen" place, where the noodles are served separately from the soup, a scorching-hot iron pebble being added midway to reheat your broth. "I'm not a big tsuke-men fan, but that is impressive," says Shimamoto. It is indeed. Rich, hearty and with impeccable, if alarmingly fat noodles.
Next is Harukiya, a famous and venerated 60-year-old ramen place in Ogikubo, said to have served Tokyo's first shoyu, or soy ramen – now the city's signature style. But first we have to pass the gate-keeper, the mistress of the restaurant who, seeing our cameras, grills us for 10 minutes on our intentions. Shockey steps in with his immaculate, courtly Japanese to placate the woman whose soup, I have to admit, is mighty fine – clear, simple and clean-tasting. "Have you noticed it's not steaming?" asks Shockey. A finger-thick layer of oil is locking in the heat – ramen is invariably served nuclear-hot, which is why the Japanese slurp it with such gusto. "This for me is the platonic ideal of ramen. Tampopo ramen," he adds, holding up some of the noodles with reverence. They glisten in the sunlight. "If you look closely you can see my soul in this bowl," sighs Shimamoto.
Talk turns to the wilder reaches of ramen culture, of a restaurant where they dump a scoop of ice-cream in the middle of the soup, for instance; of one, Arirang, which shuns publicity, refuses to give its address (there is only an artist's impression in the magazines) and if you don't order in the correct manner they won't serve you; and another where the noodles are made with charcoal. There is a peanut- butter ramen, and even one where they add coffee to the soup. Shimamoto and Shockey have recently been to a shop where the toppings included shark cartilage and sake lees. "And there is a place in Yonegawa where they serve bear-paw ramen," says the former. "You have to order it three days in advance, so the owner can go out and shoot the bear." "Have you been to the place that bills itself as the worst ramen shop in Tokyo?" chuckles Wong. They have, of course.
Curry ramen is this week's trend, Shockey tells me; before that it was burnt-miso ramen. "I'm a fan of the Iberian ham ramen," says Wong. All have recently tried vegetarian or vegan ramen and suggest that organic, or "natural" ramen as they call it, is the coming trend. I mention that I've been to Mist, the upscale place in Omotesando. "I've been there," says Wong. "I can't really remember it, though. I was there on a date and I was extra-nervous because I just found out she was kind of famous in Japan. She was a Power Ranger."
This does rather stop us in our tracks, but only for a moment, as our next restaurant beckons. This is Keisuke in Takadanobaba, a contemporary place run by a French-trained chef. Keisuke is a rising star of Japanese ramen, championed by the Robert Parkers of the ramen world, critics such as Hideyuki Ishigami, "the man with the golden tongue", and chef Sanu Minoru, the "ramen demon", whose every pronouncement on noodle texture is awaited with baited breath by legion of ramen aficionados. The soup is based on a shrimp stock, but it leaves me a little underwhelmed. "Not bad, but I wouldn't come back, and that's the real test for me," agrees Shimamoto. "Hey, shrimp ain't ya jam, man!" responds Shockey.
"In one sense you are always getting the same thing when you eat ramen," Shockey admits at our fourth and final restaurant, the trendy fish-soup shop Watanabe nearby, highly rated on the – sadly – Japanese language-only Supleks ramen-restaurant ranking website, used by all connoisseurs (ramendb. supleks.jp). "But at the same time it is endlessly different. The pleasure for me is seeing what each place does." "Ramen takes on the character of the people and ingredients around it," adds Shimamoto. "In Kyushu, they have more pork; up in Sapporo, they use butter and corn. Whatever grows in the region, they use it in ramen."
I am planning to venture forth on my own ramen quest in the coming days and want to know how to spot a good restaurant. "It's always a bad sign if they pimp their prices – don't go lower than 400 yen. If you want tonkotsu, then you are looking for a smell like rancid pork bones," says Wong. "Yeah, from a block away," interrupts Shockey. "Places get so hyped by the critics, which distorts things, but a place should always have a good crowd of customers. It's always a bad sign if they have photos outside of lots of different types of ramen. I often find that if you ask a cop, they know the good local places."
The next day, I stand in line for more than an hour at Tokyo Station's Ramen Street (and you don't get any quitters in a Tokyo ramen queue, I can tell you), to eat at the revered Rokurinsha, one of the hottest ramen restaurants in the city (verdict: Oh. My. God). Then, along with a number of pasty, nerdy, portly men, I spend another hour queuing around the building which houses Ramen Jiro, a grimy, hard-bitten place with a pigeon called Al Qaeda living in its roof, and famed for its mammoth bowls of "rustic" ramen, piled high with cabbage and the saltiest, fattiest pork. The chef at Jiro is among a number of gruff, scarred ramen masters who have ascended to quasi-deity status, respected and feared like the feudal warriors of yore (albeit with their own pot noodle ranges), but I leave having only half-finished his bowl.
In the end, I find my ultimate ramen by myself, wandering the seedy backstreets of Ikebukuro in north-west Tokyo. It is a gyouki or "seafood" ramen at a branch of an artisanal ramen chain called Ganko, with its trademark pork bone hanging outside. The chef, Luis Doi, is unusually talkative for a man of his trade, and the spitting image of the Karate Kid's Mr Miyagi. His dried katsuobushi (skipjack tuna) and dried niboshi (sardines) broth, with its clean, tangy taste of the sea, still gives me goose bumps when I think of it.
'Sushi and Beyond' by Michael Booth, out now in paperback (£8.99, Vintage), has been nominated by the Guild of Food Writers for the Kate Whiteman Award for Work on Food and Travel. To read his blog: michael-booth.com. For more information on visiting Japan: seejapan.co.uk. Michael Booth travelled to Tokyo with Japan Airlines (tel: 0844 8 569 700, uk.jal.com), which runs a daily non-stop service from Heathrow to Tokyo with an extensive domestic service and beyond
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