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Ramen memoir goes down easy

by Mark Schreiber

THE RAMEN KING AND I: How the Inventor of Instant Noodles Fixed My Love Life, by Andy Raskin. Gotham, 2009, 293 pp., $26 (hardcover)

“The year I was a student at International Christian University . . . Japan’s automated-teller machines were open only during regular bank hours — weekdays from nine to five,” writes Andy Raskin. “I would often forget to make pre-weekend withdrawals, but thanks to instant ramen I survived many Saturdays and Sundays on just the few hundred yen in my pocket.”

The late Momofuku Ando, founder of Nissin Foods, became a wealthy man because he understood the concepts of convenience and affordability. Born Wu Baifu in southern Taiwan in 1910, Ando — so the legend goes — happened by a black market area near Osaka’s Umeda Station, where he noticed long queues of people waiting to buy bowls of ramen noodles in soup. “In a line,” he later wrote, “you can see the desires of the world.”

Through persistent experimentation in a wooden shack in his back yard, Ando succeeded in developing instant ramen, and parlayed his creation into one of the world’s most popular snack foods. Along with the Honda Cub motorbike and Sony transistor radio, Ando’s instant ramen — a cheap, tasty and quick means of sustenance — is one of the great success stories of postwar Japan.

In this interestingly framed memoir, Raskin intersperses frivolous anecdotes about his own adventures in Japan with 10 monologues addressed to “Dear Momofuku,” in which he pours out his disappointments and dilemmas with the opposite sex, imploring Ando (who was not yet dead at the time of writing) to serve as his personal Miss Lonelyhearts.

The promise of romantic repair is almost dramatic enough to tease the naive into thinking this book might be a modern hipster twist on the genre of works by foreigners who came to Japan in serious search of knowledge and enlightenment (“The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery” (1973) by Dutch author Janwillem van der Wetering is one fine example). But “Ramen King,” like “Tokyo Woes” by Bruce Jay Friedman (1985) or “Dave Barry Does Japan” (1993), is more like a long-running gag routine conveying the message that Japan is best enjoyed when not taken too seriously.

In one of the book’s more opaque observations, Raskin writes, “People often ask me what fascinates me about Japan, and for a long time I never knew how to explain it. Here it is though, in a nutshell: There’s a Gyoza Stadium on the third floor of a video game arcade called Namco City, and a chart on the wall lists the ratios of soy sauce to vinegar found in gyoza dipping sauces in different regions of the country.”

Elsewhere, though, Raskin’s recounting of his comedic adventures become distracting. While browsing for victuals in Ebisu he picks up a buxom divorcee and enjoys a one-night stand, breaking a vow of short-term celibacy.

This is not to say the commentary, even when trivial, fails to amuse. Unable to decide on which bento (boxed lunch) to purchase for consumption aboard the Shinkansen to Osaka, Raskin is mesmerized by the selection of candy sold at the platform kiosk. “There was a strawberry Kit Kat, a green tea Kit Kat, a custard Kit Kat, a mandarin orange Kit Kat, and an Exotic Tokyo Kit Kat (an assortment sold in a package designed by renowned pastry chef Yasumasa Takagi to evoke Tokyo nightlife) . . . Nestle’s Japanese subsidiary was promoting the bars as good-luck charms for college entrance exams, playing up how the candy’s name sounds like ‘Kitto katsu!’ (‘You’ll surely win!’).”

Ando, like many business magnates, was known on occasion to wax philosophical, but Raskin’s use of him as a sounding board for advice about dysfunctional romantic relationships is a rather sophomoric approach, and whether it’s enough to sustain an entire hardcover book depends on whether the reader hungers for a quick nibble or something more substantial. “Ramen King” doesn’t differ greatly from Ando’s celebrated invention: a light snack that is quickly consumed and easily digested.