Ramen reborn as noodles nouveaux

by Stephanie Gartelman

Could ramen, Japan’s answer to the greasy spoon, go gourmet? It started out simple — this dish of Chinese-style noodles in soup was conjured up by cooks in Yokohama’s Chinatown in the 1920s. Its present association with drab 24-hour diners and poor nutrition gives it a low rank in the food hierarchy: as the underdog’s dietary staple.

But in these days of protracted recession, cheap is chic. Ramen, perhaps the best under-1,000 yen restaurant deal, is being served in new variations. MSG-free, spicy or veggie-laden — take your pick. Leading the trendy trail is Ippudo, Fukuoka’s leading nouveau-ramen joint, which is as much an aberration in Kyushu’s conservative ramen world as it is a pioneer of today’s “chic” ramen eateries.

Generally, Kyushu folk don’t bother with ramen that’s not of the whitish, garlicky tonkotsu (pork soup) variety. (Tokyo’s soy-based ramen is still a rarity here). Ippudo’s charismatic owner, Shigemi Kawahara, 49, set out to change that.

A restaurant and bar owner since the age of 25, Kawahara was determined to open a “different” ramen restaurant. He stepped up his daily visits to ramen shops in the name of market research and was struck by the dearth of female customers. That observation was the clincher for Ippudo.

“I discovered that women avoided ramen because they thought it smelled and tasted putrid, and found ramen eateries depressing,” says Kawahara. “I wanted to open a ramen joint women would feel comfortable visiting, even on their own,” he says.

Ippudo opened in 1985 with a menu offering both soy-based ramen and a light tonkotsu ramen artfully blended with chicken stock. Its stylish neo-Japanese interior made dining there a pleasure. The result not only snared a 40 percent female customer base, it popularized tonkotsu ramen beyond Kyushu (although some locals still insist on maligning Ippudo’s gentrified tonkotsu): There are now 21 Ippudo branches around the country and plans are afoot to open 20 more by 2004. Gourmands are prepared to wait hours outside many Ippudo branches, some of which sell up to 800 servings a day.

Highly appreciative of the people he credits with Ippudo’s success, Kawahara publishes a quarterly newsletter — in praise of ramen and the style-setters and foodies he’s encountered while serving it — and has written five books to date. His latest, “Ippudo no Himitsu (Ippudo’s Success Secrets),” which hit the stands in early 2002, offers readers a colorful glimpse into the world of ramen and its personalities.

This includes ramen freak Yoji Iwaoka, whose crazy dream of building the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum proved a hit in 1994. Iwaoka put Ippudo on the national map by including a branch of Kawahara’s restaurant at the museum. There’s also a section on Debito Ito, the comedian-turned-ramen chef who trained briefly at Ippudo while being filmed for a TV show on ramen.

Kawahara initially mistook Ito’s confident manner for insincere swaggering and even punched him in anger on the set. The encounter seems to have inspired dozens of TV shows about the ramen world, which thrive on the menacing behavior inflicted by bosses on subordinates. Since then, Ito has more than proved his love of ramen by opening his own restaurant in Tokyo.

The media has played a large role in making ramen more upmarket. According to food editor Yasuyuki Ohba of Kyushu Walker magazine, features about new-style ramen eateries are bestsellers, while gourmet ramen TV specials frequently occupy primetime slots. With such a wealth of resources available now, “even low-budget foodies,” Kawahara says, “can profess expertise in at least one field: ramen.”

Previously, ramen’s popularity was inextricably linked to the economy. Analyst Tsuyoshi Kawata points out in “Ramen no Keizaigaku (Ramen Economics),” published last year, that poor GDP has always boosted household spending on ramen. Strong GDP growth, he argues, resulted in the opposite phenomenon: less ramen expenditure and increased spending at more upmarket restaurants.

But even Kawata acknowledges that while the current recession-led “ramen boom” could be over already, ramen eateries can stay competitive if they specialize: Ramen is here to stay. As Kawahara puts it: “Because ramen soups are meat-based, Japanese who have grown up on a Westernized diet find it more energizing than [fish or seaweed-based] noodle dishes such as udon.” Further, the way ramen is being eaten has changed; healthier overall and in more atmospheric settings.

It’s getting fashionable to be seen at some ramen joints, especially those run by talk-of-the-town karisuma tenshu (charismatic owners) like Kawahara whose flair (or good looks) have slurpers clamoring for more. According to Ohba at Kyushu Walker, “These new-era ramen chefs represent individuality and freedom in a time when salarymen are increasingly less-admired.”

Kawahara brushes aside suggestions that he’s a karisuma tenshu. But he admits that apart from striving to deliver total customer satisfaction and staying in tune with what’s in demand, he considers his restaurants as a stage where customers get a slice of action: steaming noodles served with aplomb by good-looking young staff in hip uniforms. That essential ingredient of charisma makes ramen more than just a bite to eat.