Ramen makers go upmarket in search of fresh clientele

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Customers with Prada handbags and Gucci sunglasses sometimes stand in line for hours and hungrily wait outside the restaurant door, feasting their eyes on the delicacy that awaits inside: a bowl of ramen.

Ramen has long been known as a staple of construction workers and penny-pinching students.

But in a push to win over new clientele, ramen chains are going upscale, serving special pork and organic vegetables at eateries featuring dark-wood interiors and soft lighting.

One company even came up with a form of diet ramen made from seaweed extracts. This dish weighs in at a meager 8 calories.

“The ‘stylish ramen’ stores have really boomed,” said Masahiko Ichiyanagi, who writes a ramen column for the popular weekly magazine Tokyo 1Week.

“The result is that it’s now recognized as a legitimate leisure activity.”

The trend reaches extremes at Shiodome Ramen, a spanking new cluster of steel-and-glass towers next to — but a world apart from — the decidedly lowbrow Shinbashi district.

The enterprise aims to create a splash. Nippon Television Network Corp. launched a highly publicized nationwide contest in 2002 to seek out the country’s best ramen chef, and put the winner — Konosuke Takewaka — in charge of the restaurant on its premises.

The exposure brought in the crowds. Customers sometimes waited in line for four hours following the restaurant’s opening on Aug. 1. At present, a wait of more than an hour is still common.

Those with endurance are rewarded. Takewaka strains the noodles by whipping an acorn-shaped sieve through the air in a dramatic figure-eight, splashing scalding water against a window between the kitchen and the restaurant and drawing gasps from startled diners.

“I went through thousands of trials to make the soup we serve today,” Takewaka said.

The broth gets its flavor from pork, beef and chicken stock, squid tentacles and dried fish, he said. The restaurant, which serves 800 bowls of ramen a day, closes when it runs out of its pungent noodle soup.

This highbrow attention is quite a turnaround for the humble dish.

According to popular lore, ramen was introduced by Chinese immigrants early last century. Taking root in major port cities such as Yokohama, it soon spread across the country and developed into regional variations. Today, it’s as Japanese as tofu or miso soup.

In Japan, ramen shops have long been perceived as dingy joints, their counters awash with chopsticks, seasonings and self-service water jugs.

The fare until now has been straightforward: noodles in a salty broth, topped with a few slices of pork, chopped green onions and strips of seaweed.

Standard flavors are salt, soy sauce and miso paste.

The search for the perfect bowl of ramen was immortalized in Juzo Itami’s 1985 gourmand movie classic, “Tampopo.”

Meanwhile, the Shin Yokohama Ramen Museum near Tokyo gets 120,000 visitors a year — about 15,000 more than Japan’s largest collection of art.

This popularity translates into earnings. There are some 200,000 ramen shops in Japan, where customers slurp down an estimated $6.36 billion worth of noodles annually.

Even the financial world is interested. Japanese online brokerage Traders Securities launched a fund in December seeking $1.8 million to invest in a noodle complex in Tokyo.

But for all the bells and whistles, ramen lovers say the key ingredients remain the same: a signature soup and good noodles.

Jun Yoshizawa, an engineering student, recently sat at a noodle stand set up in view of Tokyo’s Sumida River, where red lanterns cast their reflection across the water and steam from the hot caldrons wafted into the evening air.

“Ramen is so tasty because it’s so simple — it’s like eating something homemade, except the ambience is better,” he said.