Americans finally getting to taste high-quality ramen

by Adam Goldman

The Associated Press

Nearly four decades after the first instant ramen factory opened in the United States, Japan’s beloved comfort food finally is making inroads — even achieving cult status — in a nation where burgers and pizza still rule.

Once considered just a bargain meal for cash-starved college students, ramen is suddenly commanding as much as $15 (around ¥1,600) or more a bowl in sleek New York noodle shops.

“We are living in a ramen moment,” said Alan Richman, a GQ magazine food critic who wrote his first ramen review after dining at Ippudo NY. In March, the restaurant became the first branch outside Japan of a highly regarded noodle shop chain.

“It’s been discovered by people like me who were ignorant,” Richman said. “It’s the food of the moment.”

Ippudo NY landed in New York’s East Village, where celebrated Korean-American chef David Chang already was drawing hordes of customers to his stylish Momofuku Noodle Bar, which opened in 2004.

Shortly after Chang’s debut, Ramen Setagaya, another popular Japanese chain, opened here, winning New York magazine’s “best ramen” award this year.

The essence of ramen is a rich broth, often made from pork bones, and thin, slightly chewy noodles, garnished with such toppings as sliced pork, hard-boiled eggs, seaweed, scallions, fish cake, mushrooms, even corn kernels.

The dish originated in China. The very name comes from the Chinese words for hand-pulled wheat flour noodles.

“Like most things, the Japanese imported the idea from another culture and have taken it to the extreme,” said Chang, who is known for insisting on only the finest ingredients for his soups, including specially bred Berkshire pork.

But for years, most Americans settled for much less — instant ramen still can be had for as little as six packs for $1.

Last year, 332 million kg of ramen, or 4 billion individual packets, were devoured in the U.S., a 4 percent increase over 2006, according to Nissin Food Products Co.

And worldwide, the demand for instant noodles is huge. China consumes the most, followed by Indonesia and Japan, according to the World Instant Noodles Association.

But it’s the ramen restaurants, or “ramenya,” that are most revered in Japan. It boasts 80,000 of them. There’s also a famous ramen museum in Yokohama as well as a TV program where ramen chefs compete — Ippudo’s founder, Shigemi Kawahara, has won it three times.

Americans may have gotten their first inkling of Japan’s obsession with ramen in 1987, when the Japanese film “Tampopo” was released in the U.S. and became a cult hit.

The so-called noodle Western tells the story of a truck driver who rides into town and helps a young widowed noodle shop owner perfect the art of making a bowl of ramen.

Ken Sasahara, president of Nissin Foods (USA) Co., which opened its first factory in California in the early 1970s, credits instant noodles with helping spark the wave of ramen bars that have sprung up across the country.

The arrival of Ippudo has raised the stakes, he said, and could trigger intense ramen battles similar to ones found in Tokyo.

Rickmond Wong, a Web designer and self-proclaimed ramen expert who writes about his favorite topic atrameniac.com, has closely monitored the gradual emergence of high-quality, authentic ramen shops in the Los Angeles area.

He believes it’s tied to the growing economic clout of Asian nations and American enthusiasm for all things Japanese, including animation, video games, cartoons and food.

“These days people are interested (in Japanese pop culture) in a much more sophisticated manner than in the past, when aspects of a foreign culture were typically exoticized and viewed through a postcolonialist lens — ‘Oh, look at what strange things these people eat,’ ” he said.

“It’s high time for ramen to take its place in the pantheon of a multicultural American diet.”

Wong, who eats about 200 bowls of ramen a year and has sampled noodles at many of the dozens of ramen restaurants in Los Angeles, complains that “the bulk of them” are “fairly mediocre.”

But he does have his favorites: Santouka, a branch of a Japanese chain, as well as two independent shops, Asa Ramen and Gardena Ramen.

In New York, ramen lovers compare notes on places like Menchanko-Tei, Menkui-Tei, Rai Rai Ken, Ramen Setagaya and Momofuku, many of them clustered in the East Village but some located in prime Midtown locations.

While the pricier joints may charge up to $16 for a bowl of ramen, it’s also possible to slurp a bowl, shoulder to shoulder with a mostly Japanese clientele, for well under $10.

Chang, who studied with a great ramen chef in Japan before opening Momofuku, gets credit for introducing ramen to a largely non-Asian clientele.

“He played a big part in making people aware of ramen,” said Toshiya Suganuma, the secretary of Ippudo. “He may have opened up a gate. It was good for us.”

As “Tampopo” cheerfully demonstrates, making top-notch ramen isn’t easy — or cheap.

Ippudo goes through around 145 kg of top-quality pork bones a day, Suganuma said. It took months for the Japanese chefs to perfect their recipes, eventually settling on White Pearl flour from winter wheat and filtered New York tap water for the noodles and Berkshire pork for the broth.

Suganuma is such a purist that he won’t sell ramen to go at his restaurant — a gesture that may baffle New Yorkers, who practically survive on take-out food.

Why? “Noodles get soggy,” he said.

Wong of rameniac.com said he plans to visit New York to try Ippudo, testing his theory that real ramen has finally arrived in the U.S.

“We are in ramen renaissance,” he said.