Picture this: It’s a slightly chilly night in September and the first week of the Rugby World Cup. You’ve just finished watching a game at the pub and, hopefully, you’re celebrating a victory with a pint or two. You want to grab some food on the way home, but leave the sushi and tempura for a nice dinner another day. A post-pub party calls for a steaming, salty bowl of 締めのラーメン (shime no rāmen), which translates loosely as “ramen to close the night.”
Canadians have their poutine and the British have their kebabs, but when the Japanese are done drinking, they opt for ramen. 郷に入れば郷に従え (Gō ni haireba gō ni shitagae, When in Rome, do as the Romans do), step up to the bustling ラーメン屋 (rāmen-ya, ramen shop) and you’ll be greeted with the heady scent of pork and garlic. Rather than hearing the sound of clinking glasses and low chatter, you are greeted by a cacophony of “いらしゃいませ!” (“Irasshaimase!,” “Welcome!”), clanking soup bowls and impressively loud slurping, “ジュルジュル!” (“juru-juru,” “sluuuurp!”)
Don’t sit quite yet.
While you might be accustomed to telling a waiter your order, tonight you will give it to a machine. Most local ラーメン屋 have a ticket machine called a 券売機 (kenbaiki) at the entrance, and you’ll need to purchase a 食券 (shokken, food voucher) to get yourself a bowl. It’s best to have cash on you. If your Japanese isn’t up to snuff, you can always ask the assistants “英語のメニューはありますか？”(“Eigo no menyū wa arimasu ka?,” “Is there an English menu?”) or, if you’re hoping to avoid meat, you can ask, “ベジタリアンのメニューはありますか？”(“Bejitarian no menyū wa arimasu ka?,” “Is there a vegetarian menu?”)
However, the real challenge has yet to come. If you’re confident enough to order in Japanese, when you bring your ticket to the chef, you can fine-tune the bowl you’re getting. There are three areas of vocabulary you’ll need to know: 麺の硬さ (men no katasa, the hardness of the noodle), スープの濃さ (sūpu no kosa, the thickness of the soup), and 油の量 (abura no ryō, the amount of oil).
The chef might ask, “麺の硬さはどうされますか？”(“Men no katasa wa dō saremasu ka,” “How firm would you like your noodles?”), and you can reply with one of these options: 柔らかめ (yawarakame, soft), 普通 (futsū, normal), 硬め (katame, firm) or perhaps バリカタ (barikata, very firm). Take note of 柔らかめ and 硬め in particular, both are derived from い-adjectives meaning soft and firm, respectively: 柔らかい and 硬い. Swapping “め” for “い” conveys the nuance of “a little” or “slightly.” An example from outside the world of ramen would be, このワインは甘い (kono wain wa amai), which means “the wine is sweet,” but このワインは甘めだ (kono wain wa amame da) means “the wine is a little sweet.”
Two other questions from the chef might be “スープの濃さはどうなさいますか？” (“Sūpu no kosa wa dōnasaimasu ka?,” “How salty would you like your broth?”) and “油の量はどうされますか？” (“Abura no ryō wa dō saremasu ka?” How much oil would you like?”) Remember that, with Japanese ramen, the oil is the fatty substance from the back of a pig rather than the watery liquid that you may be more familiar with.
When you answer these questions, just add で (de) to the end of your response. It acts like an “I’ll have,” for example, 濃いめで (koime de, I’ll take a salty broth), or 薄めで (usume de, a less salty broth). If you want to be more polite, you can add お願いします(onegaishimasu, please) as in “濃いめでお願いします”(“Koime de onegaishimasu,” “I’d like a salty broth, please”).
You can always just state all three components up front: “麺硬め、スープ濃いめ、油多めでお願いします” (“Men katame, sūpu koime, abura ōme de onegaishimasu,” “I’ll have the firm noodles, a salty broth and a lot of oil, please”). You’re unlikely to leave hungry after a meal like that.
Headed home to the family after your bowl of ramen? They may not appreciate it if you come in reeking of garlic. A handy word to know in this case would be 抜き (nuki), which is derived from 抜く (nuku, to extract/omit): “にんにく抜きでお願いします” (“Ninniku nuki de onegaishimasu,” “Hold the garlic, please”). 抜き also comes in handy if you’re a vegetarian, “肉抜きでお願いします” (“Niku nuki de onegaishimasu,” “Hold the meat, please”).
Adding something is a bit more specific, so saying “味玉のトッピングお願いします” (“Ajitama no toppingu onegaishimasu,” “A flavored egg topping, please”) is helpful if you want to add a treat to your ramen, and if you have room in your stomach for a bit more, saying “替え玉お願いします” (“Kaedama onegaishimasu,” “More noodles, please”) should do the trick.
All that’s left now is to pull out the chopsticks and enjoy your bowl, いただきます！ (itadakimasu, let’s eat!)