Steve Cooper revels in ramen in Toyama
Excerpted from To Japan With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.
One of the best food movies I have ever seen is Tampopo, in which a widow, who has inherited her husband's ramen shop, sets off on a quest for the perfect ramen recipe. After two focused trips to Japan, no fewer than twenty-five bowls of ramen, a serious discussion on the philosophy of this dish with my friend Taro, and another viewing of Tampopo, I was finally ready to embark on my own ramen quest in Toyama. When it comes to food there are no half measures with the people of Toyama. For them, ramen is a religious experience, so I had to be prepared.
Marutakaya, the ramen shop that Taro and his father chose for my initiation, is located in the center of Toyama. This family establishment is run by the grandson of its founder, a young cook with an intimidating beard and uniform. The grandfather originally started his business as an oden stall outside the train station, but his ramen soup with noodles became his most popular dish. So he set up shop with his son, and the family has since specialized in ramen. Unlike the Tokyo places that I have been to, Marutakaya serves only one type of ramen: pork.
Upon entering, we were immediately welcomed with a round of "Irasshaimase!" from the staff. The place was surprisingly busy for a Sunday afternoon, which boded well. For appetizers, we ordered pork kushi (pork on a skewer) with a sweet sauce, and a side of English mustard-a house specialty. For beverages, we had wari, a cocktail made with shochu and red wine. Then came the ramen.
It arrived piping hot in generously sized bowls, and since I still hadn't developed a true understanding of the condiments for ramen, I followed the family's lead in adding a small spoonful of grated garlic and crushed tempura. The first spoonful was a revelation: this was the first time I had ever noticed the soup itself in a bowl of ramen. It was a light broth with a thick layer of clear fat on top-incredibly tasty. The noodles were yellow and curled, as compared to the straighter noodles I'd eaten in Tokyo. The entire experience was something to savor. Only when you have tasted the flavor of a truly good soup, or "the heart," as Taro's dad calls it, can you really begin comparing ramen.
I knocked my water back at one point, and something occurred that had never happened to me in Japan. The chef noticed that my glass was empty, and called for the waitress to refill it. This is what I like to call the Tampopo effect. In the movie, the widow learns that the secret to a successful restaurant isn't just the quality of the food, but also the attentiveness of the service. In Marutakaya, the chef was aware of each of his customers, anticipating their needs and reading their reactions at all times.
As a foreign tourist, I stood out, and therefore it was acceptable for us to talk to the chef, an act of bravery that the locals wouldn't dare. Taro explained to him that I had eaten ramen at many places in Tokyo, but this was by far the best. He thanked me, and at that point, we asked him the question that was foremost in our minds. What was the stock made of? Normally one would never ask this question, but given that I was a visitor, the chef obliged my ignorance and revealed that it was pork with a little bit of fish stock. While I'm certain that this was not the only thing that made his ramen special, I was grateful to know even a small part of the secret to the best ramen I had ever eaten.
To read more essays from To Japan With Love, click here.
Published on 12/21/09