Now we know Ramen has taken over the world. But what is it like discovering the seat of the great noodle empire, while gorging on some delectable Ramen? The Waseda University in Tokyo, acts like a giant magnet for gastronomy prospectors. It is a noodle-rush here. Many tiny and tidy alleys swarm out from the university area. While they all have a separate character to themselves, there’s a particular one that is the point of out interest.
Not too far into the alley, is a stall that does not look like a ramen shop. The fact is, it does not like anything in particular at all. It’s called the Ganko, and it firmly believes in “what’s there in a name”. There are no sign boards, or even a window that you can peer through. In fact, it has nothing more than a makeshift (although I don’t know if you can call it makeshift any more, after all the years) ragged old black tarp set along a tiled wall. Well, something is there, to give it away (although it is difficult to fathom how) – a hanging animal bone.
Inside, its not grime on bamboo. Its glass, but a sliding door nevertheless, true to the Japanese fashion. There are neatly arranged stools set along a wooden counter-top, and beyond this is a small kitchen. The walls are blackened with age but no dirt can be seen anywhere. Here, an old ramen chef works alone. With thick eye-glasses which more often than not, are fogged by steam from rich stews, he prefers not to speak a word as he meticulously fills the bowls with careful mixtures of flavours, fats, perfectly cooked noodles and slabs of roasted pork. Finishes with a topping of hot flavoured oil. Sometimes, he adds in a boiled egg, sliced into two.
When it comes to senses related to good food, apart from the taste and sight, there’s sound that gives away dependable hints towards the intensity of taste. Usually, in a ramen shop, there are a number of sounds – friendly banter, loud appreciations for the chef and an occasional burp. But its the slurping that quite easily takes center-stage. And towards the end of meal time, a lot of “Gochiso-sama deshita” is spoken out – “thank you for the meal”.
The Ganko is but just one tiny speck in Tokyo’s massive ramen ecosystem. A whole world by itself which has been covered relentlessly since the early 80s – guidebooks, TV shows, magazines, numerous blogs, you name it. And even then, countless little tarp covered Gankos are discovered each day and the credit primarily goes to the University students.
It is not difficult to appropriate Tokyo’s obsession with ramen. Let’s say we pull in the madness for pizzas and hot dogs that the western world has for them. Oh and let’s throw in the beach barbecue craze for good measure. We will only begin to approximate the ramen fever.
Nagi is a mini-chain of two ramen shops. One sits a little out of the neon wilderness of Shibuya; the heady shopping and nightlife epicenter. The area has some of the city’s more walled ramen eateries. But similar to its less glazed version, its easy to overlook it, thinking of the establishment to be nothing more than a watering hole instead of a belying bustling noodlery.
The insides give out a unique oriental intimacy. The walls have brown-paper flour sack hangings, and contrary to a new Japanese custom, the orders are not given by a meal ticket. The tonkotsu broth is simmered for days until it turns rich and milky.
The Akihabara is a relatively new entrant into the ramen arena. In fact, until recently, some called it the ramen wasteland. The Japanese neighborhoods are like onions, a multitude of layers and smaller neighborhoods within. Take for instance, the otaku, a place, I am told, with an insatiable appetite for cute girls in high school and maid get-up. But recently, this appetite has grown to include ramen. But not as an alternative, only as an added bonus.
Here is Tsumugi. Which, once again, is not easily located and Akihabara can be confusing will all the shiny exteriors. To make things more difficult, it sits in the basement of a bank. There are a quite a few variations to be tried here. But the signature is, of course, the tsumugi – a sweet and spicy option. The sweetness mainly comes from the spring onions, and the spice from the sesame oil.
The chinese might have said “May you live in interesting times”, but the phrase applies to Japan oh so much. Japan has always been that way – part mysterious, part enigmatic. The country is an awe inspiring duet of polar meanings and it does not stop at the cherry trees and the enigmatic geisha.