Japan Weekly: The Humble But Awesome Ramen

There are few things in the world more obnoxious than someone returning home from vacation and regaling the guests at dinner table about the superiority of authentic Japanese cuisine consumed while in the Land of the Rising Sun. 

On a previous visit to Sakae Sushi, I patiently waited for a sliver of raw maguro to slowly meander down the conveyor belt and deliver itself into the death grip of my chopsticks, when I overheard the neighboring patron remark that his food tasted nothing like the 30,000yen (470SGD) course at Jiro’s 3 Star Michelin sushi bar in the swank district of Ginza.  The untimeliness of this snide remark had the effect of a foot stepping on the hose that pumps saliva to my glands, and the once scintillating scales of the fish revolving around me lost their luster.

Alas, gastronomic snobbery is a transmittable disease and I have fallen ill.  In this feverish state, my hands uncontrollably shake, and when placed on a keyboard type the warm, soft truth: Ramen in Singapore tastes nothing like it does in Japan.  Dejected readers may find solace to hear that similarly, chili crab tastes better in Singapore and Malaysia than elsewhere.

Suffice to say that the real Ramen Champion is probably not among the 8 restaurants located within Bugis+ (plus or cross?), but rather among the roughly 35,000 ramen shops registered domestically in Japan.  There are several marked discrepancies between the overseas branches and their domestic counterparts, and it is shame that the invited chefs are unable to import the authentic atmosphere of a ramen-ya (noodle house) and must focus primarily catering to the refined tastebuds to Singaporeans in order to win the competition, as the winner is decided by overall sales and customer voting.

Revealingly, when asked about this year’s winner Ikkousha, Mr Koji Tashiro, executive director of Komars Group, which owns Ramen Champion, told The Straits Times through a translator “This tonkatsu-style of ramen is actually not very popular in Japan but very successful in other countries.”  The evidence that Singaporeans are not receiving a bastardized form of ramen is overwhelming.

There are several niceties which this reporter believes the Bugis+ eatery can refine to deliver a more credible experience, based on his ramen adventures during which he conceived a baby paunch.

Remove the full drink selection with Coke and Qoo.  Ramen is always accompanied by ice water, sometimes with tea, and often with beer for weary salary men.  Even better, dissolve the current competition and create a panel of judges consisting of fastidious salary men with facial features wizened from years of overtime and crowded JR trains.

Do away with the cafeteria style eatery whereby customers receive giant beepers that alert them of their food to take back to the table.  Ramen should be eaten at the counter, facing the chef with a clear view of the clean kitchen so that customers can observe the noodles being prepared.  A good ramen shop should maintain good showmanship during the meal, much as a master sushi chef remains in plain view preparing food for others even while you eat.

If the chef is not wearing a towel wrapped around the head, immediately leave the store.  Similarly, if you are not greeted loudly with a thunderous “irasshaimase” upon your entrance, about face.

Ajituke-tamago (味付け卵), a common option should not have a flakey sunflower colored yolk of a hardboiled egg, but rather a dark orange gooey texture with salty flavor.

While stricter observance to these punctilios will better align the quality of service between Singapore’s visiting chefs, there is something that Ramen Champion already does remarkably well: unite the concepts of “recognition as the best” with “ramen.”  This potent concoction, after all, gave birth to the anime of our generation, Naruto.

The word “naruto” is a type of fish paste commonly found as a garnish in ramen.  It is usually white in color with a pink or red spiral in the middle to resemble the tidal whirlpools located in the Naruto Strait in Hyogo, Japan. “Uzumaki 渦巻き”, the protagonist’s family name, literally means “spiral”, a motif that is prevalent throughout the anime series and personified in his special attack “rasengan 螺旋丸 (spiral ball).”

When Masashi Kishimoto, the creator of the Naruto series, began his career as an aspiring manga artist, he found that the chanbara genre was crowded by the likes of Hiroaki Samura’s “Blade of the Immortal” and Nobuhiro Watsuki’s timeless classic Rurouni Kenshin.  Because of this intense artistic talent in sword fighting manga, he originally wanted to avoid the competition to create an entirely new story based entirely on ramen.

Kishimoto’s publishers were not fond of his noodle project and he took this rejection to heart, later using this fervent desire to be accepted and recognized as the raison detre of Naruto and his fated climb from ninja fledgling to Hokage.  The ninja motif was not borne from any burning passion but simply a facet of ancient Japanese culture.  When Naruto became a runaway success and Kishimoto wielded full creative reign, he made certain to give his young hero his very own ramen stall in the storyline.  Things truly have come full spiral for the artist as the anime’s Ichiraku ramen began to sell in actual convenience stores as a movie promotion.

The quaint ninja town of Konoha and the ninja academy is a microcosm of Singapore and its education system, with students grinding through the O levels of ninjutsu, genjutsu, and, taijitsu in hopes of being the next Hokage prime minister.  However, jounin teachers like Kakashi have no legitimate Ichiraku in Singapore to dote on their deserving students so long as the ramen status quo remains and chefs focus their efforts on sales and prioritize the palates of locals.  The solution to this travesty becomes clear once the history of ramen is examined.

A casual reader may notice that ramen (ラーメン) is written in katana, revealing the noodle’s foreign origins, tracing back to the fin de siècle cuisine that Chinese immigrants introduced to Japan.  Historical linguists argue whether “ramen” comes from the either of the words拉麵 “hand- pull” 老麵“old” 滷麵 “gravy” 撈麵 “stirred,” but they were colloquially called 支那そば or “Sino-soba” until the 1950s.  When the Sino prefix became negatively associated with the war, the noodles then became 中華そば “Chinese-Soba” or simply ramen.

Whatever the etymology, Japanese clearly benefited from the cuisine of Chinese immigrants, refining the process along the way.  In similar fashion, Singapore needs to take advantage of the growing population of Japanese expats and assimilate their kitchen techniques.  It took Japan about 50 years to master ramen.  Bring back a bowl of ramen for the scientists at NUS reverse engineer to reverse engineer and Singapore can accomplish the same feat in about 5 years.  Until 2017, boycott the farce of a competition and avail yourself to the real deal in Japan, and do not be surprised if you return with an addiction as if the chefs substituted the flour with cocaine.

If you are still reading this article with an incredulous expression, there is a growing fleet of low cost carrier airlines (Scoot, Jetstar, Air Asia) at Changi waiting at the wings to transform your Ramen Champion naiveté into obnoxious food snobbery by the time you board the return flight from Japan.