Global Lap 2014 (The Ramen Experience)

 It gets me fired up when I see people going all out to be their best, and that's a common sight in Japanese kitchens. Each and every time you step into a restaurant you can expect at the very least well-prepared, visually pleasing food. At best you can expect your fu*king mind to be blown. Lemme take you through what it's like to eat a bowl of ramen in Japan.

Waiting in line for Miso Ramen in Hokkaido. Some folks queue 90 minutes or more. Sounds absurd until you take your first spoonful.

Once you've decided on and arrived at your ramen destination, step inside and look out for the vending machine. Here you'll find a mess of 20-30 square plastic buttons with the different bowls and side dishes on offer. Abram usually translated for me, but if you're solo and struggling just howl and someone will magically scurry over from the shadows to provide you with assistance. Or just play ramen roulette. I hear the top left button is a pretty good bet.  Make your selection, insert Yen (usually between 600-900 [$6-$9]), take your ticket and bring it over to the counter. From there the chef will pick it up and get to work on your order. Patience.

Eating out in Japan is actually a better value than many believe. There's absolutely no tipping, no tax and no 4% healthy S.F. surcharge! Plus you don't have to deal with annoying servers trying to push that second bottle of Barolo on your table. They let you be.

Most ramen bowls start with a chicken and/or pork bone base. This is the structure. The foundation. The soul of the bowl. These bones simmer with various aromatics for hours and hours until the flavor is lovingly extracted from the animal carcasses. A variation on the basic ramen broth is Tonkotsu, which gets it's opaque, milky appearance due to vigorous boiling of pork bones on high heat for several hours until the insides are liquified.

 South in Kyushu where the famed Kurobuta (black pig) is farmed, you'll find rich bowls of Tonkotsu. Kurobuta pigs live off sweet potatoes, so the meat is incredibly clean and tender.

So far we've made ourselves chicken soup, or brodo or caldo or whatever you may call it. Delicious, but we can't call it ramen broth. The distinctly Japanese stamp comes from all the other oceanic goodies chefs use to infuse the broth. Kombu (edible kelp), katsuoboshi (dried, fermented and smoked skipjack tuna), niboshi (dried baby sardines) and dried horse mackerel are a few of the most common flavorings. You're essentially combining the fishy, briny, slightly smokey flavors of dashi with a robust bone stock to create fantastic depth. From there the soups can go in many directions; add a soy and mirin sauce called tare for shoyu ramen, sea salt for shio ramen or miso paste for a Sapporo style bowl. These final additions are usually added to each bowl to order, customizing a large pot of broth into several tantalizing varieties.

 When the ingredients from China's Sichuan province are placed in the hands of Japanese ramen chefs you get Tan Tan Mian. To me it's the best of both worlds. Highly addictive tingle from the sichuan peppercorns, creaminess from the sesame base but with a firmer noodle and distinctly Japanese presentation.

Abram stressed that ramen is one of the few Japanese food where there is no wrong. While sushi, tempura and tonkatsu have typical preparation techniques and ingredients, ramen is a relatively new phenomenon in Japan so there's no established protocol for construction. That 8 inch bowl is the personal playground for these young chefs, and they are free to do as they please within these ceramic confines. With ramen, like all great soups of the world, it's really about putting tons of love into your base broth. No matter how spectacular your toppings and noodles are, if your broth is watery or lacking that punch- customers will not return. Survival of the fittest.

Pots for heating up individual servings of ramen broth. This particular shop used a tonkotsu and mackerel bone base. Most exquisite.

There's something truly entertaining about sitting in front of an open kitchen and watching food preparation. If there's a spot at the bar, I'm there. In foreign countries it's that much more interesting because there's that extra element of intrigue due to unidentifiable ingredients and the inevitable language barrier. I'm a firm believer food tastes better when you're spoken to in a language you don't understand. There are no expectations. No yelp! hype. Usually you know little of the specifics of what you're about to eat, but as you look around to see a restaurant full of satisfied faces quietly mowing down their tsukemen, you realize it really doesn't matter.

In Sapporo, Miso ramen is what you'll be eating. I love the mouthfeel and umami miso provides. This bowl got a little grating of ginger on top for some pop.

In America, ramen shops aren't as ubiquitous as Japan so the places are usually newer and more formal. You go out for ramen as a part of a meal. In Japan ramen is a fast food, and while many obsessive freaks set aside a large portion of their day to wait in line for something incredible, it's also something to grab on a quick lunch break or before heading out for a night of brews and karaoke. From placing your order in the ticket vending machine to downing your last mouthful of broth it's usually a 10-15 minute affair (line pending of course!). There isn't much lingering or chatting or texting or dillydallying or cappuccino sipping. Receive your bowl, snap photo, and get after it. Once you're done you get your ass out, as there's usually a hungry patron waiting to grab your seat.

Rolled pork bellies (chasu) simmering in Tare. This is one of the most common toppings for a bowl of ramen.

While the broth almost always leaves the biggest impact, noodles and toppings need to hold their own. Traditionally, ramen noodles are made with kansui, an alkaline solution (containing sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate) that give them their signature 'al dente' firm texture. A soft noodle in Japan is a deal breaker. Try to order ramen 'to go' and tell me what type of look the chef gives you. Toppings can vary widely but regularly include some sort of pork product. Chashu is rolled pork belly thats been simmered for a good while until it breaks down a bit but still retains it's shape. One of my favorite ramen shops took the tender slices of fatty pork and charred them a mini grill before laying them on top of the noodles. Even after all these years you know I love me some char.

One classic, please.

Even with all the exciting contemporary ramen permutations there's still something to be said for old school Tokyo Ramen. It's a Shoyu base with a couple tender slices of chashu, bamboo shoots, a boiled marinated egg, spinach and seaweed. Straightforward honest flavors, and a broth that's light enough for you to finish without heart palpitations.

"Bowls of Ramen are like snowflakes."

-Ramen Beast

Stay Experimental.

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