Global Lap 2014 (Words with the Ramen Beast)

Over my 2 1/2 years in Vietnam I grew accustomed to incredible 75 cent lunches and $5 hotel rooms. Icy beers at street side restaurants were 50 cents and a full service haircut with a straight edge shave wouldn't even take $1 from your pocket. I knew all the prices. I bargained for pennies. Even trips throughout Southeast Asia could be done cheap as chips with Air Asia and Cebu Pacific. The thought of spending in one evening as much as I'd ration for a week in Southeast Asia seemed crazy. I think differently now. While this guy still appreciates a good value and hates nothing more than getting taken- certain experiences comes with a price. The Japan experience certainly isn't one for shoestringers, but as an avid enthusiast of Asian cuisine I had absolutely no excuse. It was time.

Yakitori. Deceptively simple. Yet so much more.

Slivers of mysterious fish drape themselves over perfectly cooked grains of rice that force you to reconsider your opinion on the humble grain. Kurobuta pork chops laced with silky fat that dissolves on the tongue. A level of customer service so above and beyond any other destination in the world it's almost difficult to comprehend. The well known quest for perfection by the Japanese leads to some transcendent bites. Flavors and freshness you wouldn't believe until you tasted. Chefs leave their restaurant to bow to you after a meal. Hotel managers walk through winter's bitter bite in order to personally escort you to your destination. It's truly another world.

There's much more than much to talk about, so let's kick off Japan with an interview with the Ramen Beast, Abram Plaut (Instragram: eiburamu). This Bay Area native has been living in Tokyo for over ten years and I was lucky enough to stay with him and snack on everything the city has on offer. The guy eats absolutely everything- from lamb brains to fugu sperm sac to late night convenience store miso clam soup (top-notch hangover prevention) so we're a natural pairing for eating explorations. He's also a bit of a local food celebrity, with a weekly column in Japanese Playboy and regular appearances on television.

While Abram is game to take down most any land or sea creature, without a doubt his area of expertise and extreme dedication is ramen. Hold up. Just so we're clear- not the ramen you find sealed in plastic with dehydrated spices for 79 cents at Foods Co. Real Japanese Ramen.  We're talking about fresh, springy alkaline noodles. 15 hour broths. Tare simmered pork belly. Char-grilled spring onions. Layers upon layers of flavor. Japan's fast food and like nothing else on this planet.

Talk to me Ramen Beast.

What are the core elements of ramen?

There are basically three elements; soup, noodles and topping, although the variations are endless within. I think with traditional Chinese ramen, it's usually a simple one dimensional soup. It's a cheap food, and I don't think they've ever taken it to the level they do in Japan. You have miso, shoyu, shio and tonkotsu broth bases to start. Then theres tsukemen [dry ramen noodles with a concentrated broth on the side for dipping] which adds a totally new dimension. Then theres all the combinations of noodles and toppings. Even with the eggs it's a carefully calculated science; how long to cook them, cool them and marinate them. These are just the eggs! Japanese people are obsessed with perfection and I think it's that which has elevated the ramen in Japan more so than anywhere else in the world.

 A bowl of Kagoshima style Tonkotsu Ramen with crispy garlic. This bowl started off with a ladle of rendered animal fat before the broth and noodles were added. Vegetarians, go away.

Do you remember the bowl that started it for you?

I was studying abroad in Tokyo the summer between my junior and senior year in college. It also happened to be the year of the world cup in Japan! The very first ramen shop I went to was right next to my dorm. It was a miso ramen shop and it was fucking awesome and the gyoza was awesome. I must have eaten there 10 times in the 3 weeks I stayed at the dorm. Even years later I come back and I still think it's great. I think I lucked out, because if my first bowl wasn't legit like it was I might not be into ramen crazy like I am now. Also, after the summer semester finished I had a homestay with a Japanese man from Arizona. He showed me a late night spot serving Ramen until 5 am. Tonkotsu shoyu. You get your bowl and eat it on the street. After that I knew I wanted to live in Japan, I just didn't know 2 years would turn into 10.

What makes a good bowl of ramen great?

Impact. It's all about impact. Something that pops. For me the most important part of the bowl is the broth- the soup. It's the very first thing I taste. When you sip it, and it gives you that 'OH! Wasn't expecting that!'- that's what I'm talking about. My favorite bowls are the ones where you eat all the noodles and all the toppings, and there's still some soup left and you cant help yourself to finish the whole bowl and just crush it. A lot of ramen bowls aren't meant for you to drink all the broth, but my favorite bowls beg for you to finish.

Biggest ramen shop no-no?

Theres two main things. I don't give a fuck about decor or how the restaurant looks, as long as they put care into the soup and what they're doing. Maybe the guy is handling cash and handling noodles. Not ideal but I can live with that. As long as they are dedicated to their craft. When I walk into a place and it looks and feels like the staff is only working a part time job, going through the motions, and you can tell that the chef is just getting paid a salary and isn't the owner- these are all bad signs. In any of the chain shops that is gonna be the case. The ramen shops that have just one outlet, it's gonna be the main guy running the show. I cringe a little bit when I ask someone their favorite ramen shop and they tell me a chain shop.

How many bowls of ramen did you take down in 2013?


Prediction for 2014?

Depends on how much time I spend in this country (Abram travels quite a bit). If I'm in Japan I'm dedicated. I'm definitely planning on crushing 150 minimum- maybe 200.

Side of tender Chashu with bean sprouts and negi.

What's the craziest ramen you've had?

Probably pineapple ramen. Shop name is pa pa pa pa pine! It's a pineapple-themed ramen shop. One location serving hot shoyu ramen or a chilled alternative.

Do you feel your ramen knowledge and experience is both a blessing and a curse?

It's a curse in the sense that now I can't enjoy bowls that I definitely would have enjoyed a long time ago. If it isn't a cut above the rest it's one and done. No need to come back. It's a little cruel, a little harsh. I'm like a fucking snob, honestly. Theres so many shops I need to get to. But ya know, it's kinda fun cause the search is a lot of what makes it cause the search never ends. It's a curse but it's great to always be able to try new ramen.

What's the main problem with ramen outside of Japan?

I feel it's a combination of many things. The number one problem is outsourcing and ingredient availability. There's a few important components for noodles. The water is different abroad. It's hard to duplicate the noodles. It's difficult to get the best niboshi (dried anchovies) in the States. Also, there haven't been any pros who've tried to do their thing abroad. It's only gotten competitive recently. Up until now the demand has been higher than the supply. It's inevitable the ramen quality will go up. Ramen shops are opening quickly, the good ones will weed out the bad ones.

もつ そば- Wagyu Intestine Tsukemen in Kyoto. With Tsukemen you can expect a bowl of room temperature noodles with a separate bowl of broth- usually much saltier and more concentrated in flavor than typical ramen broth. Supreme indulgence.

Talk about current Ramen trends in Tokyo.

Five years ago it was tonkotsu and fish based broths. Then tsukemen started to blow up. Trends are constantly changing, especially in a city like Tokyo with endless ramen options. In my opinion though, when you're looking for the next rush, that extra kick- tsukemen is the new ramen. For the hardcore ramen junkies, it's the next level.

Last supper ramen

The soup at Oyaji Ramen (Machida) is my #1 Miso Ramen soup in Japan.  Maybe there are a couple of bowls that I would say from top to bottom are better but something about that soup at Oyaji is just incredible to me.  The noodles are pretty good, the toppings average, but the soup brings me back again and again.

If you were a bowl of ramen what would you be? 

Something memorable and unique and great.

Stay Beastly.

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