Ramen Noodles - Junk Food as Art

Ramen noodles seem to have a bad reputation here in America. Maligned as the food of poor college students and those seeking empty carbs, ramen is looked at merely as warm junk food. The producers of popular ramen, such as Maruchan, don’t help either when they price a block of ramen for less than 40¢ a package. Drop a Kennedy, heat some water, stir and cover. A meal in thirty seconds! As a man who grew up in Japan, however, I know that there is much more to ramen than that. Most American ramen is a disgrace to ramen as I know it.

The Japanese love their ramen. It is a ubiquitous food throughout the country - a Japanese microcosm of the global dominance of McDonald's. That means that, yes, there is the budget-quality stuff available there too, but it is referred to as “the cheap stuff” rather than just “ramen”. What the Japanese usually have in mind when they talk about ramen is the stuff that you find in restaurants. This is my mindset as well. To get good ramen, you go to a restaurant.

Every ramen noodle shop makes their ramen a little bit differently, according to the standards of the target demographic. Average prices for a decent bowl of ramen range from ¥280-¥550 ($2.50-$5), while niche ramen restaurants can charge upwards of ¥980 for a bowl. Prices, of course, also reflect ingredients used, and a good rule of thumb is that the more expensive the bowl, the more meat/higher quality meat is included. Pork is the preferred meat, and it is sliced and placed on top of the noodles. Two or three slices is common, but I have seen as many as six.

The number of different ingredients that can be added to ramen is staggering. Vegetables, seaweed, soy sauce, eggs, meat, fish products, and myriad spices are all fair game. Most common ramen offerings will have a few slices of fatty pork, seaweed, a slice or two of kamaboko (a processed seafood product), and a sliced vegetables.

As I mentioned, a factor in making good ramen is the amount/quality of the toppings ingredients. The variation in noodle texture and quality, however, also contribute to making a good ramen. Some shops hand-make their noodles, which ensures quality at the added expense to the customer. Other places just buy dried blocks of noodles and boil them. These noodles are generally stiffer and harder to chew.

The main part of the ramen that separates the good stuff from the bad, though, is the broth. High-end noodle shops guard their broth recipes like Colonel Sanders guards his herbs and spices. Drinking the broth after finishing the noodles is an integral part of ramen consumption, and is how you tell the good stuff from the ordinary stuff.

I would go so far as to say that a good bowl ramen noodles is an art form. It is junk food, yes, but it is also art. Don’t believe me? Well, America has an equivalent junk-food-turned-art: the barbecue. Thousands of cooks all across the States slave over making the best-tasting sauce to slather onto fatty meats. Sure Arby’s makes a BBQ Roast Beef, but if you wanted a foreigner to get a good taste of “American barbecue,” you would send them to your secret local hole-in-the-wall joint, or maybe to a respected restaurant like Damon’s Grill. They might as well get the good stuff.

And just like there are BBQ fanatics, there are ramen otaku. One of my high school youth group leaders was one - a guy who traveled all over Tokyo in search of good ramen restaurants. That was what he enjoyed doing, and he wouldn’t hesitate to steer you in the direction of a good ramen shop if you were looking for food in the area.

One nation’s junk food is another one’s passion. Just like American chefs pour time and effort into their BBQ creations, so do the Japanese into their ramen dishes. Ramen is more than just a cheap college food, it is an honored national staple. There may not be many ramen restaurants here in America, but I think the arty-junk-food spirit is vibrant here, and it causes me to smile every time I pass a barbecue stand.


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Apparently They Make Color-Safe Bleach

I stumbled across the YouTube trailer for the movie Juno the other day, and had forgotten some of the pure gem lines that that movie has. The trailer can be seen here.

Mark: Why do people think yellow is gender-neutral? I don’t know one man with a yellow bedroom.
Vanessa: Well, Juno, your parents must be wondering where you are. You might want to head home.
Juno: Nah. I'm already pregnant, so they figure nothing worse could happen to me.
Juno: Your shorts are looking especially gold today.
Bleeker: My mom uses color-safe bleach.

Truly, this is better living through chemistry.


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