If the increase in young-chef driven “boutique” ramen stores around Tokyo is any indication, 2010 is going to be a good year for ramen noodles.
Recently, on a cold winter night, I walked up to Afuri, a new establishment near Harajuku Station, to warm up with their limited-season “winter miso” noodles. The soup was hearty, the noodles thin and straight, and in an exclusive touch, topped with a thick slab of roast pork that was char-seared immediately before serving. There were also scallions, ground pork, soft-boiled egg and mizuna greens. There was little hint of MSG.
But what stood out was the atmosphere. The large horseshoe counter of dark woodgrain encloses a gleaming and modern steel kitchen. Oversize incandescent lights bathe the cream-coloured room. The windows are huge. The young staff – two men and a woman – dress in black t-shirts printed with the shop name in faded letters, and black peaked caps covering their peroxide blonde hair. It’s sort of rock’n'roll, except that traditional etiquette prevails: customers are volubly greeted and farewelled, and service is extremely fast and attentive, giving you a choice of noodle softness, or whether you want standard, rich, or low-fat soup.
If Afuri has thought hard – and spent big – on design, it’s also plain that the proprietors think customers are ready to pay for it; in the case of my miso special, ¥1,000 (€8). That may be relatively cheap against prices in the West (particularly London), where a poor quality ramen at a trendy chain restaurant can command twice that but in Japan, ramen is traditionally a low-end, greasy-spoon stomach-filler, a meal in a bowl for around ¥600 to ¥750, as lunch on the go, or to soak up the effects of late-night recklessness. It’s the equivalent of kebabs or vindaloo says Tokyo ramen maniac Hiroshi Osaki, who runs the online RamenDataBank, and claims to have imbibed 852 bowls of the stuff in one year: “Ramen is required after drinking.”
For as long as we drink it’s hard to see ramen ever failing this function, but as the chef’s baton passes, and a new generation looks freshly at this food, it has acquired at least one more.
Barak Kushner, lecturer in modern Japanese History at University of Cambridge, who has written a social history of ramen, sees a definite trend. “At the Tokyo Ramen Show this year, there were many interior decorators who specialise in creating environmental ambience at ramen shops,” he says. “It’s not only the restaurateurs but there’s a tertiary industry feeding off the growth of ramen.” And if the costs are passed on via more ¥1,000 noodles, so be it. We’re getting weary of all this talk of deflation.