[Recently, at the wedding of our friends Jenny and Cliff, we met a delightful woman named Yuko Uchikawa who began telling me about this fascinating ramen joint in Japan where you sit in little cubicles so you can be alone with your noodles. I asked if she would write a guest post and she kindly agreed. What follows is her ramen story.]
My acupuncturist in Nagoya is from Fukuoka, and Fukuoka folks are passionate about their ramen. When I asked where I should go to get Fukuoka ramen in Nagoya, he replied “Fukuoka.” When pressed, he said, “there is a place, downtown, that comes close. It’s a chain, but it’s good. It does express our passion. There are dividers.” Dividers? “So you are completely alone with your ramen.”
When you open the sliding door to Ichiran, you are greeted by a vending machine. This is common in Japanese ramen shops–a vending machine selling tickets for your choice of ramen, side dishes if there are any, and drinks. No one at the shop handles money. I used to think this signaled “bad quality” but actually it is quite the opposite. Got my ticket, and I enter a long narrow corridor. There is a single counter with dividers.
Each cubicle is like a cockpit, everything within reach. To the left is a spout for my water. Right above it are cups. Chopsticks, to my right. There is a small devise that serves two purposes: 1. to call for help 2. detonates a loud trumpet tune called Charumera when I place a small plate on it, announcing that I want extra noodles. Business cards to my left. Above is a shelf for your bags. Behind you is a hook for your jacket and umbrella, and a box of tissues to catch the snot that inevitably oozes out as you consume hot soup. The stools are bolted to the floor predetermining the distance between you and the ramen. It’s close. You can’t really be any taller than 5’5″. There is a slip of paper with a red pen (which is attached to a chain). It looks like a test. There are multiple choice answers to circle. Do I want: 1. no garlic 2. some garlic 3. a lot of garlic; 1. small noodle portion 2. medium 3. extra; Egg, no egg; how spicy; how rich the soup?
Before me, a mini bamboo blind is up. The opening is about the size of a small TV and I only see the lower torso of workers running around. Someone approaches. When she bows, I catch a glance of her face, but otherwise, the opening shows her middle. She takes my ticket and the slip of paper. She lowers the blind. Suddenly I am alone, in my cubicle, contemplating the arrival of this ramen. The only sounds I hear are aggressive slurping of noodles, sniffling, and the deafening Charumera. The ramen makers in their mobile carts used to blow this tune back in the day to notify the neighborhood that he’s arrived. This seems to blare every few minutes letting all of us know that someone is ordering more noodle. There is no conversation.
I look up, and right at my eye level, I see a sign, written in just the right type size for the close proximity. It says:
A word about being uncompromising:
Focusing solely on Tonkotsu (Pork Bones) Ramen:
Refusing to diversify the menu, we are on the singular path of Tonkotsu Ramen.
The Red Secret Sauce that floats on the Ramen:
Hot chili peppers blended with 30 spices, sit together for many nights.
Extracting the delicious flavor of pork bones, and at the same time, deleting the unpleasant “smell”–the kusami–of pork. It is a two step process, a unique “know-how” of this company. Because of this skill, we are loved by our customers.
*Opposite to UMAMI, there is the KUSAMI, which means stinky flavor (Mi is flavor). We often talk about Kusami–the stink that might rise from fish, pork, scallions, for instance.
A unique blend of special flours.
We created a shop without a master. The flavor is often dependent on the existence of a “master.”
We would like all of our customers to taste our ramen with no distractions and with a sense of zen emptiness.
You can slurp with abandon. You can eat alone without feeling self-conscious.
You can order according to your individual desires–hard or softer noodle, strong or weaker soup–we cater to your tastes.
Extra noodle system:
When you order extra noodles, “Charumera” rings. In the beginning we had problems with this system, and suffered a lot of electrical shortages. It’s been fixed.
My blinds open. A beautiful bowl appears, presented by a pair of delicate hands. She bows again, tells me to enjoy my ramen, and closes the blinds. It smells delicious.
The ramen is beautiful in its simplicity. The pork bone stock is opaque, the color of natural wool. It is done right–the aroma is delightful, not porky, no kusami, but rich, salty, miso-y blend that we go crazy over. I got the version with extra slices of braised pork, and they are gorgeous, just enough fat (not much), tender, and almost fully immersed in the soup because I chose the smaller amount of noodle. The noodle here is very thin. It is al dente, giving it that “shikoshiko” texture–it gives some resistance to your teeth that we like from noodles. One must eat fast, before the noodles “nobiru,” or elongate.
I peak over my divider and see heads fully immersed in the cubicle, all working methodically to the finish. People are slurping ramen like vacuum cleaners on high setting. Getting back to my own territory, the set up works–my mind empties, I bend into the ramen, and dive in. With such concentration and focus, the meal ends in about 3 minutes. There is a bit of soup left. I compose myself and take a deep breath. Cradling my bowl with both hands, I tip it vertical to drink up the last bit of soup. At the bottom of the bowl, it says “Thank you.” I let out a sigh of satisfaction, and without getting up, reach for my bag, jacket, and tissue. With no master to compliment or hold me back, I walk right out into the chaos of downtown Nagoya, holding on to the rich flavor of Tonkotsu.
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