Whenever I rent videos nowadays, I go to the Japanese video shop and rent movies, TV dramas, but the first thing I look for are the food shows. Dotch Cooking Show (Dotchi no Ryori Show) has been gaining a non-Japanese chowish audience wherever it's being shown on local stations that have some Japanese programming, like KCSI (ch 18) in LA. While the episodes on these stations are usually a couple years old, the rental videos are current, and the one I rented recently was from an episode that aired 3/30 in Japan.
First I should say something about the format of the show. It's a contest between two popular dishes, like say, fried chicken vs. meatloaf. A celebrity panel is presented with a choice of two dishes they would choose to eat, but the versions of the dishes is prepared by expert chefs, using the best ingredients possible, and at the end, the dish that receives the majority vote "wins" and those panelists get to eat the dish, while the "losers" (the voters in the minority) don't get to eat at all. The pace of the show is frenetic and I imagine that slapstick humor is encouraged by the panelists for entertainment. And the sidebar of the show are presentations of the featured ingredient for each dish, where they find the best possible version of an ingredient, going on mini adventures to find them. I find the show extremely entertaining, yet very educational.
So the Ramen challenge that aired recently (3/30/06 in Japan) was a departure from the original concept of the show, and they had three of the top ramen chefs (who they called ramen samurais--you'll see the imagery on the website) develop their ultimate ramen dish. The catch was that the winner would be able to serve their dish at their restaurant, but the two "losers" would not be able to use their creations in their restaurants. This was a special 2-hour show, with 15 panelists, and they had several chefs from some of the other best ramen shops as observers.
The three ramen chefs were from Tokyo area ramen shop, Chabuya, Menya Musashi, and Nantsu-Tei, which all serve different styles of ramen. It was very interesting to observe the creative styles of the three chefs.
I was most impressed by the chef from Chabuya (who's a dead ringer for Ichiro Suzuki), who I liken to Ferran Adria (of El Bulli) of the ramen world. His background is French cuisine (I believe with a Cordon Bleu education) and he brings a lot of French ideas to ramen, as well as a blend of art and science to his approach. For instance, upon entering this challenge, his first action was to design the perfect bowl for the ramen. His explanation was that, like wine glasses, the shape of the bowl can work to optimize the experience of eating ramen. Then he went to work on the soup, for his ramen, which he called "Crystal Shio Ramen". His soup must have been the most complex of the three, with so many ingredients, but it was his exactness as to when to add which ingredient or for how long that captivated my attention. Like Ferran Adria, he calls his kitchen a laboratory, and he seems to experiment like crazy, taking copious notes and coming up with the exact proportions of ingredients and cooking methods. His ramen noodle was also created to match the thickness of the bowl, and besides using two types of flour that he has specially made for him, he added whole wheat from the same area where the clay of the bowls originate. He milled the wheat to a good coarse texture that would add a textural dimension to the noodles.
The chef from Menya Musashi took another approach. His idea was to treat ramen as a seasonal dish. So he created a spring ramen. I would liken his style to chefs creating luxurious seasonal food, like Alain Ducasse. His first action was to find the best salt for a shio style ramen, so off he went to meet an artisan salt producer from Kyushu. His intent was to make what he called an "umami-shio" (umami salt) to flavor the broth, so he steeped the salt in a thick kelp broth that he boiled down. For the spring element, he went to find an artisanal ume-shu (plum wine) from a famous sake brewer. He steeped the salt in the plum wine and boiled it down until all the liquid evaporated to create his spring plum scented pink-hued salt. His other twist was to use beef bones (gyukotsu) instead of the traditional pork bones to flavor the soup. He also used the plum wine add a spring element to the soup. He also made a broth from mussels, clams, scallops (instead of the traditional dried fish) which he would pair with the main beef soup in the bowl -- this is what's called a double soup, which we learn, was something he invented over 10 years ago (and now a regular ramen making method in Japan). When the Chabuya chef points out the dried sanma (pike mackerel) that he uses among his collection of dried fish for his soup, we also learn that that ingredient was also invented by the Menya Musashi chef several years ago as well. That's some serious creds. For his noodles, he developed a noodle cutting blade that created two textures of ramen, and he created a noodle made from rolling out three sheets of pasta with the center sheet infused with sakura (blossom) essence. So not only does the taster have a dual textural experience, there's a hidden essence in the noodle. Really creative stuff. I could go on about more of his creative touches, but it was all a bit over-the-top, even for me. Which is why I think I preferred the Chabuya ramen, if I had to choose.
The third chef from Nantsu-tei, took another approach. We learn that his shop was voted the best ramen shop in Japan by some influential media outlet last year. His approach is to take his tonkotsu style ramen to another level, by using slightly unusual ingredients, but staying within the tradition of a Kyushu style ramen. He called his creation "neo-tonkotsu ramen". To refine his tonkotsu soup, he went to find a breeder of wild boar in northern Japan to use for his soup, especially because the flavor of boar is mellower and more refined than traditional pork. To supplement the boar broth, he also sought shamo (gamecock) instead of chicken for his broth. So we find him on trips to northern Japan to acquire these ingredients at the sources. These producers promise him he'll make a superior tonkotsu broth. His broth takes over 24 to make. But we see that it's a really well controlled process, especially early in the boiling stage to coax out the best of what the ingredients have to offer. He also uses a double soup, pairing his tonkotsu broth with a soy broth made with a lot of dried fish (including a dried aji). For his noodle, he sought a special wild mountain potato (the slimy kind), but that grows naturally in the wild. He has to go to some backwood in Kyushu to find this with someone who has great tracking skills. As an added ingredient to the dough for the noodles, it adds a mochi-like texture to the noodles, as well as the subtle flavor of mountain potato (yamaimo).
I don't want to recap the entire show, nor will I spoil the ending, but I wanted to give an idea of how something as seemingly simple as ramen can also be complex and ingenious. I was pretty stunned by all of this dedication and creativity. But it also gives you an idea of how ramen is embraced culturally, and as a multi-dimensional cuisine on its own. I also put this out here to help open up people's minds about what exceptional ramen is, since some readers probably can't dissociate ramen with the 10 for a $1 packs at the supermarket, and it would be a shame if chowhounds still had that conception. I wish you all could see this show, but I don't think it will reach the airwaves here in the US, as I haven't seen any of the 2-hour special shows from the last few years on TV here. I've written about some of the wonderful ramens I've had during my travels in Japan, but I know I'm barely scratching the surface. I can't wait to have more.