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General Discussion 13

What makes ramen ramen?

Edokko | Nov 13, 2017 09:56 AM

(This post began as a rant on Ruckus "ramen" but was morphing into a broader question about ramenness, hence the existential title. But first, the rant.)

I went to Ruckus and ordered the Tori Paitan Ramen. Those words mean specific things--"tori" is chicken, "paitan" is white soup (thick and creamy), and "ramen" is...well, more on that later. One expects to get what one orders. As soon as I laid eyes on it, my BS scope lit up. Okay, there were clearly chunks of fried chicken meat and skin on top, and the broth was somewhat white-ish, but the noodles--they were very thin, very straight, and very white, looking suspiciously like somen. And, in fact, when I took a bite, they were just like somen, meaning limp, no spring, no al dente chew resistance. I think they might actually have been somen noodles. Now, I don't have anything against somen--they are delicious served cold, with dipping sauce, and I can down many servings in a sitting. But they don't do well in hot broth where they do not survive with their delicate assets intact. And somen, or somen-like noodles, are definitely not ramen. Or at least, that is my position.

What makes ramen ramen? It's a question worth asking with the rapid proliferation of joints in this area claiming to serve the stuff. Is it the toppings that evoke ramenness (chashu, menma, naruto kamaboko, nori, etc.) or the well-known broth types (tonkotsu, miso, shoyu, etc.) that one expects? I would say, in analogy to soba and udon, it is the type of noodle that differentiates ramen from other Japanese noodle dishes. Although ramen noodles come in somewhat different thicknesses, kinkiness, and colors, I think the crucial element is the use of kansui (an alkaline solution) that imparts to the noodle that characteristic springy, chewy texture and subtle flavor. Maybe the Ruckus Paitan noodle was made with kansui, but it sure didn't taste like it. I rate it as a fail on the ramenness test.

Admittedly, I am a curmudgeon on this topic as I grew up on '60s and '70s ramen in Tokyo. I do tend to like more orthodox styles. But I don't begrudge new takes on ramen as long as it is done well and within certain bounds. After all, my favorite ramen shop outside of Japan is Ivan Ramen in NYC, which uses rye flour (with kansui!) in their noodles. I like bulgogi tacos as much as the next guy, but would you call grilled meat on a galette bretonne a taco? I don't think so.

BTW, the Ruckus Paitan broth was a fail, too. It was watery, bland, no unctuous viscosity that I associate with a good paitan. Better examples of it are found at Totto and Sapporo in the Boston area.

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