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Now reading Ramen in Japan, Ramen in America

Ramen in Japan, Ramen in America

On flour, chicken fat, and how Americans just don't really know yet.

In the first issue of Lucky Peach, Ivan Orkin wrote about what it was like to be a Jewish guy from New York running two of the most popular ramen shops in Tokyo. Now, three years later, he’s moved back to the States to open two more shops in New York. If there’s anyone who can talk about the differences between the two ramen cultures—and what it’s like making ramen in each of the cities—it’s this guy. —Brette Warshaw

It’s Harder to Make a Proper Ramen Noodle Here

First of all, I daresay that bread and pastry production are more sophisticated in Japan. When I’m in Tokyo, there’s pastry everywhere! Everywhere. There are amazing loaves of white pullman bread, baguettes, and croissants. It’s all cooked hourly. Here in New York, where are you going to find fresh, warm bread? You’re going to have to seek it out.

In Japan, flour companies have different divisions that make flour for noodles. In general, this flour is milled as much as ten times more finely than it is here. The flour doesn’t need to be as absorbent here in the U.S.—it’s primarily for bread production. So there’s not as much of a reason to mill it as fine. The result is that it’s harder to make a proper ramen noodle here, since the flour is just not fine enough.

Relative to pasta, ramen noodles are on the low end of the water-content spectrum—some can contain as little as 26 percent water. In Tokyo, where we make our own noodles, my machines have these giant, very heavy rollers. When you initially mix your flour in the hopper, it’s not all clumped together; it’s usually very feathery. As you push it through these rollers, it rolls into a sheet. Without the additional water, there’s a tremendous amount of force that’s needed to press the flour into dough. The more refined your flour, the better it will bind with water, and the better the texture of the final noodle.

When I talk to our flour salesman in Tokyo, I can say, “I’m thinking about making a tsukemen noodle, and I want it to be aromatic and have a chew,” and he’ll send me samples that make sense. Then we can talk on the phone and I can say, “I want my ash content to be a bit lower or higher” or “I want to be able to see more or less of the grain color in the noodle.” I can really talk to them and have a super intellectual conversation, and at the end of the day you’re able to make a really good product.

This is all to say that when I came back to New York, I felt like making my own noodles would be too big of a challenge. I had already met Ken Uki, of Sun Noodle, and I had worked with him a little bit. He’d done a really good job; they run a really professional operation. So I decided to take making noodles off of my plate. He and I talk about the different types of flour he has available, and he gives me updates about new things he’s getting. Someday I might make noodles again, but it’s another whole business. I sell a lot of ramen, and making enough noodles for a thousand bowls a day or more is a big task.

You Can’t Get Good Chicken Fat Here in the States

In Japan, you can get great chicken fat for cheap. It’s orange and it doesn’t taste funky—it almost tastes like chicken soup. At the ramen shop where I went with Chang for Mind of a Chef—69 ’N’ Roll One, the one where you’re not allowed to talk—the chef just covers the whole top of the soup with a slick of this amazing chicken fat. It’s so delicious.

You can’t get good chicken fat here in the States. A USDA plant needs approval for each part of the animal they want to use: necks, wings, heads, whatever. A guy at one of the chicken farms we use says he throws all his chicken fat away; it’s too much of a hassle to get it USDA approved, and nobody wants to buy it.

So I use whatever I can get. It’s not bad. It’s good, but it’s not as delicious. At the shop, people are like, You could use Flying Pigs Farms or whatever, and it’s like, Yeah, but they want $15 per pound for their birds. Then they’ll say, Why don’t you use pastured, sustainable, organic meat? And I’m like, Will you pay $25 per bowl of ramen? People think that’s terrible, but it’s like, What the fuck—you don’t want to pay! They want me to have some fucking lady in upstate New York picking carrots out of the ground and carrying them to my restaurant. But they don’t want to pay for that.

The point is, ramen is so cheap compared to all the work that goes into it. Food in general should be much more expensive than it is. David had a great quote in Lucky Peach about how an Italian restaurant can charge you $28 for spaghetti pomodoro, and the fucking chef just opens a can of San Marzano tomatoes, breaks them up, mixes ’em with garlic and olive oil, and people are like, Oh my god! How delicious!

It takes four days to make a bowl of our ramen. We have more than a hundred recipes for everything we make. We have different rendered fats and flavored oils and different seasoning mixes for each bowl. It’s a lot of work. It’s very expensive, especially in New York.

Making Ramen Isn’t Brain Surgery

Ramen used to be the last-ditch job before you killed yourself. You’d failed as a salaryman and couldn’t hold on to a real job, so you’d open a ramen shop. And then another guy would come work for you, and he’d work there for five years, and then he’d open his own shop. You’d give him your noren, the little flags that fly outside of a ramen restaurant, and then everyone would know where he trained.

I think if you’re a cook who wants to learn about Brazilian food or Italian food or French food, it’s much more realistic to go to one of those countries and get a chance to work. In Japan there are just these massive language and cultural barriers, not to mention visa issues. You just can’t walk into a ramen shop and say, “Hey man, I love what you do, can I work for you?” They’ll be like, “Huh?” I’ve had Americans in Tokyo say, “I want to work for you; I’ll work for free.” And I’m like, “Dude, I’m sorry, I can’t have a non-Japanese-speaker in my kitchen. It doesn’t work. I’m not there all the time; I can’t translate for you.”

Making ramen isn’t brain surgery; it’s just time consuming. It’s a lot about mise en place and assembly. You’re just combining broth, fat, tare, salts, fish powder, and the noodles. You can have a timer for the noodles so that it’s the same every time, and you learn to keep the temperature of the soup hot. You can teach your employees all of the rules.

As an owner, my favorite type of worker is someone who just needs a job. We get a lot of kids who don’t need a job and are willing to walk away with any provocation. I like the guys who have less experience, because a lot of young cooks have attitude and are very impatient. When I was a young cook, you didn’t open your mouth when you were in the kitchen. You’d never live it down.

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Americans Just Don’t Really Know Yet

To me, the number one red flag when you go to a ramen restaurant is when the noodles aren’t good. More than that, the noodles have to be the right noodles. I try to pair specific noodles with soups and sauces suited to them.

It’s not that much different from anything else. You go to a sandwich shop and you’re like, Why would they use this bread? It doesn’t taste good. It’s just that Americans don’t see ramen that way yet. If you gave a New Yorker three sandwiches—one that was perfect, one that had bread that didn’t match the meat, and one that had sauce that didn’t match the protein—they’d be able to really critique them and describe what’s wrong. Whereas with ramen, Americans just don’t really know yet. They like it, but they just can’t get their head around it.

Of course they think they know it, though. We run this really weird business. You have customers who have no qualms being like, I didn’t like this so I’m not paying for it. People are comfortable writing reviews on Yelp that are borderline abusive and have no redeeming qualities. There’s nothing legitimate in the reviews. They nitpick you to death about bullshit.

What makes a good bowl of ramen? I think that all ramen should be balanced; I think a bowl of ramen should slurp; I think when you try to suck up the noodles, they shouldn’t stay in the bowl. You should have flavor in your mouth when you slurp the noodle, which means the soup sticks to the noodles. There should be a lot of thought about the texture and the shape of the noodles, and the toppings should marry with that. Here in the States, you have chefs making ramen with any noodles they get their hands on.

Again, at the end of the day, this is no different than any other restaurant. You go to bad restaurants all the time, where there’s a garnish, but the garnish seems as if they just added it as an afterthought. It’s a bad dish because it wasn’t thought out. But there are other times where you take a bite of the protein and a bite of the starch and then some of the vegetable or whatever and you’re going, My god. It all seems to be almost one thing. It all works; it’s a plate of food that just makes sense.

That, to me, is just the difference between good and bad food. Good food is thought about, balanced, and harmonious. That’s what good ramen is. You’ll know it when you get a good bowl of it—at least some people will.