“A good bowl of ramen has no beginning or middle or end. When you eat it everything comes together.”by Wendell Steavenson / April 24, 2014 / Leave a comment
Many years ago, during a Tbilisi winter when there was no heat and the electricity was down to four hours a day, I devised a heartwarming dish that was so accidentally good (I made it out of leftovers) that it has since become my signature.
In a bowl place a scoop of mashed potato and scoop of cooked spinach, pour over chicken broth, add, if the fridge provides, finely minced garlic, spring onions, chopped parsley, a dollop of sour cream and a shimmering lid of olive oil. The broth should be as lip scalding as Jewish grandmother’s chicken soup, as the potato disintegrates into a creamy veloute and the spinach floats bright with vitamins. You can feel the restorative nourishment pouring through you. Salt fat heat. Like beef tea to Victorian invalids, Bovril after a midwinter rugby match, Cup-a-Soup in exam week.
This winter in the snow-bound American northeast, I have been obsessed with the Asian equivalent: ramen. Noodles in a bowl of rich umami broth, topped with whatever you like—traditionally a slice of pork belly, Chinese cabbage, pickled bamboo shoots and a soft-boiled egg. I am hardly alone in my excursion to Japan for the ultimate comfort food. The cheap hit of the instant noodle has been a worldwide trend since Momofuku Ando invented a way to freeze-dry cooked noodles in 1954. Over 90bn packets are now eaten globally each year.
In the mid-1990s the Tokyo ramen scene exploded upscale: chefs making their broth from scratch using premium ingredients and innovating in hundreds of directions, clamouring for attention in ramen magazines and blogs and TV shows. New York has caught the bug now, too: all the foodie blogs list their top 10 ramen joints and at the hip places you can queue for more than an hour for a bowl.
I spent several days eating ramen lunch and dinner. I sat at the counters and watched the ballet in the galley kitchen—shake noodles out of the steaming water, slither into bowl, ladle broth, chopstick toppings into position, serve. The noise was bustle and clang, the clientele Asians and hipsters and Asian hipsters. At Chuko in Brooklyn I ate the popular tonkotsu-style ramen, named for the broth made from pork bones and emulsified with pork fat into a voluptuous white murk. A slice of pork belly, a clump of shredded pork, unctuous as long-cooked barbecue, mustard greens and spring onions—flavour…