text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
It might sound pompous but I am deeply convinced that the biggest crime that has been committed against Japanese gastronomical culture was that of sushi being selected as its most prominent example instead of ramen; even though like most Edo culture fans, I appreciate sushi which was born there and then, I believe that ramen, the Chinese noodles that became fashionable in the beginnings of the 20th century and still remain one of the most fundamental dishes of Japanese cooking say much more about the Japanese and the way they understand things than any other food be it of high or low cuisine.
Ramen came from China but no Chinese will feel the dish with the same name been served in thousands of small and very small restaurants in Japan as something familiar; like it often happens in this country’s culture, the Japanese took a foreign idea and they infused it with so many of their own elements that the result is one hundred percent theirs. And you can understand how much so, when you come to realize that there is no neighborhood, from the busiest spots of Tokyo to the remotest parts of any northern or southern province, lacking at least one restaurant serving just ramen and whose narrow benches and bar-like stools aren’t full, very often from opening until closing time.
Some self-styled “epicureans” consider ramen a second class food, fit only for workers on their break, late-night drunks who try to calm their flaming stomachs and homeless who managed to stash enough coins so they can eat at a restaurant instead of sitting cross-legged in their cardboard boxes under the train bridges; besides ignoring the origins of sushi (which are exactly the same), these people also ignore the combination of arts that culminate in a bowl of ramen. From the composition of the dish that always differs from restaurant to restaurant, to the creation of the broth that takes two days and that is an invention of every cook-artisan and to the subtle changes in taste during the meal, as the ingredients mix because of the high temperature, ramen aren’t just food: they are a firework of senses that couldn’t have been devised anywhere else in the world.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years. For more information about his work and his writing, visit his blog Nihon Arekore
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