I was lucky enough to visit the Sun Noodle factory in Teterboro, NJ, to get a crash course on ramen (Ramen Lab). After a quick tour of their facility, Chef Shige Nakamura set up a tasting for us and briefly explained the history of ramen in Japan. Chef Nakamura is a ramen superstar in Japan and still owns several ramen shops. He is most well-known for his “tenkuuotoshi”, which is his signature move that literally means “sky drop”. He manages to strain the noodles without damaging them by using this dramatic yet subtle move.
Chef Namakura brought up an interesting point that the history of ramen in the US is the opposite of Japan. In Japan, fresh ramen came first (from China), then Momofuku introduced instant noodles. In the US, cup noodles became widespread first, and now ramen shops are popping up everywhere and people are realizing that there is much more to ramen than pouring hot water and waiting for 3 minutes.
Ramen is composed of soup, noodles and garnish, and the soup is composed of stock, tare and kaori abura. Taré is the flavoring of the soup and the kaori abura is the oil, that provides the aroma. The stock provides the body and richness of the soup. Chef Nakamura uses an old model Atago refractometer to check the brix and concentration of stocks. It helps ramen shops to keep their soups consistent. It is the relationship and balance between the soup and noodles that determine how good a bowl of ramen is. To make all of this easier to understand, Chef Nakamura combined different components. For example, he combined only stock and tare together, to show us how vital the abura (oil) is.
Chef Nakamura is genuinely passionate about what he does. He wants to spread the appreciation of ramen across the US. It’s not an easy job considering the short history of ramen in this country. He needs to educate not only those who want to cook it, but also those who eat it. Many ramen enthusiasts seek his consultation when opening up their ramen shops. To be honest, I don’t think that the level of ramen in New York City is very high, and part of it has to do with the fact that people don’t know how to eat ramen properly. To each his own, but it irritates me when I watch people eating ramen in this country. I don’t think you can say that you really love ramen if you take more than 5 minutes to eat a bowl of ramen. When you take that long to eat, the noodles soak up a lot of the soup and the noodles get soggy. Japanese people are very particular about the texture of noodles and this is what makes us love ramen so much.
Running a ramen shop in New York City is not the same as in Japan. With higher rent, I can’t blame ramen shops here for trying to increase the average check. In Japan, customers will eat and leave within 15-30 minutes, but here, you probably can’t turn the table in less than an hour. The ramen shop concept has to adapt to the New York style of dining and that’s why you don’t find any really authentic ramen shops here.
With that said, I am looking forward to more ramen shop openings and hope that things will change for the better!
[part of this article was also featured on www.mtckitchen.com]