Thursday, December 02, 2004

On Ramen Culture

There's a Japanese grocery store called Kadeya, a couple of blocks away from where I work in downtown Ottawa. They sell a hot lunch for customers; for $10 CDN you get a donburi (grilled meat or fish with pickled vegetables over a bowl of rice) with miso soup. It's a couple of bucks less than what you'd pay for the same dish in the Japanese restaurant next door.

They also sell ceramics and knickknacks, but what I like about them is that they sell instant noodle bowls. Of course, nowadays any grocery sells Cup Noodles and similar products, but these ones are imported from Japan. They're expensive compared with regular noodle bowls (about $4 to $5) but for a guy who eats lunch at his desk, they make better financial sense than a $10 pasta dish at a nearby restaurant.

Instant noodles are of course a college student's godsend for a winter meal. Despite their high salt content, they give the illusion of nutrition because a) it's hot and b) it's a soup, so it's a fluid that the body needs. Noodle bowls are a convenience because if you use disposable cutlery or chopsticks, you don't have to waste time washing dishes afterwards, which makes them good for eating at a workspace.

I can't recommend a favorite brand because I can't read Japanese very well, though I've no complaints about the ones sold by Kadeya. They do sell one brand where the noodles are fresh (sealed in a pouch) as opposed to dried; it also uses a miso-flavored stock. That one, I think, is the closest one can get to the fresh ramen culture of Japan.

Anyone who's ever seen the movie Tampopo will have an idea of what I mean when I say "ramen culture." It's pretty much related to animé-nia or manga-natics; it celebrates an aspect of Japanese pop culture through practice and appreciation.

The best way to enhance the ramen culture experience is to have a special way to prepare and eat them. At work, I have a push-button hot water dispenser which is perfect for noodle bowls; it heats up water and keeps it at a hot temperature for up to 6 hours. You push a panel on the top to pour. It's an unusual and yet ideal way for making ramen and steeping tea.

When the noodles are ready, you go through a sort of ritual: breaking the disposable chopsticks as cleanly in two as you can; inhaling the aroma of the piping hot soup; eating with bowl in one hand and chopsticks in the other. No spoons; ramen culture says you sip the soup straight from the bowl. Undignified, yet satisfying.

Of course, it's an axiom that the diligence with which you follow the ritual varies inversely with the quality of your work day. Can you guess how my workday's been going?


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