To outsiders, Japan can be an inscrutable country wedded to old, unabashedly “oriental” customs, like calligraphy or gazing at cherry blossoms. Either that, or Japan is seen as inscrutably whacky.
In my experience, the weird is plentiful. But “tradition” is to most ordinary Japanese akin to something from primary school that was absent-mindedly fun, like finger painting. For these people, tea ceremony is not a demure, ritualised expression of feeling or cogent philosophy. It is something burrowed into the back of your mind so you can look respectable at your wedding.
These days, aesthetic perfection and meditative calm comes in a bowl of soup. Eaten in five minutes. Standing up. Slurping as noisily as possible.
Japanese rituals have evolved. And in their respective evolutionary chains, in terms of grace, intelligence and meaning, I would argue that tea ceremony is analogous to the troglodyte, and ramen to the race of man.
So to instructions. In the 5 minutes of eating your ramen, observe the following:
The pork should be sweet and succulent. The ramen master has a choice, – cheek or belly. The cheek is more delicate, thinly sliced and riddled with spidery lines of fat. But the belly has more gumption – it gives the ramen extra power.
The eggs must be soft boiled. There can be no chalky yolks. Once again, there is a choice. Chicken, duck, or quail eggs. These choices are crucial. A wrong move can disrupt the tonal balance of the Ramen orchestra.
The noodles themselves must be firm but without bite. A hint of elasticity is ideal. The best way to test this is to shovel as many of them as possible in your mouth at once. If you want to do that again, and again, then the noodles are delicious. If not, then they are ordinary. This is why you can judge a ramen place by the loudness of the slurps.
Finally, and most importantly, there is the soup. Do the pearls of fat on the creamy surface glisten as the bowl is placed in front of you? Does the broth smell sweet and nutty and porky and slightly chickeny? Does the broth have great depth, so that one mouthful might be a meal in itself, except that there are many more mouthfuls to come?
When I came back to Australia after my exchange, I knew that I would not be able to find ramen, so I decided to make it myself.
This was no disaster, but it was not a great success. While the pork was delicious (belly braised for two hours in a broth of Chinese five spice, plus mirin, soy sauce, brown sugar, sake and garlic), and the eggs soft boiled, the noodles were store-bought, and chalky.
Most disappointingly, the broth was too thin. I have faith in the recipe, but 7 hours of braising pork leg bones, trotters, and a chicken carcass is not enough. The authorities demand at least 24 hours of extraction. My aromatics (which shall remain secret) did provide a little depth, but could not compensate for the thin soup. Oh well; $10 is not much to pay for a shot at perfection. I’m definitely trying again soon.