The ramen obsession: It all started a decade ago

Note: This “Ramen Run” column is the first in a new autobiographical series about the Japanese noodle by Editor-in-Chief Yuan-Kwan Chan.

As a child, I often begged my mom to make a number of comfort foods, but whenever I was under the weather, there was just one that I wanted: ramen. Nissin or Maruchan, Chicken or the dreadfully named “Oriental Flavor,” it didn’t matter – ramen was my Asian equivalent of chicken soup.

Fast forward to the other day when I told my mom that I had recently dined at my favorite ramen joint in New York. A wrinkle of the nose and a mutter of the word “instant” made me realize that we were no longer on the same sinusoidal wave, er, noodle, of my youth. Here in the West, a friend told me, the notion of ramen still conjures pots, foam cups, boiling water, soup base packets, blocks of waxed noodles and too many all-nighters in the good ‘ol university residence hall. While these, admittedly, remain staples in my culinary intake – sans the all-nighters, thankfully – I began to think about how, and when, this seismic paradigm shift occurred.

It started, in earnest, during a year in college when I was studying abroad in Manchester, England. Hundreds of miles away from the small-town tourist trap of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, I was suddenly in a culinary mecca that was the United Kingdom’s second-largest city, home to the UK’s largest Cantonese population, and best Indian curry houses along a purple and gold-lit stretch nicknamed “The Curry Mile.”

But it was an ad for a new pan-Asian noodle house called Tampopo that intrigued me. Ramen had long been my comfort food, and perhaps I could find my comfort away from home in a noodle bar! Soon enough, I was bringing classmates and friends to the 16 Albert Square basement joint, a refuge from the persistent English rain as I slurped noodles and drank Amé Rosé (sadly, no longer on the menu). One of those classmates recommended hitting Wagamama whenever I decided to take the three-hour train ride south to London. There, the “Absolute Wagamama” set menu quickly became a must-have with chicken ramen, chicken gyoza, and one of the restaurant chain’s specialty fruit/vegetable juice blends (a “raw juice” with carrot, cucumber, tomato, orange and passionfruit – that last one has since been removed from the recipe).

My ramen palette, however, was not diverse enough to realize at the time that these were not the genuine article. They were fusion frauds that a Japanese friend found difficult to stomach when I took him to Tampopo, and that I sadly could barely chow down years later at Wagamama’s first U.S. outpost in Boston. I grew up on Cantonese food, but my ramen knowledge was as limp as a wet noodle.

Reading through the sizeable Japanese restaurant section in Time Out London’s annual review guide, I realized that my student budget should perhaps hit some Japanese expats’ joints. Hamine – now called Ryo – became my go-to place in SoHo for chahan (fried rice) and ramen sets when I was in town, although I think part of the appeal was the warm greeting of “Irasshaimase!” that sing-songed my way no matter what the time of day or temperature it was as soon as I opened the door. I alternated between Hamine and Zipangu in Chinatown, the latter becoming a choice for Hakata ramen after being unimpressed by the Cantonese offerings in the neighborhood.

In June, I returned to London for the first time in years, eager to visit all the favorite haunts that I frequented as a student. But like some memories that should be left unsullied and untouched – such as the belief that the “American Ninja” can do anything in the movies – Zipangu and Ryo, like those fusion frauds, became victims too. Stumped and left wondering why I was shaking my head over one-note broths and suspect ingredients, the same question entered my mind as I sat at a table in both joints: ‘Who, or what, was to blame for my shamefully somewhat snotty rejection of these comfort foods of yesteryear?’

Cue a 2006 voyage to the ramen mother ship.