Ippudo and the art of eating ramen

FEAST WITH ME - Stephanie Zubiri-Crespi (The Philippine Star) - September 11, 2014 - 12:00am

“Sensei, soup first or noodles first? ”“First, observe the whole bowl.” “Yes, sir.” “Appreciate its gestalt, savor the aromas, jewels of fat glistening on the surface. Shinashiku roots shining. Seaweed slowly sinking. Spring onions floating. Concentrate on the three pork slices. They play a key role but stay modestly hidden. First caress the surface with the chopstick tips.”

“What for?” “To express affection.”

If Forrest Gump had his chocolates, then Tampopo has ramen. This 1985 Japanese “noodle western” has an iconic scene where Ken Watanabe recounts an encounter with a ramen master who shows him the proper way to eat ramen.

The plot, simply put, is as follows: a young widow spends her days struggling to keep her husband’s noodle shop alive. This damsel in distress is rescued by a lone, wandering, cowboy-hat-wearing truck driver with a comical sidekick. They embark on an adventure together to create the best ramen possible. Her triumphant, perfect bowl in the end is the culmination of her hard work and struggle for rebirth — a new lease on life embodied in one small bowl of noodle soup. This scene with the ramen master sets the tone for the movie … how much reverence, respect and appreciation one should have for even the smallest of things. That ramen is not just noodles and broth but someone else’s life’s work.

The ramen craze has taken over Manila in the past few years. From being exposed practically only to the iconic Nissin’s instant chicken ramen, which is deeply ingrained in my childhood lore, to a plethora of different ramen shops opening all over the metro.

I love the allure of ramen. The existentialism of staring into a bowl of floating noodles. The Haruki Murakami imagery of dark, stormy, lonely nights, eating a steaming-hot bowl of ramen in the middle of nowhere in Tokyo. However, I am no expert. In fact, the honest truth is that I am not that much of a fan of ramen. I have always been an udon girl and I refuse to shoot myself in the foot by claiming to be an authority that can declare which is the best one in town.

You see, my problem with ramen is that most of the time, in the quest to make something extra unique and special, it gets too rich for my taste. If I decide to eat noodle soup, I want to be able to drink the soup and I’ve found that in many ramen houses the broth is so heavy that after a few spoonfuls I am deliriously dizzy. I find that the soup acts more like a sauce, which for me defeats the purpose of having noodle soup. That is why, to be quite frank, I was skeptical when I was invited to try Ippudo. I was already preparing my spin angle: let’s focus on the art of eating ramen rather than the ramen itself. However, to my surprise, I finished my first bowl of ramen in a long time.

They have three main options: Shiromaru Motoaji, Akamaru Shinaji and Karaka-Men, all made with their special tonkotsu broth. I went for their spiciest option — Karaka-Men served with thin wavy noodles, pork belly and spring onions topped with a special spicy minced meat, miso paste and garlic oil. What I loved the most about it was that the broth was flavorful without being too heavy, that I could finish the bowl without my head and stomach turning. That it felt clean and alive.

If you are like me and not that big on ramen, you will find that Ippudo is a great place to accompany your ramen-eating friends because, unlike many ramen houses where non-ramen options are an afterthought, their other dishes are rather nice, like this strangely good Curry Cheese Harumaki which is like a curried meat-and-cheese spring roll served with Japanese mustard; a decent gyoza, very fluffy tamago and my favorite, their Goma Q — a cold cucumber salad with sesame dressing. A welcome bit of freshness in a rich world.

I even had my own little ramen-eating lesson, but instead of an old sensei, my teacher was the hip and young operations manager of Ippudo Philippines, Yota Shiiba.  Energetic and a bit of a showman, he demonstrated that you should sip the broth first to appreciate it on its own as it is the pride and joy of the chef Shigemi Kawahara, also known in Japan as the Ramen King.  Then slurp the noodles. Apparently the Japanese have a special word for this: zuzutto, the sound of slurping noodles. By doing zuzutto, you have expertly managed to consume both the noodles and the soup at the same time. Then you can use your chopsticks to mix the contents of the bowl a little, then take a bite of the toppings.

Yota’s favorite thing about ramen? “The noodles. They have to be firm. I also like having spicy beansprouts and spicy pickles in them.” His favorite time to have ramen? With a big, toothy grin he firmly exclaims, “Midnight! After drinking!”

After being thoroughly amused and schooled in the modern art of eating ramen, I go back to my bowl and stare at the slices of pork, remembering the rest of the scene with the ramen master of Tampopo.

“Then poke the pork.”

“Ah… Eat the pork first?”

“No. Just touch it. Caress it with the chopstick tips, then gently pick it up and dip it into the soup on the right side of the bowl. What’s important here is to apologize to the pork by saying, ‘See you soon.’”

Well, looks like it’s the same for Ippudo and I. They’ll see me back soon.

* * *

Ippudo Philippines is on the third floor, SM Mega Fashion Hall, EDSA corner Julia Vargas Avenue, Mandaluyong City. Visit http://facebook.com/ippudoPH for more information.

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