Whether you want to claim them or not, our human food ancestors got this one thing right: wheat flour, water, and maybe a little salt makes magic!
Let it be known that I have always been a soup and noodle girl. I was raised on chow mein stir-frys and 5-for $1.00 specials of Maruchan dry ramen soup packets. This only intensified during my coming of age years in undergraduate, as ramen became a cheap, customizable staple in my diet. It was only a matter of time and opportunity that authentic ramen noodle shops made their conquest of the West.
If you grew up in New York City during the 80’s and 90’s you should have a healthy respect for the current Noodle Boom in the West. There is a very palatable reason that the Ramen (Noodle) Steaming Bowl Emoji was approved in 2010 as part of Unicode 6.0, and added to Emoji 1.0 in 2015. As of the date of this article, there are 14 internet-based platforms that have some version depicting the beloved comfort food, including Samsung, WhatsApp, Facebook (with an egg!), and SoftBank (which looks the most realistic). Noodles, in general, but ramen, in particular, holds an economical- yet high emotional currency as comfort food that has stood the test of time. As the narrator said in the 2017 Japanese documentary Ramen Heads, ramen is “cheap, immediate and deeply satisfying,” something that resonates well with busy people in New York and other large cities.
The funny thing about the title Ramen Heads is how being an “anything-head” is how the term acknowledges that our heads are the central element that controls our engagement to the pleasure at hand. We take eating noodles in with all five senses. With our eyes, we are visually stimulated by the bowl of noodles with their presentation and tasty “obstacles.” We hear the (encouraged) slurping in silence, which signals our complete involvement in the task. We smell the complex notes of the broth, salty being best. With our touch, we engage with the chopsticks and spoon, feel the steam on our face, and the warm bowl in our hands as we toss our head back. Of course, tasting the desired mouthfeel, whether glutinous udon, springy ramen or smooth soba, hot or cold, all flavors combine for the win. Another fact is that “good food leaves you speechless,” returning back to prehistoric urges, one could surmise.
Folks have been arguing over the origins of noodles for some time, as the obvious culinary crown and glory justifies centuries of secrets and intrigue. So much so that National Geographic weighed in with an article that reports 4,000-year-old noodles were found in China, dating back to the East Han Dynasty (A.D. 25-220). What began in China meandered across the world and gained a new artistic expression in Japan around the eighth century, A.D. (Nara Period), in the form of thin rice flour noodles. Regardless of their origin, whether you want to claim them or not, our human food ancestors got this one thing right: wheat flour, water, and maybe a little salt makes magic!
The ritual of being a noodle master is almost mathematical, in precise combinations of wheat flour, buckwheat, water, and salt. In the case of the celebrated subject of the Ramen Head documentary, Osamu Tomita of Chiba, Japan creates a unique broth to go with unique and varied noodles (tsukemen). His opaque, mud-like broth simmers for 27 hours and is a combination of several vats of varying viscosity and concentration. This is NOT a vegan dish! Ramen is by far the noodle dish with the highest calorie count, as pork bones and meat are often a primary ingredient, in addition to the noodles having egg, and egg being a topping. Shoyu soy sauce and miso dashi are also common bases for not only ramen but udon noodle dishes. Other bone broth bases used in ramen are tonkotsu, tantan (red miso curry), torigara.
Udon noodles, in contrast, are wheat noodles, thick and white in color, with a chewy consistency, often eaten hot in a broth or stir-fried with meat and vegetables. Many winter lunch breaks in midtown consisted of heading to the local lunch counter for some udon with all the fresh veggies and maybe some grilled chicken cubes. Soba is its own star, being the healthiest of the noodles. Soba noodles are soft, grayish-brown, and traditionally made out of buckwheat flour mixed with wheat flour. Buckwheat is a gluten-free grain-like seed that has a high nutritional value and is a safe wheat alternative for those with food sensitivities. In addition, soba noodles can be eaten hot or cold, often simply prepared with sprinkled seaweed in a clear fish broth. Lesser-known sōmen noodles resemble Italian angel hair pasta in appearance and are very delicate, often cooked cold for hot days in Japan.
Noodle masters spend several years learning the art of making noodles, and longer still perfecting their own secret style. In New York City, there is no shortage of ramen-yas popping up every year, but the standouts include: Minca, Ivan Ramen in the Lower East Side, and Ramen Lab (Sun Noodles maker). For a veggie ramen, head out to Mentoku in Hell’s Kitchen for their matcha ramen, and Sobaya for the best soba in town.