A Brief History of Ramen, From Cambridge to Tsukuba Science City

If you read Ramen Chemistry's first post, you understand that pursuing a ramen business isn't obvious from our backgrounds. In this post, I'll start to explain how we got to this place, how we settled on this of all things we could have tried. It seems like ramen itself is a good place to begin.

 Chicken soup doesn't seem complete without a pile of pork on top. Some of our ramen, November 2014.  

Chicken soup doesn't seem complete without a pile of pork on top. Some of our ramen, November 2014.  

So we've been into ramen for a long time (speaking casually, we're not fanatics). Hiroko is from Japan and has been eating it all her life. She introduced it to me in Cambridge, MA around the time we met there in 2002. Near Porter Square was (and I just learned still is) a little mall containing a strange mix of stores: a Gap and a bunch of Japanese restaurants and a Japanese grocery. In that mall was a little ramen shop called Sapporo Ramen, run every day by a lone Japanese man. I always got the miso ramen, dumped far more hot pepper sauce into it than I should have, and drank down every bit of the very hot, spicy, and salty broth. I always left feeling wobbly-kneed.  I only learned later that in Japan, drinking the whole bowl isn't the norm.

 

Hiroko moved to Japan for several years while I finished graduate school. Although I kept overdoing it at Sapporo Ramen, my visits to Japan exposed me to really good authentic stuff, both in Tokyo and in Tsukuba, the exurban backwater where Hiroko was living at the time.   Unlike in the U.S., there’s no such thing as a culinary backwater in Japan, even in geographical or cultural backwaters. The Japanese, as a whole, have such deep commitment to craftsmanship. When it comes to food, they are so incredibly attentive to preparing quality dishes with quality ingredients, and doing so with unrivaled consistency.

  Ono Jiro  is the perfect  shokunin , the most public example in the West of the Japanese craftsman who, with masterful and uncompromising attention to detail, elevates a mundane profession to high art.  

Ono Jiro is the perfect shokunin, the most public example in the West of the Japanese craftsman who, with masterful and uncompromising attention to detail, elevates a mundane profession to high art.  

And they usually specialize, so that restaurants will focus on a single food: ramen, soba, sushi, tempura, yakitori, tonkatsu, and the list goes on.  All over Japan, from Tokyo and Osaka to the rural hinterlands, you’ll find this kind of specialization. In the U.S., you’d be more likely to find restaurants that try to do all these things at once, often compromising the overall quality of the menu. Sure, Japan has plenty of those kinds of places too (did you realize Denny's is huge in Japan?) but the specialization phenomenon is the dominant one, and really drives Japanese food culture.

 

Visiting Hiroko in Tsukuba, a rural town an hour from Tokyo where cheap land and a good local university had induced international tech companies to set up shop (part of it is even called, in English, “Tsukuba Science City”), I first had tonkotsu ramen. What a revelation! I hadn’t experienced anything like it in the U.S. in my early days of ramen eating. I found the rich and pale white pork broth extraordinary. For years afterward in the U.S., I looked for tonkotsu ramen, but rarely found it. It seems more prevalent these days, maybe because ramen has started to take off in the U.S., maybe because pork has been the in-vogue meat for the past few years (see, e.g., the recent near ubiquity of pork belly and bacon in American food culture).   

 That  is  for real.  Any doubts as to the wholesale cultural ascendancy of bacon here in the early years of the third millennium are hereby extinguished.

That is for real.  Any doubts as to the wholesale cultural ascendancy of bacon here in the early years of the third millennium are hereby extinguished.

In the next post, I'll talk about the ramen we've eaten in California.  But of pork, readers of Ramen Chemistry, we shall speak again soon.