No Spoons, No Smiles, No Service
Jiro Dreams of Ramen
It was a casual Tuesday night, I was watching Brene Brown’s Ted talk on shame and of course, that immediately sparked emotions triggered by my constant desire to eat. I was feeling rather hungry after a long day of guiding visitors around on a food trip and had skipped on eating with them on account of having major stomach pains upon waking up this particular morning - so I did what any normal person would do and left the house to go get soup for dinner.
Now, if you couldn’t hear the sarcasm in my voice when reading the word “normal,” then you need to go back and understand that when I say ‘normal,’ I actually mean “sick, deranged, and abnormally food obsessed,” because I didn’t just go get any soup. Oh no, I went to go get what is probably the most famous “junk-food” ramen shop, boasting the most amount of calories in all of Tokyo. And no, Im not talking about the overly spiced and hopped up on MSG Ichiran, or even the subpar-at-best bowl of Ippudo. No, I am talking about the grandfather of gut busting ramen bowls, Ramen Jiro (est. in 1968)!
It was fitting that I was watching Brene Brown talk about shame, because it is beyond shameful that I haven’t been to Ramen Jiro in all my years of living in Japan. But then again, it’s probably because I knew the dangers of trying this heathen of a bowl would be similar to the same reasons you should never try crack.
Needless to say, the fact that it was a cold and rainy spring night, finally sparked a strong enough desire to get up and go try this supposed legendary bowl of ramen. As I hopped on my bike for a brisk ride through the drizzly night in an effort to shorten what would have been an annoying 20 minute walk, I allowed the cold sprinkles of water to wake me up from my foggy haze and liven me up for what I knew would be a bit of a line and a very intimidating experience.
Both expectations were on point. When I arrived at the shop, I parked my bike and got in line. About five minutes later, a boy who was part of a group of other young boys decided to muster up the courage to tell me that I got in the wrong part of the line. To my defense, this wonky snake shaped line made no sense, so it was an easy mistake to make lining up. Anyway, I said a simple “oh, thanks!” and the friends of the boy ignited into a cacophony of laughing hyenas. I could hear them sharing in Japanese, their disbelief that their friend could speak English well enough for me to understand! After moving to the correct part of the line, I watched people purchase their desired bowl from a vending machine like most classic old school ramen shop set ups. Generally most ramen shops offer a variation of broths to choose from, but this shop has one broth and one broth only, which is a tonkatsu and soy sauce blend thickened with fatty pork bits.
The only choices you get to make here are,
“how big do you want it?”
“do you want extra pork on top?”
I watched the guy in front of me order a “small with pork,” and I immediately felt another bout of shame come over me because I knew that I was going to one up the guy with an “extra pork” order, but when have I ever let shame get in the way of my ordering or eating? Never.
So I did it. I ordered the small with extra pork and confidently waited to get seated. As I waited in line, I noticed that I was literally the only female in line. It was a horde of salarymen hunched over into their bowls slurping like ravenous wolves. The interior of the shop is a dismal site, and only seats about nine people. The kitchen is bare boned, with only three huge pots that look pretty much like oil barrels sitting on top of the stove, with one small burner left open for flash frying the bean sprouts and cabbage that offer the least amount of nutrition on top of the ramen bowl. One barrel for the broth, one for simmered pork, and the other for noodles. It’s that simple here.
When I finally got seated, fittingly enough, there was a cold, wet, sad rag slumped right in front of me, almost as if it were welcoming me with a nice little “f*ck you for joining us.” I tried to move it out of my eye line with the least amount of skin contact possible, and then confidently handed over my ticket to the ramen master. Shockingly, two girls got seated next to me, but before I even realized them in my periphery, I got a violent tap on my shoulder from one of the girls motioning to me that the guy wanted to know if I wanted garlic added to my bowl. I said “chotto dake” which means “a little bit,” because of course you gotta try this famous bowl the classic way to have it, a la garlic.
When the ramen master grumpily threw down my bowl in front of me, I got a little glimmer of excitement despite the dead, smile-less faces around me. I was just about ready to throw my face into the bowl with a big spoonful of broth (the only way to start any bowl), but to my dismay, did not have a spoon by my side. I politely asked the girl next to me in Japanese where the spoons were, and she very curtly said back “Spoon Nai!” (Translation: “NO SPOON!” or “stupid white girl, of course there are no spoons here!”) I looked at her, laughed, and said “of course!” She gave me coldest dead eyes I’ve seen in a while, and looked away.
I looked back down into my bowl wistfully admiring the pretty floating bits of pork back fat in the broth and forfeit my spoon disappointment with a sigh of “alright then,” picked up my bowl and took a nice comforting sip of the the thickest and tastiest broth I’ve had in a long time. I couldn’t wait to show off my own slurping skills as I picked up the heavy thick noodles and sucked them down cheerfully.
I had to pause after that first full bite of pork, noodle and broth because, My God, was this the most perfect down and dirty bowl of ramen I’ve ever had. The noodle texture was so thick, it reminded me of an ultra al dente fettuccine noodle, but with more crinkle and girth.
I’ve always believed that thick noodles are far more superior than wimpy thin noodles, perhaps because I am pretty thick myself, so this was the dreamiest noodle I might've ever had.
Halfway through the bowl, I decided it’s probably for the best that they don’t give out spoons here. Since pretty much everything is done intentionally here in Japan, I imagine that they forgo the spoon in an effort to keep people from dying of a heart attack upon finishing all the broth, like I was intending on doing.
I should also mention that halfway through any bowl of ramen, I always layer my bowl with whatever condiments adorn the counter, in order to see what extra levels I can take the flavors of the bowl to. There was only white pepper available, so I sprinkled a little into my bowl, which of course added another subtle yet complex layer of flavor. I then slurped up the rest of the bowl as fast as I could out of respect.
The girls next to me beat me in the race, but Im pretty sure I took in more pleasure throughout the process.
All in all, this was a mean and dirty bowl that will have me coming back for more. I guess you could say Im a glutton for shame and punishment, but only when it comes with a payoff as delicious as this.
Long live Ramen Jiro!