Serious Reads: 'The Ramen King and I'

Portions of this memoir read very much like a Murakami novel—the quiet yet inexplicable obsessions of neurotic protagonists, interwoven with the mythicized stories of unknown figures and minor characters that stop just short of the surreal.

20090713ramenking.jpgStruggling with chronic infidelity and frustrated in his career, a disillusioned American thirty-something looks toward redemption by writing confessional letters to Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant ramen.

If there were ever a less likely book premise, I have yet to hear it. All the more so because The Ramen King and I isn’t a work of fiction but a memoir. Author Andy Raskin appears to live for two things: casual dates and Japanese culture, particularly where food and comics are concerned. At the book's opening, Raskin seems about as emotionally evolved as a ramen-slurping college kid—trawling through online message boards for dates, betraying the committed relationships he does occasionally end up in, losing himself in Japanese comic books at sushi bars.

The Ramen King and I

How the Inventor of Instant Noodles Fixed My Love Life
Author: Andy Raskin
Get It: Hardcover on
Recommended Read? Yes

After realizing that his habitual womanizing has destroyed every meaningful relationship in his life, Raskin enters a sort of Cheater’s Anonymous recovery group, where his mentor encourages him to start a notebook of letters, unburdening himself to whatever God, spiritual force, or mentor he chooses. And, preoccupied with a magazine profile of Momofuku Ando, the Japanese creator of instant ramen, Raskin begins writing daily to the "Ramen King"—confessing his infidelities, insecurities, and profound aimlessness to a far-off businessman who, minor spoiler alert, will never respond.

If this sounds like a self-indulgent piece of work, it is. The Ramen King and I is far less about Momofuku Ando or his instant-noodle empire than it is about the personal frustrations that led Raskin to the point of, well, seeking solace in a one-sided correspondence with a Japanese billionaire.

Yet his wide-open acceptance of his own flaws and eccentricities makes this an incredibly entertaining read. We’re all voyeurs at heart, and getting into Raskin’s head lets the reader into a world as bizarre as the Japanese culinary culture he navigates. An American linguistically and culturally conversant in Japanese, Raskin couples an outsider’s eye for the absurd with a more understanding, sympathetic perspective—a perfect tour guide, as it were, for his stops along the way to the Ramen King.

Anyone looking for a book about Japanese food will end up skimming this book like a teenager flipping pages for the dirty parts. Luckily for those readers, there are plenty of morsels within. Like the San Francisco sushi joint Hama-Ko, where Raskin is first embraced, dubbed “Hakata Andy” and entered in a list of preferred guests, but then disowned—simply for mentioning Hama-Ko on Chowhound. Or another San Francisco restaurant that serves powdered wasabi to most of its customers but freshly grated wasabi only to a favored few.

A bowl of ramen that Raskin eats at Ramen Jiro—a tiny Tokyo noodle shop governed by strict rules and a code language and a ruthless overlord who makes Kenny Shopsin look tame—lands him in the hospital, his gallbladder no match for the ramen’s half-inch layer of melted lard. He devours Japanese foodie comic books, set in sushi bars and ramen factories and breweries. And his tours of underground sake bars, callings at Nissin Food Products headquarters, and visits to a museum dedicated entirely to gyoza only whet our appetites for more.

“People often ask me what fascinates me about Japan, and for a long time I never knew how to explain it,” Raskin writes with characteristic frankness.

Here it is, in a nutshell: There’s a Gyoza Stadium on the third floor of a video game arcade called Namco City, and a chart on the wall lists the ratios of soy sauce to vinegar found in gyoza dipping sauces in different regions of the country.

Portions of this memoir read very much like a Murakami novel—the quiet yet inexplicable obsessions of neurotic protagonists, interwoven with the mythicized stories of unknown figures and minor characters that stop just short of the surreal. For the world he evokes, it's quite effective. Raskin’s own deification of the “ramen king” may seem unlikely at first, but by the time he fights his way (along with tens of thousands of others) to Momofuku Ando’s funeral at an Osaka stadium—a service that depicts Ando as an essentially supernatural being, born the day Halley’s Comet swept by the planet—it’s clear that he’s hardly alone.

Quirky and compelling, at times (it appears) heartbreakingly honest, The Ramen King and I goes down as easy as Cup Noodles. It may leave a bit of an aftertaste; upon closing the book, this reader was left scratching her head as to why she got sucked into the writer’s romantic travails so easily, and whether the memoir had been anything more than an elaborate conceit. But its appeal is hard to ignore.