It's hardly news that ramen restaurants have been on the rise across the United States for the better part of two decades. Nowadays, particularly in major cities, diners have access to a wider variety of ramen styles than ever before. But one of the more surprising aspects of this growth, especially for those of us familiar with eating ramen in Japan, is just how differently Americans approach their bowls of noodles. While it's rare for a Japanese diner to spend more than 15 minutes eating their ramen, many Americans will chat over their bowls for upwards of 30 or 40 minutes, allowing their noodles to languish in an increasingly tepid broth.
Though you could simply chalk the disparity up to different dining cultures, I've always thought it also stems from a lack of awareness of the benefits of slurping. It's true that there's no right or wrong way to eat a bowl of noodles—and, ultimately, you should eat the bowl of noodles that you've bought with your hard-earned money in any way you wish—but I firmly believe that there is an ideal way. Ramen eaten quickly, and slurped loudly, will capture the full sensory range of each carefully engineered bowl. The broth should be piping-hot, from the first sip to the last drained dregs; the noodles should be firm and springy; and the slurp should create a seamless marriage of the two, giving you toothsome noodles coated in scalding soup.
We asked the chefs at five of our favorite ramen shops in New York City to weigh in on the importance of slurping ramen, and give tips for those who are new to the practice. While the idea was inspired by that campy scene with the ramen master in the cult food flick Tampopo, their responses gave us more than just basic instructions: We also got a primer on the philosophy behind each of their favorite bowls.
Here are the shops and the chefs behind them, and a little bit about the bowls they chose to slurp on camera.
Ivan Orkin's Chicken Paitan at Ivan Ramen
Ivan Orkin made his name as the first gaijin (foreigner) to open up a critically acclaimed ramen shop in Tokyo. Though he's since shut down his Japan-based operations, Ivan Ramen is happily thriving at its two New York City locations. In the video, Orkin showcases his relatively new chicken paitan, featuring his signature rye noodles and minced chicken in a salt-and-kombu flavor base. The broth gets remarkable depth of flavor from a mushroom duxelles–type concoction, and is enriched by the raw egg yolk that tops the bowl.
Joshua Smookler's "Tonkotsu 2.0" at Mu Ramen
Joshua Smookler burst onto the ramen scene with his Mu Ramen pop-up, held during the off-hours at a New York bagel store. Mu took the top honor in the New York Times' 2014 roundup of the top 10 bowls of ramen in the city. Since then, Smookler has refined his approach to ramen continuously, and he plans to revamp his entire menu in the near future. For our video, he chose to highlight his Tonkotsu 2.0, a bowl of broth made from Kurobuta pork bones, thin noodles that are typically paired with tonkotsu, and accoutrements all made in house—including pork jowl chashu, which, Smookler notes, is basically tontoro, the land-animal equivalent of fatty tuna belly.
Shigetoshi "Jack" Nakamura's Torigara at Nakamura
Jack Nakamura may have a lower profile than some of the other chefs on this list, but in Japan, he is a bona fide ramen celebrity—he even has a signature move for shaking the excess cooking water from his noodles. Nakamura chose to highlight his eponymous restaurant's bowl of torigara ramen, which, in the words of Ivan Orkin, is "the most refined bowl of ramen" in the country. It starts with a chicken- and seafood-based broth flavored with a soy sauce tare. The soup is loaded with thin, curly noodles and accompanied by spinach, menma (seasoned bamboo shoots), pork chashu, and nori, as well as a piece of naruto, or fish cake. Nakamura explains that, though he omitted the fish cake at his ramen shop in Japan, he includes it in the US as a nod to the period in Japanese history when the once-poor nation's citizens relied more heavily on fish for protein in their diet. It's an indication of what the bowl is meant to represent, and it's about as classic a bowl of ramen as you can find in America.
Keizo Shimamoto's "The Quiet Storm" at Ramen Shack
Keizo Shimamoto is probably best known for his notorious Ramen Burger, which is a shame given that Ramen Shack consistently puts out some of the best bowls of ramen in New York City. Shimamoto worked in celebrated ramen shops in Tokyo, including a brief stint apprenticing at the original Ivan Ramen. While abroad, he chronicled his experience eating hundreds of bowls of ramen on his blog, Go Ramen. Shimamoto chose his Quiet Storm bowl for the shoot, named in part as an homage to Mobb Deep, the duo that hails from the Queensbridge Houses across the street from the shop in Long Island City, Queens. The bowl features a broth made from 13 different ingredients and seasoned with a soy sauce tare. The noodles, which he made specially for the video, are accompanied by pork chashu, spinach, nori, and a thicker kind of menma that's rarely seen in US ramen shops.
J. T. Vuong's "Tunakotsu" at Yuji Ramen
J. T. Vuong is probably a familiar face to anyone who regularly visited the Yuji Ramen pop-up at the Bowery Whole Foods. Nowadays, he's the head chef of Yuji Ramen's permanent location on Ainslie Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, an evenings-only shop that also serves ichiju-sansai meals under the name Okonomi during the day.
For our video, Vuong decided to dig into his Tunakotsu. Featuring an emulsified broth made from tuna bones and scraps, it's one of the headliners for the Yuji Ramen shop that's opening up this month in the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum in Japan, and it exemplifies Yuji Ramen's commitment to the idea of mottainai—essentially, the idea of wasting as little as possible. The broth is flavored with a ruddy tare that gets an umami boost from a special kind of Japanese fish sauce, and the thin, springy noodles are topped with a couple slices of charred tuna belly.