A day in the life of a ramen shop
There's been an entire movie made about it, a museum dedicated to it, and some Japanese will wait ninety minutes for a good bowl of it. Some even claim it is the ultimate hangover panacea. What food is the object of this kind of obsession? Ramen of course! A relatively recent introduction into the Japanese diet imported from China after World War II, ramen has achieved cult-like status in modern day Japan. Stephanie Wratten takes peeks behind the noren into a day in the life of her local ramen shop.
Hiroki Namiki used to eat lunch at Sukeichiya in front of Yamate station in Yokohama about three times a week. Now he runs the place. Dissatisfied with his salaryman job and the rigidity of the Japanese workplace, Namiki-san decided to quit and try doing something on his own - running a ramen shop. That was four years ago and he's never looked back. Not that running a ramen shop is easy. He works lunch and dinner six days a week (the shop is closed on Mondays), preparing and serving over 200 bowls a day all by himself. Recently I spent a day in his shop.
The morning begins with a delivery of noodles and gyoza. You don't make the noodles yourself? I ask, disappointed. "No, that's all just a performance," Namiki-san says adamantly. "It's impossible to make enough noodles yourself if you have a busy shop," he explains. Shops that only sell 50 bowls a day or so can make their own noodles; some shops do a little bit just for show - a performance, he emphasizes almost scornfully. "Real" ramen shops don't make noodles, it seems. That is not to say that they just buy them at the local supermarket. Each morning the noodles arrive freshly made and laid out in flat wooden crates. Maruyama Seimen is a company that custom makes noodles for ramen shops. They follow Sukeichiya's recipe, which has been passed down from owner to owner, refined over many years, and is entirely unique to the shop.
Next it's time to work on the broth. Sukeichiya serves Yokohama ramen, which in terms of soup generally means a tonkatsu broth (made from pork) with shoyu added. Kyushu-style ramen is known for its tonkatsu broth but, according to Namiki-san, the addition of shoyu in Yokohama-style ramen enhances the flavor. From the refrigerator he pulls out several large bags of pork bones and pours them into a huge pot. He proudly tells me that he uses about 100-150 kilograms of pork bones a day. He tops it off with water and throws in about ten whole heads of garlic. Into another pot goes chicken parts and kombu, a type of seaweed frequently used in making broths. The bones will be removed after the broth has simmered for about four to five hours, then fresh bones and water will be added. By continually serving from, then adding to, the same pot the broth becomes very rich since it will actually be simmering for three to four days.
Suddenly, it's lunch time and customers begin to fill the shop.
Namiki-san shouts a hearty "irrashaimase!" and tosses a serving of noodles for each person into the waiting boiling water. He lines up bowls on the counter and pours a small ladleful of dark tare sauce into each one. Tare is made from soy sauce and other seasonings. More important than the broth, Namiki-san says it determines 60-70percent of the flavor of the ramen. What are the other seasonings? I ask. "Oh, I can't tell you that," he replies, "it's top secret." Of course.
Time for the next important ingredient - fat. That's right, fat. In case you haven't figured this out by now, high in fat, high in salt, high in cholesterol - ramen is not a food you should be eating if you are on a diet. Ki-iro, as fat is known in ramen shop lingo, is ladled next into each bowl of ramen. Literally, ki-iro means yellow in Japanese; it refers to chicken fat that is skimmed off the broth and added to each bowl of ramen. According to Namiki-san, it makes the soup slide down your throat smoothly. Personally, I'd say that if you're going to eat ramen why not go all the way. But if you are worried about clogging your arteries you can ask the cook to go light on the oil - abura sukuname.
When the noodles are ready (you can order them firm or soft according to your preference), Namiki-san pours pork and chicken broth into the bowls, adds a serving of noodles, then puts on the toppings. His standard toppings are typical of Yokohama ramen - chashuu (sliced boiled pork), spinach and nori (the kind of seaweed that's used on the outside of sushi rolls). For JY50-100 extra, you can also get wakame (another kind of seaweed), tamago (a hardboiled egg), corn or negi (green onion). Toppings you might find at other shops include moyashi (bean sprouts), kakuni (stewed pieces of pork), menma (bamboo) and naruto (a pink and white swirled slice of fish cake). Namiki-san places the artfully arranged ramen on the counter. The salarymen accept their steaming hot bowls and begin to slurp.
By four o'clock only one businessman and a few students remain in the shop. After they exit Namiki-san pulls down the metal gate in front of the shop and hangs out a hand-written sign: junbi-chu - closed for preparation. He takes a big sieve attached to a wooden pole and scoops all the bones out of the broth and adds the next batch. After restocking and preparing more toppings, he ducks out for a coffee. Returning at six, a train pulls into Yamate station and the counter seats fill almost immediately. The flow of business throughout the evening continues approximately according to the JR timetable. One hundred or so bowls later it is past 10 and Namiki-san places a bowl of ramen on the counter for me. I start with a sip of the broth, as I've been told is proper ramen etiquette, before diving into the noodles.
Sukeichiya is less than a minute from Yamate station on the JR Keihin Tohoko line in Yokohama. Exit the station and turn right; the shop is across the street on your left. Namiki-san is open for business Tuesday through Sunday from 11:30am until about 3:30pm for lunch and from 6pm until about 9:30pm (8pm on Sundays and holidays) for dinner.