From bargain bins to gourmet restaurants: The righteous return of ramen

In the early days of their marriage, my parents lived in Korea, which meant that many of my family's culinary traditions originated in the land of bulgoki, galbi-gui and japchae. Some of my earliest memories involve being dragged by my mother from one foul-smelling, hole-in-the-wall Asian market to another in the fruitless search for some version of dried fish or processed seaweed. An upshot of this was that I grew up eating ramen, which my mother occasionally picked up on her shopping voyages. The Korean "ramyeon" packages that she brought back from the Asian markets usually contained three or four flavoring packets and had bizarre, alien flavors like "sea laver and mushroom." As a kid, I explained away my mother's love of Korean noodles as one of her strange idiosyncracies, like her tendency to eat potato skins and her deep love of chopped liver.

Sometime in the early 1980's, I was visiting my friend Joey and his mom pulled out a packet of top ramen. With a twinkle in her eye, she mixed it up for us. Expecting the spicy flavor of cabbage, chilies and dried fish, I was amazed to discover that Mrs. Schober's ramen tasted like chicken soup. This began a love affair that lasted until my junior year of college, at which time ramen comprised approximately half of my diet.

There is only one way to eat that much ramen: experimentation. I soon learned all sorts of ramen tricks, like draining the water, throwing in chopped chicken, bean sprouts, fried tofu, or braised cabbage, cooking the noodles in beer, and adding an assortment of sauces. After years of taste testing, I discovered that my favorite ramen combination was drained noodles mixed with Chinese chili sauce, oyster sauce, a little drizzle of fish sauce, and lime juice. A sprinkle of chopped peanuts or toasted sesame seeds completed the mix.

My culinary cleverness aside, the best part of ramen was the price. Given that my poor college days were really, really poor, I ended up becoming overly dependent on the magic of instant noodles. One of my buddies had a membership at a warehouse store, so I was able to get ramen at something like 8 packs for a buck. Between mac and cheese, lentils, hummus, and ramen, I had one semester where I managed to spend only $50 on food. By the end of the term, however, I had completely overdosed on the noodles; for the next decade or so, ramen was definitely off the menu.

A few years back, I rediscovered ramen. A huge Asian market opened in my neighborhood, and I immediately began raiding their collection of Korean and Japanese ramen brands. I'm not sure what the flavors actually were, but, based on the pictures on the front of the packages, I assume that I tried the kim-chee flavor, the dried shrimp flavor, and the hot chicken gizzard flavor, among many, many others. Although the Asian ramen wasn't as cheap as the noodles that I choked down in college, they still came in at around $1 per serving, which was pretty cheap for a convenience food with real flavor!

I'm not the only one who's given ramen a second chance. In addition to the numerous fast food Japanese noodle shops that I've seen popping up like mushrooms all over New York, high-end gourmet ramen restaurants are making headway across the country. Even the most low-key noodle joint offers an experience that is miles away from basic cup of noodles or even the more exotic ramen brands. At most noodle shops, a bowl of noodles with one or more meats and veggies will run somewhere between $5 and $7; at the more high-end ramen places, the price rises to $15 or more.

Along with the "ramen renaissance" has come a cadre of ramen groupies: Rameniac, a West coast-based blogger and ramen addict has made it his mission in life to track ramen developments in Los Angeles, while the proprietor of The Ramen Blog pursues ramen news across the globe. Meanwhile, sites like The Official Ramen Homepage and Ramenlicious offer recipes that make my years of ramen doctoring seem like the idle noodlings of a ramen dilettante.

In 2000, a poll revealed that most Japanese people believe that instant noodles are their country's greatest invention in the 20th century. Karaoke came in second. If the "Noodle Western" Tampopo hadn't convinced me that ramen looms large in the Japanese psyche, then the recent development of the world's smallest bowl of ramen would have done the trick. Working with a carbon fiber, Japanese scientists carved a ramen bowl that was 1/25,000th of inch large. It contained a string of "noodles" that was 1/12,500th of an inch in size. Given all of the things that they could have made (a plate of sushi, a Honda civic, a geisha...), it says a lot that the scientists decided to make a bowl of ramen. Then again, it's easy to imagine them spending late nights in the lab, their eyes on their electron microscopes and their hands cradling bowls of noodles...

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. Looking at all the restaurants opening in NYC, he realizes that there's never been a better time to embrace his inner ramen junkie.
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