What You’re Doing Wrong When You Eat a Bowl of Ramen
For fans, ramen is a thing of beauty, taut noodles in a steaming rich broth, ready for instant consumption.
Yet devouring a bowl of ramen can be ... daunting. Few foods inspire such a cultlike following, and yet it's kind of unwieldy to eat. Do you slurp up the long noodles, or attempt to "cut" them up with your chopsticks? Do you copy the guy that picked up his bowl and drank from it, or has he just never been to a restaurant before?
For some general rules of thumb, we turned to Ivan Orkin, founder of Ivan Ramen, which has two locations in New York. Orkin, a white guy from New York state and a star of Season 3 on Chef’s Table, started his ramen career in Tokyo by watching experts cook; he caused a sensation when he opened his own shop in the Japanese capital.
Orkin has spent years studying the art of ramen and knows exactly what—and what not to do—with your precious bowl of noodles. Here are his rules, in his own words.
1. You’re Letting It Get Cold
The first rule of ramen is to eat it while it’s hot. No smart person would push aside a fresh-from-the-oven pizza to start eating salad, right? The majority of ramen arrives with a hot broth, which means noodles can overcook if they sit for too long. An overcooked noodle is not just a mushy noodle: It also makes the broth more starchy. Approach the whole bowl the way you drink extremely hot coffee in the morning. It might be almost too hot, but drink it like you need it (like that slice of pizza that's so hot it burns the roof of your mouth, but you eat it at a molten temperature anyway because it's so tasty).
2. You’re Battling Your Noodles
When a bowl of ramen is placed in front of you, the noodles will probably be coiled together. If you take a moment to untangle them with your chopsticks, pulling them out of the coil, they’re easier to eat. If you just grab a large section of the tangle, the noodles will flight you back—they'll all come along, and then you can't fit the bite into your mouth. Many people like to hold that Chinese bent spoon, also called a renge, underneath their noodles. (By the way, I think that spoon is the dumbest spoon ever made, and one day someone will invent a better one.) That’s fine. And if you’re in a fancy place with the ridged chopsticks that really hold the noodles, then you should have no problem with slippage. I have friends in Japan who bring their own chopsticks when they go out; it’s a little too obsessive for me.
3. You’re Not Slurping
Do not be afraid to slurp your ramen. In Japan, it’s expected. For one thing, it cools hot noodles down. Noodles you can slurp are also the sign of a broth with enough fat to cling to them. If you can’t slurp—if the noodle feels dry—the broth isn’t rich enough. Which brings me to a side note about having the right noodle in the right broth: Pairing noodles with soup is the same as pairing bread with your sandwich filling. If you try to make a sandwich with Genoa salami and a supersoft roll, it will be a failure and fall apart in your hands. A thick broth like the pork-fatty, opaque tonkotsu wants a sturdier noodle. A lighter broth like the soy sauce-flavored shoyu calls for a more delicate one. (I have both kinds of ramen at Ivan Ramen, along with shio, or salt ramen.) You want your soup in harmony. This isn’t necessarily something you can control, but it makes you an expert to be aware of.
4. You’re Biting Off More Than You Can Chew
A lot of people make the mistake of grabbing a giant pile of noodles that they can’t really handle. Rule of thumb: Take a smaller amount than you think you want. You do not want to be sucking noodles into your mouth and then biting them in half so that some falls back into the bowl. That’s just gross. No one would do that with a steak. Plan for a full—but not overwhelming—mouthful of noodles.
5. You’re Not Not Paying Attention
I like to think of ramen preparation as an action sport, an interactive activity. If you’re lucky enough to sit at a ramen bar that overlooks the kitchen, watch them build the bowl. It's a surprisingly complex procedure for something that seems so simple. Years before I opened my first shop in Tokyo, I couldn’t understand how ramen was made. I would stare over the counter, figuring out how they did everything—like timing the cooking of the noodles—and that’s how I learned to make ramen.
6. You're Not Taking Toppings Seriously
When I go to a ramen shop for first time, I choose the bowl that the place is most famous for. I will go easy on the toppings; maybe I will get an egg. I want to know if I like the flavor of the ramen and what the fuss is all about. If I go back, then I see if they have a special, and that’s when I experiment with toppings. I’m a purist—I don’t usually do a lot of them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not fun, and if you feel like ordering all the garnishes on the menu, go for it. It’s like ordering all the toppings for your pizza.
7. You’re Ignoring Your Beverage
Be ready to drink a tremendous amount of water with your ramen. Or beer. Or both. There’s a lot of salt in the broth, whether you know it or not, and if you don’t drink water, you are going to feel crappy, I guarantee it. In Japan, they sell a special black oolong tea that helps you digest the pork fat in tonkotsu ramen. You can find the tea in vending machines next to some tonkotsu shops, the pork-based ramen, where the broth is especially fatty.
8. You’re Minding Your Manners Too Much
It’s totally OK to drink the broth from the bowl. It’s considered a compliment to how good the broth is. But finish it at your own risk; those broths are flavor bombs, packed with sodium (see above). Another thing that is OK to do is to ask for extra noodles if you’ve finished the ones in your bowl. Last, have a stack of napkins handy, ramen can be a bit of a mess. That’s why ramen is so popular. Like the great comfort foods of the world, it’s messy and wonderful.