‘Ramen Heads’: Uneven, But Informative ✮✮✮

In the very beginning, the grandiose music seems in conflict with the documentary that follows and from time to time the soundtrack is a misjudgment to the American ear–even one used to East Asian music. One wonders Is this a parody? Is this a pompous propaganda?  “Ramen Heads” is about the current top ramen shops in Japan, focusing on the four-time number one shop and its owner, Osama Tomita.

According to the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, ramen are “Chinese noodles made mainly of wheat flour and seasoned to suit the Japanese palate; the name is thought to be a corruption of la mian, the Chinese word for ‘Stretched noodle,’ so called because the noodles are pulled out by hand into a thin thread.”

As far as noodles go, ramen is a newer addition to the Japanese cuisine. Soba (そば or 蕎麦), buckwheat noodles came to Japan during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868). Udon, a thick wheat noodle, came to Japan much earlier, an import from Song (960-1279) or Tang dynasty (618-907). Different towns, counties and prefectures have their own take on these noodles. Ramen came to Japan in 1859, according to the new Yokohama Ramen Museum and comes from the Chinese word lamian (拉麵). Japanese does not have an “l” sound. It was originally called “shina soba” (支那そば ) or “Chinese soba.” Now, as the word “shina” has become pejorative, “chūka soba” (中華そば) is preferred.

For a quick brush up on Japanese history, 1853 is the year Commodore Matthew Perry blasted into Tokyo Bay and ended over Japan’s isolation from the West. With the exception of limited contact with the Netherlands and the Chinese, Japan has refused contact and trade. When Yokohama opened up its sea port in 1859, Chinese immigrants quickly established a Chinatown. For reference, the US fell into the American Civil War in 1860. Japan would eventually go to war against China in 1937.

Rāmen has some distinctive qualities that seem more Chinese than Japanese. The tendency to use onions and garlic as well as peppers (shichimi). Japanese food is traditionally more serenely sweet as opposed to spicy.

Chef Tomita owns a small 10-person hole-in-the-wall eatery, Tomita at Matsudo in Chiba-ken and he’s been awarded the “Best Ramen of the Year” from a popular national ramen guidebook. The store is open for service from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is closed then Tomita can’t be there to personally supervise. His apprentices open at 7 a.m. so that prospective customers can purchase tickets for a pre-paid timed meal. The apprentices also after the shop closes.

If you’ve watched “Tampopo,” then you’ll know that the secret is in the soup. The broth is the key and there are different bases. Tomita takes his inspiration from the south–Hakata rāmen. Hakata-Fukuoka (an area in northern Kyūshū) is known for its tonkotsu broth–simmered pork bones (the meaning of tonkotsu) along with other things like chicken, onions and garlic. This isn’t something you can do in your own kitchen. Everything you’ll see in the documentary should convince you that the best ramen can’t be made in your own home.

Tomita is brash and bold so it’s not surprising that his noodles are thicker than what you’d usually associate with rāmen. The noodles and the tonkotsu are a mixture that varies from day-to-day and season-to-season.

Director/writer Koki Shigeno provides an animated sequence to provide historical background, but unless you read Japanese you might miss some of the finer points. When Tomita teams up with two other rāmen chefs, Shota Iida of Kanagawa (south of both Tokyo and Chiba) and Yuki Onishi of Tsuta in Tokyo (world’s first Michelin-starred ramen shop), we learn one of them trained under the so-called “devil/demon of rāmen” that was mentioned in the animated history.

Iida and Onishi do not make the same style of rāmen. Shigeno also explains the different styles of broth–shio (salt), miso (paste made from fermented soybeans and barley/rice malt), niboshi (dried sardines sometimes mixed with bonita shavings) or shōyu (醤油–liquid of soybeans, roasted grain, brine and types of mold).

There’s a brief mention of eggs and pork. One should keep in mind that when the word “gamey” is used that originally pork came from wild boars and now rāmen lovers evaluate the pork on the cut, the tenderness and the fat.

Not as beautifully executed as “Jiro Loves Sushi” but likely made with the same aim–reaching a bigger market, “Ramen Heads” is an imperfect vehicle for learning about rāmen and current rāmen restaurants, but if you love noodles you won’t want to miss it.


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