As this is being written, Texas is experiencing the worst winter storm it’s had in three decades, the skies in eastern Pennsylvania have been gray and colorless for weeks, and we’ve all been stuck inside for about a year regardless of weather. We’re all doing what we can to self-care: binging our favorite shows, finally breaking into that backlog of games, and finding our own ways to navigate this strange new world in which we find ourselves.
Food might play a part in that too, whether you’re a stress-eater or not. Familiar tastes can put us at ease, and certain foods have an uncanny ability to transport us to an easier headspace.
Saying ‘ramen’ in the United States summons images of plastic-wrapped college fare, 10 packs for $1.00, each combined with a little packet of sodium-infused goodness. It stands atop the pedestal as the perfect meal for students living on next to nothing each month. It’s low price is only one of its many charms; it’s simple and fast to make, and for some reason which we can’t explain, the taste never seems to get old.
While the average supermarket here in the states only sells a select few flavors, more and more have begun to invade the international aisle and specialty markets, from cheese curry flavored to crab and black pepper. There’s a museum in Osaka entirely dedicated to the dish, and for good reason: nearly 100 billion bowls of instant noodles are consumed each year, worldwide. While it may hail from Japan, it’s a safe space for anyone with boiling water.
Just as sushi has slowly become the theme of many upscale restaurants in the western world, ramen is now seeing its time in the limelight. Big cities are starting the trend: New York City offers a personal favorite, the Michelin guide celebrated Hide-chan. Head chef Hideto Kawahara brings city dwellers authentic tonkotsu ramen from his hometown of Fukuoka, and the small space is always filled with the sounds of slurping and good cheer. How is it possible to taste that rich soup without a smile?
As big cities begin the ramen wave, smaller cities are sure to pick up the slack… at least, when the world opens again. Traditional Japanese fare strikes the masses as being an expensive outing, but ramen is just what the financially stressed but eager masses need. This isn’t an outing you dress up for, not like the many sushi restaurants lining the west coast, sometimes costing hundreds of dollars a person.
Ramen isn’t dressed up; it isn’t put on; it isn’t fussy. It does something inexplicable by bringing together those from all walks of life, from the CEO to the new hire. The streets of Tokyo are dotted with ramen stalls, some even set up each night and taken down each morning, where hungry wanderers will sit and slurp, sometimes spilling their troubles to the chef behind the counter.
If you’re the more introverted type, try Ichiran, a chain all over Japan (and now, thankfully, popping up in America) allowing you to eat your ramen in peace and solitude. Sitting in your own private cubicle, you simply write down your order and slide it through a tiny opening in front of you. No chatting, no small talk, no nonsense, just noodles. We appreciate the efficiency. (If you can’t visit one of their locations, feel free to visit their Animal Crossing island at least!)
The feeling of sucking down the salted broth after the noodles are gone is without words. It’s an all-over warmth, from your head to your toes. It’s the same comfort we garner from chicken noodle soup when we’re trying to fight a cold, or a PB&J with the crusts cut off when we want a piece of our childhood back. It’s pure simplicity. And the world might need more of that.
Winter will be over before you know it. Until then, we can’t think of a better way to warm up. And no, there’s nothing wrong with a piping hot bowl of chicken ramen every day. It’s what the doctor ordered.