He’s the rock star of ramen
IT may be true, as scientists tell us, that you can discover whole worlds in a drop of water, but Rickmond Wong would prefer to explore a bowl of soup. Not just any soup -- noodle soup. And not just any noodle soup, but ramen.
On the Internet, at least, Wong just about owns the subject. He is the Rameniac.
Wong’s website, www.rameniac.com, is a lively compendium of all things ramen, one of the best of the food sites by single-topic fanatics. There is an in-depth discussion of Japan’s regional styles of ramen (22, according to Wong). There are reviews of ramen restaurants. There are reviews of packaged ramen. There are even videos of ramen being made and slurped. There is a forum for discussing ramen and ramen-related issues.
Wong says that he eats ramen several times a week when he’s at home in Los Angeles and that he’ll slurp almost nonstop when he visits Japan. “Last year I ate 18 bowls of ramen in 14 days,” he says. “I came back and ate only salads for a month. But while I was there I had to get my ramen.”
Next year’s vacation is already planned. “I’m going to bicycle across Japan eating ramen,” he says.
Visually lively, informed and well-written, Rameniac is one of three websites written by Wong -- he also has a site called Rameniac’s B-Sides that is devoted to food other than ramen, and a MySpace page.
But Rameniac is all about the noodles. It’s wised-up without being snarky, and though it is plainly a love song to ramen, it never veers into cheap romanticism.
Right now, the Rameniac is very happy. He is sitting in the bustling food court of the Torrance branch of Mitsuwa Marketplace. On the little table in front of him is ramen from his favorite restaurant, Santouka.
A mop-topped 33-year-old who was born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley, Wong is the child of Cantonese immigrants. He works as a Web designer for Universal Studios and, with a partner has just started Qio, a clothing store on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles dedicated to Japanese street fashion.
Wong takes a slurp of soup and deftly plucks a nest of noodles with his chopsticks. “This is the best ramen in town because of the depth of flavor in the soup,” he says.
He explains that Santouka’s home base of Hokkaido is in the extreme north of Japan and that its ramen is made from a rich pork stock that is also flavored with seafood.
The broth is, indeed, extraordinary. In fact, so is the whole dish. Santouka’s signature shio ramen is one of Southern California’s perfect noodle dishes. The soup is deeply flavored and complex. The noodles are perfectly al dente. The slices of pork alternate between buttery smooth and chewy and muscular. It’s hard to believe you can get food this perfect for only $6.50 a bowl.
At its most basic level, ramen is very simple. There is a soup, which consists of a stock and a seasoning. There are the noodles. And there are the garnishes. But each of these elements offers so many variables that trying to generalize about ramen in Japan is like trying to generalize about pasta in Italy.
There are two main families of stock -- a clear one made with pork and chicken cooked relatively briefly, and a milky one called tonkotsu made from split pork bones that have been boiled for hours. Traditionally, there are three seasoning choices -- salt (or shio), soy sauce (or shoyu) and miso paste.
The stock is determined mostly by regional preference and to a certain extent by the style of the individual ramen maker. The choice of seasonings is left to the eater, though most ramen shops will emphasize one, even if very subtly (at Santouka, the flagship bowl of shio ramen is signified by the presence of a pickled red ume plum the size of a large pea).
The overall effect of the soup can range from almost unctuously fatty (kotteri, in Japanese), to very light and brothy (assari).
It’s this initial base that determines the quality of a bowl of ramen, Wong says. “The quality of a ramen is dictated by the broth and the depth of flavor in it is what determines a great ramen,” he says. “By that I don’t mean that it should be super-salty or something like that. The soup has to have lots of things going on in it. It’s complexity and umami that makes the difference.”
THOUGH ramen is made almost exclusively with wheat noodles, every region has a slightly different style that the locals believe ideally suits the particular soup of the area. Hakata ramen from northern Kyushu has noodles that are very thin and very firm. Kumamoto ramen from central Kyushu has thicker noodles, nearly spaghetti-like.
Generally, ramen shops buy their noodles from specialized manufacturers. In fact, Wong says, most Southern California ramen shops buy their noodles from the same importers.
And with garnishes, the range of possibilities goes through the roof. Pork is one of the most common, called chashu (though the name is derived from the Chinese char-siu barbecued pork, in Japan it’s usually simply boiled). There may well also be such things as cooked eggs, wood ear mushrooms, green onions and mustard greens. Even more exotic choices might include pickled ginger, sesame seeds, pickled vegetables, seafood, and even fried cubes of pork fat.
Even with all of that, ramen is essentially street food -- cheap and filling and meant to be slurped enthusiastically but not requiring a lot of ceremony.
“Ramen is perfectly suited for geeks,” Wong says, “Otaku is what they call them in Japan,” usually indicating someone with an obsessive interest in an arcane topic such as animé (Japanese cartoons) or fashion. “It’s cheap and it’s hedonistic.
“There is also so much regional variation and that goes with the geek mentality of endlessly categorizing and analyzing things,” he says. “There’s this show on Japanese TV where they take ramen geeks and blindfold them and see if they can identify their favorite ramen shops just by the smell of the soup.”
Though today Wong is all about the ramen, when he was growing up it was as foreign to him as foie gras. His mom was the kind who would try to make sure he ate healthy meals, which irritated him no end. “When everyone else was bringing bologna sandwiches to school, she’d send me with egg salad or something,” he says. “I hated it. And I think inadvertently she’s the one who turned me into a food freak.”
When the family went out to eat, it was to one of the San Gabriel Valley’s many Cantonese restaurants. That cuisine left Wong similarly uninspired. “I’m sorry, but Cantonese food is really bland,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, we just steamed this fish.’ I never got into that.”
WHEN he found ramen, as a student at UCLA, it was a revelation. “I found I really loved it, even the bad ones,” he says. “They were salty and they were cheap. I had a hot plate and a pot in my dorm room and I’d cook those ramen packages and eat them with Spam and Vienna sausages.”
Wong’s introduction to real ramen came in 1999, after he graduated from college and moved to Japan to teach English. Living in the countryside in Kyushu in southern Japan, he began to explore the almost infinite permutations of this most versatile of soups.
Wong says his approach as the Rameniac is informed by his college experiences. An ethnomusicology major specializing in Asian music (he plays traditional Japanese, Chinese and Korean instruments), he came to reappraise how he approached other cultures.
“It got to seem very colonial, to be honest -- Western culture scrutinizing this so-called exotic music,” Wong says. “If I had a mission statement for my website, it would be to help do away with the way people look at ‘ethnic’ culture.
“To me it’s just something that’s really cool that happens to come from a certain place. I want people to try going to this one place to eat because the food is great and the vibe is really cool. It’s a way of presenting this aspect of popular culture without coming off sounding like I’m talking about the ‘exotic Orient.’ ”
On his website are reviews of ramen restaurants all over Japan and the U.S. and even Canada and Britain. And though he loves ramen of all kinds, he has enough academic distance on the subject to put it in realistic context.
For example, though Santouka is a well-respected chain in Japan, he says, “it certainly wouldn’t be regarded as anything really special. It’s like In-N-Out is here. It’s probably not the best hamburger you’ll ever eat, but everybody goes there because it’s always good.”
The obsessive appeal of ramen makes it perfect for the Internet, which sometimes seems like nothing so much as a global geek meet-and-greet. In this group, Wong feels right at home.
“I’ve met a lot of food bloggers recently and I have to say that a surprising number of them share the same demographic as me -- Asian Americans, late 20s to early 30s, just out of college and working in a cubicle job,” he says. “It’s like we’ve done the things we were supposed to do and now this is how we have fun.”
He cites local food blogs Eat, Drink & Be Merry (eatdrinknbmerry.blogspot.com) by Dylan H., Oishii Eats (oishiieats.blogspot.com) by Jeni Afuso and Eddie Lin’s contributions to “Deep End Dining” (www.deependdining.com).
In fact, at a recent dinner in honor of visiting Internet celebrity Eric M. (he’s the one whose translation on a Chicago foodie website unlocked the southern Thai specialty menu at L.A.'s Jitlada), Wong says the translator was just about the only non-Asian in the crowd.
“For an Asian American, being a foodie on the Internet is kind of like being a rock star without having to be unemployed or doing a lot of drugs or disappointing your parents.”