トマトラーメン (Tomato Ramen)
By Shūtoku Mukai
From the book 厚岸のおかず (Akkeshi no Okazu, Akkeshi Side Dishes)
Translated by Seiteki Shoudo
Back home, everyone loves to eat Kyushu ramen. Tokyo has a lot of Kyushu type ramen shops, only a few of which are palatable, so I’m always particularly lonesome throughout my trips to the capital.
On one particular trip, it was midnight, and I hadn’t eaten any ramen lately, so I pedaled down to the city on my bicycle. Since it was so late at night, nearly all the shops were closed. Only one shop, a little house, was still open. So I went in.
Inside, a menu was posted on one side of the only counter in the shop. There were a slew of choices on the menu: soy sauce, miso, salt; all kinds of flavors, arranged in a big line.
The figure of a shopkeeper stood behind the counter, with a grown out beard and a bandana wrapped around his head. Indeed, he looked like he’d escaped from the salary man system¹, wearing an expression that said “I opened this shop due to my intense love for ramen!”
There were many flavors on the menu, but I figured I’d stick to my go-to standard: soy sauce. “Soy sauce ramen please.”
He asked, with a somewhat offended look. Huh? I was bewildered, so the shopkeeper continued.
“Soy sauce is past its prime; it’s old news. Have some tomato ramen.”
Taking a look at the wall, I saw that tomato ramen was indeed on the menu.
“Ah, no, I’d just like some soy sauce, if that’s okay.”
“The young man will have tomato ramen.”
It was the dead of night, and the hunger was getting to my head as I tried to object.
“Everyone enjoys this ramen, from small children to the old aged. Whether a ‘young man’ or an ‘old man’, I wouldn’t talk like that about this ramen.”
The shopkeeper gave me some more sass, then silently went back into the kitchen.
Ah, he’s probably going back to make my soy sauce ramen now, I’ll just wait here patiently. Should only have to wait five, maybe ten minutes before he returns.
He’d certainly been refusing my request earlier.
The way I’d turned down that tomato ramen, I thought he surely wouldn’t make anything for me. I tried shouting back into the kitchen, “Excuse me! Excuuuse me!” but no one came out.
Just as I was thinking of going back home, a great idea came to me: why don’t I just make it myself?
I tried entering the back kitchen, and just as I thought, there was no figure of an escaped, stubborn old salary man. Behind some swaying partition-like curtains, there seemed to be a small dwelling.
I peeked through secretly, and the stubborn old salary man had completely removed his bandana and was eating a meal. The bandana-less old man had lost all of his hair.
“What’s he eating?”
The old man had a pot boiling gently. Some sliced meat lay on top of a large platter, which I thought was sukiyaki at first, but apparently it was going to be some kind of sakura nabe².
The old man must have been appalled by the idea of eating sakura nabe alone in his abandoned shop, but by now I had more than reached the peak of my desire to eat ramen, and I was thinking I could probably make the ramen in the time it took the old man to eat his sakura nabe, so I turned back into the kitchen.
Some soup like stuff was boiling in a cylindrical container. “I’ll use this soup to make the ramen,” I thought, putting various bones in the container.
“Hey, old man, I bet stuff like that tomato ramen you suggested has pretty weird broth compared to this.”
Now to put in some soaked kombu³ and chicken bones. Since I’m well acquainted with kombu, I knew where to look. In bold type on the front, it read: “Rousa Kombu: The Most Superior Kombu There Is!” Well if that’s the case, I expect to really taste it.
I stuck my fist into some basic meat, only to feel unfamiliar bones inside. I used some tongs to pull them out. The bones were attached to a hoof.
Ahh, it was a horse.
I’d never eaten ramen made with horse bone broth, but the urge to do it suddenly struck me. I boiled the noodles in a round pan while attempting to gain control of the frothing water.
It was time for the soup’s main ingredient, so I went to look for the soy sauce broth. I didn’t know which soy sauce broth to use; however, when I opened the refrigerator, it was full of tomatoes.
On top of that, the stubborn old man had a huge amount of expired miso he had over stocked. I think I was beginning to understand why he had so adamantly recommended tomato ramen. But absolutely no tomatoes had been used. I decided to close the refrigerator.
I went over to some various seasonings that were lined up in a corner, confirming their taste one by one, until I found a soy sauce flavor. I put it in a bowl, along with the broth made from horse bones.
Looking at the noodles, they were a little thin and straight. Usually, soy sauce ramen has a lot of wavy noodles. But the shop owner would no doubt be all uptight about that. Perhaps the horse bones together with the thin noodles is fine. Chopped green onions and spices usually go on top, and this shop absolutely must have green onions.
I added the green onions, cut some pork into slices and added those, placed in 2 seaweed slices, and the ramen was finished.
I brought my bowl to the counter, and immediately took a sip.
It was absolutely awful.
A terrible combination with a nasty smell… it was just plain bad.
Having done all that, I forced myself to devour all the ramen anyway. And the stubborn old man never came back out from inside.
¹ The term translated to “salary man escapee” is a slang term meaning basically that: someone who spurns the “normal” path of graduating high school or college and becoming a salary man. For more information on salary men: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salaryman
² The old man is eating sakura nabe, which is basically a stew like concoction typically made with horse meat, which would explain why the narrator uses horse meat, as it’s the only meat around. It is much more common to eat horse meat in Japan than some Western countries. Also, besides the more known meaning of cherry blossoms, sakura can mean horse meat (as making stew from cherry blossoms doesn’t make much sense, but could be viable during the months the sakura bloom in the spring, when it is typical to use sakura as decoration and ingredients for food to celebrate). More information on nabe: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nabemono
³ Kombu is a type of kelp often eaten in Japan, usually used to garnish dishes (and to top off ramen). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kombu
Note: One thing to hold in mind for this story is that it is very difficult to make good ramen soup. Traditionally, young aspiring ramen cooks would study under a sensei the art of cooking ramen perfectly. The story then, may be suggesting the narrator should appreciate people like this poor old lonely man more as he perfects something he often probably doesn’t realize is so difficult.