I’ve become quite the ramen connoisseur (read: snob). A good friend of mine from high school recently introduced me to the culture of ramen in Boston. I’ve never had “real” ramen other than the instant kind I used to eat as a penniless college kid in New Hampshire. I was eager to indulge in and experience what I sensed everyone, including my friend, have been obsessing over.
Ramen noodles—like many things in Japanese culture—originated in China and are made of flour, water, salt and kansui, an alkaline-rich water that when combined with the rest of the ingredients in ramen, allows for that elastic texture that gives the noodles its wonderful appeal. Since the 1980s when ramen rose to fame in Japan, it has been “perfected” and every region has its own version of the noodles and broth—which is often cooked for hours until a rich, fatty flavor and delightful aroma are achieved. Depending on the style of ramen one orders at a restaurant, the toppings—which can include nori, sweet corn, a soft boiled egg, scallions, kimchi, pickled bamboo shoots and bean sprouts, also vary from shop to shop.
Ramen has become so popular outside of Japan that many shops have sprung up in countries all over the world, including the United States. In cities like Boston, even hotels and non-ramen restaurants are serving up the delectable dish one night a week as a special. Most of the establishments we’ve visited in the Boston-area are hole-in-the-wall places with limited seating, usually accept only cash and have very long lines to get in, but the reward is a comforting bowl of ramen in salty broth and invigorating flavors.
When my friend and I decided to meet-up and catch up on life, it was only natural that we chose Yume Wo Katare in Porter Square in Cambridge. The first of many visits to other ramen restaurants in the area, this popular shop—as a sign above the kitchen reads—doesn’t make ramen, it makes dreams. “Yume” translates to dreams in Japanese and “katare” to tell. Eating at Yume Wo Katare is an experience to be had by anyone who’s had a bowl of ramen before. Even if you think you’ve seen it all, this place should be at the top of your “ramen list,” if you have such a thing that is. From the long lines to the cheesy quotes that decorate the tiny room, finishing the small bowl—piled high with crunchy bean sprouts, garlic, chopped scallions and two pieces of very flavorful pork strips—of ramen at Yume Wo Katare can get you a loud “Good Job,” “Very Good Job,” or “Perfect” shout-out from the kitchen staff. And if you don’t, you’ll still get an encouraging “Next Time!” and regardless whether you finish your bowl or not, you’ll be asked to stand up, introduce yourself and share your dreams and aspirations with everyone present. And whether your dream is to cure cancer or travel the world, everyone will cheer you on, this is the place where dreams are made; not ramen.
The sharing of dreams and aspirations doesn’t have to end at Yume Wo Katare, for every bowl of ramen deserves to be shared with great company. In my time going from ramen shop to ramen shop in Boston, I’ve learned that not all ramen is the same and no matter how many times you’ve got to explain it to people why this is not the same ramen they get at the supermarket, the best way to get them to experience the passion that goes into making this dish, is to take them on a ramen journey similar to the one I’m currently on. I’ve also learned from observation that most of the conversations that happen over ramen, happen in silence or over a cold beer after (unfortunately, we have yet to come across a ramen shop in Boston that serves some good ol’ Japanese brews). Slurping is encouraged and so is eating fast—you want the noodles to retain their elasticity and the broth its warmth.
With so many ramen options springing up all over Boston, I’m looking forward to many more conversations over a bowl of ramen with thoughtful company. If I’m going to keep pursuing learning Japanese and nurturing my interest in the culture, I might as well do it through the food.