Tampopo and the rise of ramen

Tampopo still, Courtesy of Janus Films

Even though I lived for years on Fourth Avenue in Manhattan a few doors down from the acclaimed Ippudo East Village, somehow I never got on the ramen bandwagon. Being a serious sashimi buff did not seem to translate; no reason why it should: There’s little similarity other than both are staples of Japanese cuisine. For sure Ippudo’s ever-present long line made me curious, but I just don’t do long lines; the wait at Ippudo’s two Manhattan locations has been reported to be upwards of two hours.

Evidently I totally missed ramen’s evolution from college-dorm standard to the main attraction at hole-in-the-wall noodle shops known mostly to foodie cognoscenti to full-blown obsession of some of the best Western-hemisphere chefs. One of these is Ivan Orkin, a native of Syosset, New York. Eighteen years ago Orkin relocated to Tokyo bent on mastering the art of making Japanese ramen. Despite his status as a gaijin (“outside person”), by 2007 he had become wildly successful at it―as his two perpetually-packed Tokyo shops would testify. Returning to the U.S. in 2011, Orkin’s first undertaking was Slurp Shop, a small ramen stand in the Gotham West Market. Now the ramen gods have again placed me within spitting distance of a top ramen eatery: Orkin’s first full-fledged New York restaurant, Ivan Ramen, at 25 Clinton Street.

I foresee only one problem getting in the way of my having a blissful ramen experience: According to Chef Teiichi Sakurai of Dallas’s celebrated Ten Ramen, the key is to eat it quickly―never mind the giant-sized portion―because the noodles will expand and cause an overflow. He says “Eating a bowl of ramen shouldn’t take more than five minutes.” In a nod to what I now see as the perfectly-named Slurp Shop, Sakurai advises “slurping the noodles with utmost vigor … and picking up “the bowl and drink[ing] the luscious broth like a cup of coffee.” This is so not my style, and I’m not sure this boomer can be taught new dining tricks. I’ll hope for the best.

So how did I come to ponder the state of play of this Japanese comfort food and discover its elevation to high culinary art? It was the re-release last week in New York of Tampopo, Juzo Itami’s 1985 comedy about food as igniter of senses and sensual desire. Though I never saw Tampopo, I do count movies like Babette’s Feast (1987) and Big Night (1996) among my all-time favorites. (So here’s a dish that may be new to you: Timpano―ziti, meatballs, sausage, pork shank, and hard-boiled eggs encased in a large, drum-shaped pasta shell―one of the stars of Big Night.)

Highly rated on Rotten Tomatoes®, movie buffs have called Tampopo extremely clever and very original. Dan Kois promises that the restoration of this classic “noodle Western” “will still make you hungry more than 30 years later” and says that “Through it all, [director] Itami maintains his infatuation with the sensual and emotional pleasures of a meal well-made.” I’m clearing the decks for a ramen-themed weekend.


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