In Japan, they call foreigners gaijin. So when Ivan Orkin, a middle aged Jew from Long Island (a gaijin), opened a ramen shop in a Tokyo suburb in 2007, later impressing the country’s top ramen critic Ohsaki-san with his bowls of shio ramen made with a unique chicken and dashi double soup, things sort of went nuts. Later, there would be multiple-hour waits for a bowl of this ramen and appearances on Japan’s version of Martin and Lewis. A food company produced over 300,000 servings of instant Ivan Ramen, which sold out fast, making the cups collectables. In a country where chefs are placed atop pedestals (this is after all where Iron Chef started), Orkin’s life was pretty much da umami bomb.
But as we find out in Orkin’s book, a page-turning memoir (with some recipes) he wrote with Lucky Peach editor Chris Ying — the Orkin story extends beyond white man does good with noodles. In this excerpt, Orkin faces his toughest critic in a one-on-one interview that discusses the evolution of ramen in Japan, and abroad. And what makes the “perfect bowl of ramen.”
Ohsaki-san doesn’t cut a particularly intimidating figure. He has a round, friendly face, disarming glasses, and a stocky build (although he’s nowhere near as portly as you’d expect someone who eats eight hundred bowls of ramen each year to be). But at the time I opened Ivan Ramen, Ohsaki-san was among the most influential, terrifying people who could take a seat at my counter. His word was gospel to ramen devotees. Nobody ate as much ramen as Ohsaki-san, and nobody could make or break a shop as easily as him.
Nowadays, Ohsaki-san has become more of a godfather to the ramen world. He’s stopped giving his opinions about individual shops, opting instead to spread the ramen gospel from a neutral throne. He’s organized 850 of the 80,000 ramen shops in Japan into a ramen committee that puts on ramen seminars and a five-day ramen event each year. His company, the Ramen Databank, is the most exhaustive resource for ramen hunters in Japan, with a website, magazines, TV shows and apps.
Ohsaki-san speaks about ramen with the reverence of an obsessive. He’s completely serious in his devotion to the stuff. From his earliest experiences with ramen at age eight, he’s been addicted to its variety and subtlety. I’d think it was a little bit laughable — if I didn’t feel the same way myself.
Ivan Orkin: Why did you start eating ramen, and when did ramen eating become the project that it is for you now?
Ohsaki-san: I was born in Fukushima Prefecture, a place famous for Kitakata ramen. When I was young, I would always eat Kitakata ramen and figured that that was what ramen was. But then I moved to Tokyo, and found tonkotsu soup and miso soup, and noodles that could be thick or thin. This piqued my curiosity. Each ramen shop had a different style, so I just started eating. If you ask a mountain climber why he climbs mountains, he’ll say, “The mountain was there.” I decided to eat ramen because there was a ramen shop in front of me.
Ivan Orkin: What’s your mountain? What’s the goal of eating so much ramen?
Ohsaki-san: My purpose is to try every ramen shop. But every month sixty new ramen shops open in Tokyo alone. Each new ramen shop has a new style and a new type of ramen, and I want to eat everything. It’s an endless goal, endless eating. This year beef ramen appeared. Last year, there was none. Ten years ago, there was no cold ramen. Ramen history only started a hundred years ago. If sushi is an adult, then one-hundred-year-old ramen is just a child, a junior-high-school student. If it studies and grows, it will become an adult.
Ivan Orkin: Where does ramen exist in the pantheon of Japanese cuisine?
Ohsaki-san: I don’t think of ramen as Japanese cuisine. Ramen has become a world cuisine. Ramen is popular in New York, in France, in Germany. Everybody knows sushi as sushi. Until recently, everybody thought of ramen as just noodles. Now people can distinguish ramen as ramen, and like sushi, it is its own unique cuisine.
Ivan Orkin: Can you explain the idea of kodawari?
Ohsaki-san: A long time ago, we only had imported American cars. Then we began to look closely and change small things, developing something new. The same thing began in ramen in 1996.
Ivan Orkin: Why 1996? Was there an event that changed things?
Ohsaki-san: There was. The Internet started. Customers began putting images of ramen on the Internet. Before that, a ramen maker could visit different ramen shops and just steal their techniques. After 1996, you could see if one ramen shop was a copy of another. Ramen shops had to start developing original styles. Ramen history is one hundred years old now. For ninety years, it was the same, but since 1996, the number of types of ramen has doubled. The difference before and after 1996 is like BC and AD.
Ivan Orkin: Is that when you began seriously eating ramen?
Ohsaki-san: I began eating ramen 45 years ago. I’m fifty-three years old now. When I was young, I’d eat two hundred or three hundred bowls of ramen in one year—a very slow pace. But after the Internet, after 1996, I could get more information about new shops. Now I eat around eight hundred bowls each year.
Ivan Orkin: Jesus—do you eat anything else?
Ohsaki-san: I love Italian and French food. But even after eating a full meal, I can still eat three bowls of ramen. I used to go to ramen shops and I’d eat a rice bowl on the side, but now I just stick to the ramen. The first time I came to Ivan Ramen I ate two bowls: the shio and the shoyu.
Ivan Orkin: What was your first impression of Ivan Ramen? Be honest.
Ohsaki-san: Ramen is a very sensitive food, and I had never seen a foreigner make delicious ramen. As I walked here from the train station, I thought maybe I’d find something simple, but not delicious. I was skeptical. When I arrived, I saw the kitchen and what you were doing. I saw that you were warming up the chashu before serving it; the chashu is usually just sliced and then placed cold on the ramen. That was the first thing that impressed me. Even Japanese ramen makers don’t make their own noodles, but you make everything—noodles, soup, chashu, everything. When I ate the ramen, I realized it was not a halfway bowl, it was perfect. I saw that ramen’s history had changed here. You were a chef before; your skill as a chef improved the ramen. Sometimes an Italian chef or a French chef may open a ramen shop, but they’ll make Western-style ramen. You still have traces of a Western style, but your ramen really is Japanese.
Ivan Orkin: How often do you go into a shop and see something new, something that changes the history of ramen?
Ohsaki-san: Twenty or thirty percent show me something new. But each time I come to Ivan Ramen, I don’t see the same thing as other ramen shops.
Ivan Orkin: Do you generally revisit ramen shops?
Ohsaki-san: There are two types of ramen junkies: the repeater and the collector. I’m a collector—I try to eat as many different bowls as I can. There are probably many hundreds of people who eat five hundred bowls of ramen in a year. Then there’s those who have maybe one bowl a day—there are probably about five thousand of those people in Japan. I eat about eight hundred bowls each year.
Ivan Orkin: What is your idea of a perfect bowl of ramen?
Ohsaki-san: I’ve never met the perfect bowl of ramen. In general, I like shoyu ramen, because it reminds me of the ramen I ate when I was a child—it’s nostalgic ramen.
Ivan Orkin: Is there an objective model—should the noodles be one way and the soup one way?
Ohsaki-san: I can’t say that the noodles or soup should be one way or another. If that were the case, ramen would stop evolving. I want ramen to keep improving. Sushi and soba are very traditional, so it’s hard to introduce a new style. Ramen can change. Plus, not everyone can afford to eat expensive sushi at places like Jiro. Rich, poor—everyone can eat ramen.
Reprinted with permission from Ivan Ramen by Ivan Orkin © 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.