Written by Nguyen Manh Quoc Trung
“Master, how long should I keep the meat stock boiling?”
The chopping sound stopped, and everything seemed to be in a virtual standstill for a short moment. Silence swallowed the small restaurant, except for the sound of bubbles popping as the water in the pot reached a certain temperature. Trung gently put his knife on the cutting board and glanced over at the boiling 15-liter pot, then at the face of the young woman standing next to him, full of anticipation.
“How long have you been boiling it?” He asked.
“Uhm… Maybe more than half an hour, I guess?”
“Precision, Miss Kanae. No guessing. Boiling the stock for too long and the broth will stink of the taste of overcooked pork bones, and too short will rob the broth of its usual rich flavor, even to the point of being bland.” Trung carefully looked at the boiling pot, quietly judging its color and texture. “You must have been boiling it on medium-high heat for about 40 minutes now. Keep it there for another 20, then skim off the layer of blood and protein scum on the surface with a strainer and switch it to low heat. Add the vegetable in only after the stock is clear in color. You will have to boil it for at least another hour after that, so make sure you time it carefully.
“And stop calling me ‘master’. I’m neither the master of you nor the ramen I’m making. Just ‘Trung’ is fine.”
As the girl fumbled to get the strainer out of the cabinet, Trung went back to slicing the Char Siu pork, but his mind wandered. Making ramen is difficult, that is true, he thought. But is it for everyone? Can everyone appreciate the value of a good bowl of ramen, or do they just treat it as some kind of ‘fast food’? If so, what have I been trying so hard for?
Trung has opened his ramen shop for more than two year now in Okayama City, some time after his graduation from university. He spent several years learning the secret of the craft by working at various ramen shops all over Japan, and after being convinced that this calm and quiet city was the perfect place to set up a restaurant, he started saving up money to open his very own ramen shop. He just thought simply that Okayama City was far from being considered rural, yet at the same time was also not crowded and busy as the likes of Osaka and Tokyo. The slow style of living here meant that there would likely be more people who come in and appreciate his ramen, instead of just treating the dish as something to fill their stomach.
But to make ramen that people can appreciate, well, that was hard. Trung was fascinated by ramen after he set foot in Japanese soil as an undergraduate. Having acquainted with various noodle dishes in his home country Vietnam, such as pho, bun bo Hue, and bun rieu cua, noodle was almost taken for granted in his everyday life, and it was only after coming to Japan and tasting ramen for the first time did he realize its potential. There are nearly a hundred variations of ramen in Japan, which differs from region to region. The noodle needs not only be made from wheat, no combination of toppings is the same, and the broth’s possibilities are limitless – pork, chicken, fish, you name it. There is even vegetable-based ramen in several regions of Japan, and they are gaining in popularity. Then again, not only making ramen is a work of culinary art, but the way of enjoying ramen itself also requires sophistication. Trung liked ramen precisely for its experimental and diverse nature, and setting up his own ramen shop would be the perfect way for him to both try out different ramen recipes and generate an income from it.
Or so he thought. The path was way rougher than he had initially imagined. Trung valued fresh ingredients from local farmers, with the hope that buying local products can be of great help to the local economy. But for high-quality ingredients, just buying from local farmers was simply not sufficient. Really good cuts of pork were expensive, and far from Okayama; the longer the shipping time, the less fresh the meat would be. Several spices could only be bought from abroad with a high price, meaning that not always would he be able to try out and experiment with the new recipes he wanted. And there was also the fact that Trung was a foreigner, a point which several customers relied on when they said he would never understand true Japanese ramen, even after he had opened his own restaurant. Society had changed a lot from when his interest with ramen first sparked, and so did the customers’ tastes: people came into his ramen shop as quickly as they left, hurriedly finished the bowl of noodles in front of them, paid the bill, and then disappeared once again into the busy crowd they came from. What is “true Japanese ramen?” Does such a thing exist at all? Now that the customers have changed, how should the ramen change accordingly? Is it still a matter of taste? He sighed.
Although his ramen can diverse, Trung kept his restaurant the traditional style. The exterior was modest at best, with a wooden kōshi door and glass-paned windows, despite being situated in the middle of a busy street. The interior was far from being luxurious – just a small counter with seven seats and several tables and chairs next to it. The kitchen lurked behind the counter, and the restaurant was always lively with the sound of pots boiling, meat-chopping, and people conversing with one another. Nothing special, but that homely space was Trung’s proudest achievement – for ramen, the atmosphere was very important. A traditional-looking restaurant would definitely complement the traditional taste of the ramen; being too flashy would just distract the customers from the sole reason they came to the restaurant. Trung aimed to expand the restaurant in the near future and even open up more branches in the city if business prospered. That was why the money problem has been bugging his mind for a while, but Trung still felt a sense of unease. He could not help but think that something was missing.
His head full of thoughts, Trung took a quick glance at the person standing next to him, diligently cutting the vegetable. Miss Kanae was a young woman in her mid-twenties, who had been working as his secondary cook for more than three months now. She came to him inexperienced, yet everyday she was coming closer and closer to replicating the ramen recipes that he was so proud of. Trung did not even remember why he hired her in the first place, probably because he needed more staff, but mostly because Inoue reminded him of his past self, of the days when learning how to make ramen was his only priority.
“Master… I mean, Trung san. You have been zoning out quite a lot recently. Is there something on your mind?” Inoue asked worryingly.
“Miss Kanae. Do you ever feel that it is difficult, working in this ramen restaurant?” The young cook seemed to be taken aback by his question. “Difficult… in what way?”
“You know, I usually strive for the perfect ramen, so I understand that sometimes I might be too hard on you. And then there is also the serving of customers in rush hour, keeping the restaurant clean and waking up at the crack of dawn to prepare for the broth… These works can be difficult, especially with just two people.”
“You are definitely too hard on me sometimes,” Kanae glared at him, but at the same time her face was totally relaxed. “But I enjoy it, because I enjoy making ramen. Was it not the reason why I asked you to let me help out in the first place? It can be hard, yes, but then again making ramen was never meant to be easy, you have taught me that well enough. The reason why I’m still doing this is because just the thought of ramen makes me happy, and because I’m happy all the hardships are gone.”
Ah. Now it was Trung’s turn to feel surprised, but eventually a smile slowly started to form at the corner of his lips. He had forgotten about it, about the reason why he started making ramen in the first place. It was definitely because of the ramen and its value, but what did ramen bring him in return? Happiness, and the joy of cooking. He had been so busy “cooking for profit” and trying to keep his restaurant standing that he forgot cooking can be fun and enjoyable as well. He remembered the words of Heather Paxson – an author he had studied as an undergraduate student a long time ago – about the “economies of sentiment”, which were “the cultural, emotional, ethical, and political dispositions that motivate people.” Money was never his motivation in the first place, so what was? Trung suddenly understood what he had to do. If this ramen shop was set up because of his love for ramen, then it would be that same love that keeps it alive, and passes it on to later generations. Maybe the customers will feel that love too, he thought, in the noodles, in the meat, in the rich taste of the broth that keeps changing, and they will come back because of these things.
The ringing of the doorbell woke him up from his ocean of thoughts, signaling the first customers of the day – an elderly couple in the neighborhood who frequently visited the restaurant for breakfast. “Everything is good to go, master!” Kanae told him with a bright smile on her face, and he nodded readily. Filling his lungs with fresh air for the first time in a while, Trung raised his voice cheerfully:
“Irrashaimase! Welcome to Okadai Iriguchi Ramen! Can I take your order?”
This short story was first submitted as the final assignment for the course Anthropology of Food. All illustrations are drawn by the author.