A Pot of Ramen Ends the Search for Noodle Nirvana

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A Pot of Ramen Ends the Search for Noodle Nirvana

The meticulous preparation of Japanese cuisine is captured perfectly, if humorously, in the classic Japanese film "Tampopo" (1986). The central theme involves one chef's quest to make the perfect bowl of noodles, or ramen. In Japan, restaurants that specialize in ramen each serve their own perfected version, but when abroad, finding the perfect bowl of ramen is pretty tough.

Ramen is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters for lo-mein, meaning boiled noodles. The Korean version of this dish is pronounced ramyeon and is available only in the form of packaged instant noodles. Instant ramen is well-known not only throughout Asia, but also in the United States and Europe. Ramen comes in a number of shapes and flavors, each reflecting the taste preference of the country in which it is sold. For example, Korean ramyeon is highly spiced while Japanese ramen is milder. The Thai version is made with vermicelli. For those who are used to these instant varieties, ramen isn't that out of the ordinary, and the ones served at a specialized restaurant may taste a bit too strange; they are for connoisseurs seeking a superb experience of Japanese perfection.

This traditional noodle dish is Chinese in origin and was first introduced to Japan about 100 years ago. Some time later, it was developed into the popular instant version, with accompanying soup packet, by drying and deep frying the noodles. This technique was adapted by Koreans in the 1960s, and ramyeon became an immediate hit served either as a snack or meal.

Japanese ramen served at restaurants, on the other hand, should be distinguished from the instant kind. This dish is quite large in volume and consists of noodles, soup and a number of toppings. Over the past century, the dish has evolved to meet Japanese tastes (especially those of the Hokkaido and Kyushu regions) and is considered a Japanese favorite.

Japanese ramen is served in a salty broth made by slowly cooking pork and chicken bones. There are two kinds of ramens: the Hokkaido specialty which comes in a miso-based soup, and the Kyushu specialty which is served in a soy sauce-based soup. Each shop has its own distinctive noodle and a selection of toppings, ranging from the standard chashu (roasted pork), moyashi (bean sprouts), bok choy, garlic chips and so forth.

Kyushu Ramen, located in Cheongdam-dong in southern Seoul, has brought the authentic taste of ramen straight from Japan. Since the restaurant opened in March 1999, the extensively traveled owner of Kyushu Ramen has perfected the art of making this dish by regularly sending his chefs to receive training in Hakada and Nagakaki, the homes of Kyushu ramen. Major ingredients such as miso (Japanese bean paste), shoyu (Japanese soy sauce), udon noodles and domburi sauce are all imported from Japan. In order to achieve and maintain a truly "Japanese taste," a Japanese consultant was invited to become a partner, according to the manager Kim Moon-sook. She insists that "taste is essential" in making the restaurant successful.

On weekends, Kyushu Ramen is bustling with not only Japanese customers who miss their home-grown taste, but also Koreans who have developed a taste for saengramyeon (fresh ramen). The reasonably priced dishes may also explain the rush; dishes are priced from 5,500 won ($4.40) to 9,900 won. Other recommended selections include oyster fries, hara udon, yaki soba and domburi.

Kyushu Ramen is about a five minute walk from the Galleria department store in Apgujeong-dong and is open daily from 11:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. For more information or reservations, call 02-548-7341 (Japanese service available).

by Ines Cho

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