A Tale Of Two Ramens, Part 1

A couple weeks ago, I tasked Philly mag’s food critic, Trey Popp, with what I thought was a fairly simple task: Go check out the ramen that has been on the menu at Morimoto forever and see how it stands up to all the newcomers in town. Unsurprisingly (in retrospect), he approached the assignment with a bit more…rigor than I expected. This is Part 1 of his ramen report. Check out Part 2 tomorrow. ~JS

I am a ramen virgin.

There, I said it. Can there be a more embarrassing ignorance for a Philly food writer to own up to in the spring of 2012? Ramen, as you’ve no doubt heard, is the next Next Big Thing. It’s this year’s Korean shortrib taco, the new hand-stretched fior di latte, the next Izakaya pop-up. And here I am, 12 years on from a 12-hour stint on Japanese soil—ten of them in a long-haul-layover coma and the rest waiting for a flight to five-dollar-a-day-land—trying to explain to my wife that there’s apparently more to ramen than peeling the top off a plastic cup and plugging the electric kettle into your dorm room wall.

Exactly how much more, though, is the question.

There’s more than one way to tackle it. If you like answering food questions with science, you’re in luck. Last summer a Harvard-affiliated gastroenterologist named Braden Kuo ran a curious little experiment with performance artist Stefani Bardin. Kuo and Bardin got one human subject to ingest Gatorade, instant ramen, and gummi bears. They fed another subject hibiscus tea, handmade noodles, and pomegranate-cherry juice gummies.  Each subject also swallowed a capsule containing a miniature camera and a data transmitter. This produced an 8-hour stop-motion video tracing each meal’s progress through the gastrointestinal tract. (Later the subjects traded places, to serve as their own controls.)

The side-by-side comparison isn’t quite the stuff of a peer-reviewed clinical trial, but it is mordantly instructive about the gulf between natural and processed foods. Two and a half hours in, the digestive process reduced the natural noodles to indistinguishable mush, while numerous strands of instant ramen remain quite intact. (The difference is even more striking at the 25-minute mark.)

Bardin pins the blame on tertiary butylhydroquinone, a petroleum derivative used as a food preservative in the ramen she selected. But that’s just conjecture. You can’t rule out the artificial dye in the Gatorade, which also has a petrochemical pedigree—or, indeed, any number of other possible culprits, including natural variations in gastrointestinal fauna for which the experimental design could not completely control.

I was after a different sort of answer, though. To reach it, I had to enlist a friend who had more experience.

At least I assumed he had more experience–having lived one stint in Tokyo and another in a smaller prefecture. But it turned out that “more” wasn’t the right word to describe his experience. If I was a ramen virgin, he was a shameless slut—or maybe a bordello madam of Heidi Fleiss proportions. Before long he was reliving the rapture of his favorite soup stall, “a 4-seat literal hole in the wall under a black tarp on the side of a building in Tokyo where you wait up to 2 hours at lunch for 5 minutes inside the tarp,” and confessing to persistent daydreams about opening his own ramen restaurant.  (I have to hope, for the good of him and all the rest of us, that life as an engineer and chief operating officer in the alternative energy sector is more richly rewarded.)

“It will be a great day when the American public doesn’t think of Cup O’Noodle, but of the delicious broth that the Chinese invented and the Japanese perfected,” he wrote in one of several emails in which we—mainly he—broke down a few bowls of ramen we’d shared and sought separately.  (It will also be a great day in Philadelphia when a chef can secure his restaurant by chaining a bleached bone across the threshold.)

The bowls under scrutiny included two tonkotsu (pork broth-based) versions at Nom Nom Ramen (part of the current wave of ramen bars now hitting Philadelphia), and another tonkotsu bowl we shared at Morimoto—where ramen has been on the menu for the food-trend equivalent of 150 years.

For a taste test of such modest scope, it provoked some pretty intense emotions from my friend. One soup spurred a critical appraisal placing it alongside what David Chang’s Momofuku and New York’s Ippudo put out—on a slightly off day, but still. Another seemed to completely erase that pleasant memory: “Maybe I should just burn off all of my tastebuds now.”

Click here for part 2 of Trey’s ramen adventure, in which we answer the question: Is Iron Chef Morimoto committing culinary crimes on Chestnut Street? And how should he have to pay…