Hakata Shin Sen Gumi ~ Contemplating the Ramen Bowl
One fine day, I decided to eat a bowl of ramen. This may seem like nothing to those that are ramen eaters. But to a vegetarian, this is an altogether unusual thing to suddenly decide to do. But I have been thinking about eating ramen the proper way for some time.
You see, ramen is something that I have only tried halfway in vegetarian versions. The ramen noodles, when freshly made, are like no other bowl of noodles to be had. Even in a vegetable broth. Now, there are some things in life that must be done with complete and utter abandon. Some things in life require going all the way. Having had only vegetarian ramen bowls, albeit with good broths, spicy miso and toppings, I had never experienced real honest-to-goodness ramen. The vegetarian versions cannot fully capture the true essence of ramen. I had heard that if one were to truly experience authentic ramen, then it must be done with pork, as the nature of a bowl of ramen is not complete without it.
Hakata Shin Sen Gumi is tucked away carefully like tender slices of pork in a Gardena strip mall. It's the little hidden gems like this that sparkle in the mind's eye. The exterior glowed with a Miyazaki kind of magic. There were diners waiting outside to be seated. I filled out my selection on a clipboard and paper, circling the various toppings with a worn down pencil, choosing how I wanted my broth--- light, medium, or strong. It's certainly not ramen weather--- it's been hot and sunny here in Los Angeles--- but the thought of a bowl of ramen beckoned. Perhaps it's completely unlike me to want a bowl full of ramen with pork broth on a hot day, but once I saw the door of Hakata Shin Sen Gumi, sparkling with life like the shimmering fat on the surface of a bowl, I understood why I was there. I wandered to the doors of this Gardena ramen restaurant to transform my palate, to begin an adventure, to understand what real ramen was--- the epitome of Japanese noodles.
Inside, it was bustling with diners and waiters. I have a weakness for Japanese men wearing those indigo colored bandanas, concentrating over huge boiling vats of noodles, moving here and there behind the counter, focusing on their culinary deliberations.
We ordered cold sake, my daughter's kids meal, and salivated over the appetizers on the menu. Special of the Day: Scallion Pancakes. My daughter's kids meal arrived just as she likes it. With Yakult. She also got her own bowl of ramen.
Hiyayakko Tofu and Miso Kyuri were on their way. I was sipping my cold sake, tipsy already. Having had nothing to eat, now it was six-thirty, and I was famished. Everything arrived to the table, J-pop blaring, the blue bandanas of the waiters causing my eyes to swirl into lustful reveries of the Tampopo kind.
The bowls of ramen arrive. So... soup or noodles first?
First, I contemplated the bowl. To quote the Ramen Master from Tampopo, "First, observe the whole bowl. Appreciate its gestalt. Savor the aromas. Jewels of fat glittering on the surface. Shinachiku roots shining. Seaweed slowly sinking. Spring onions floating. Concentrate on the three pork slices. They play the key role, but stay modestly hidden."
"First caress the surface with the chopstick tips. To express affection. Then poke the pork... caress it with the chopstick tips. Gently pick it up, and dip it into the soup on the right of the bowl. What's important here is to apologize to the pork by saying, see you soon."
I ate my bowl of ramen with affection... like discovering a new lover's body, I inhaled the fragrance of the broth, savoring the unctuous and rich abundance, and lingered a little when tasting its mysteries, as it was unknown to me. I wanted to inhale the noodles the way those who have eaten them all their life can do. But I'm not that skilled, and like a young girl learning how to kiss, I slurped awkwardly with innocent tenderness.