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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Ramen Goes Global in Japan

Jun. 16, 2015

A cosmos in a bowl. Japanese comfort food is going global. People around the world have been taking to ramen. And now, even in Japan, the noodles are becoming international. NHK World’s Aki Shibuya has the story.

Ippudo is a very popular chain of ramen shops in Tokyo. At one branch in Roppongi, the cooks keep the noodles coming, bowl after bowl. Customers don’t have to wait to start with the slurping. Many of them have arrived from abroad.

“Delicious,” says one visitor from Australia.

“The warmth of it and the spiciness, it’s good,” says a customer from the US.

“Absolutely delicious, very good,” remarks another American.

One customer from Singapore states, “Enjoying ramen is like we’re also enjoying Japan.

Another says, “It’s really popular in Singapore, there are many ramen shops around. But they’re not as good as the ones in Japan.”

Aki Shibuya tried a bowl. "The soup wraps around the noodles really well. It’s kind of mild and creamy. Full of flavor."

The shop’s manager, Ryutaro Ikeda, says, "Ramen is taking off around the world. So, when visitors come from overseas, they head for shops like ours to have an authentic experience."

The world-famous Michelin Guide has taken notice. It’s brought the down-home dish to its pages.

This year’s guide to Yokohama, Kawasaki and the Shonan area gives the Bib mark to four establishments. The taste of their ramen gets good reviews under the Bib Gourmand category, which has delicious food at a modest price.

Michelin Senior Vice President Bernard Delmas says "I think that ramen today, is, in the Japanese gastronomy, well recognized in Japan and all over the world more and more. So we thought it was absolutely important to recognize ramen as well. "

For those wanting to try different kinds of ramen in one stop, the place to be is the Shin Yokohama Ramen Museum. Visitors can get a taste from all over Japan, and beyond.

It’s the world’s first ramen theme park. The museum’s setting harkens back to the 1950’s, the era in which instant noodles were born. Since that time, ramen made its way from countless neighborhoods in Japan to people around the world.

In 2013, the number of international visitors to the museum surpassed 150,000 for the first time.

One of those travelers has since hung up his own noren, or shop curtain. Luca Catalfamo is the first chef from abroad to be featured in the museum. His shop is Casa Luca.

Luca comes from Milan, Italy, a city that’s not lacking for cuisine of its own. He got his introduction to ramen while in New York. He was astounded by how much flavor was packed into each bowl.

So he decided to open his own restaurant back home. In his kitchen, olive oil is a must. The noodles are made from a blend of flour for pasta and for bread. The roast pork is slow cooked after being rubbed with Italian rock salt.

Luca’s ramen shop in Japan could not have made it without the blog of an American ramen lover. His name is Brian Macduckston. Brian’s Ramen Adventures blog gets thousands of hits from around the world since starting in 2008. Now Brian has his own ramen channel, too.

Luca and Brian celebrated their first meeting in Japan.

"He is like my idol, because I follow him on YouTube and media and the blog,” Luca says. “When I first came to Japan 3 years ago, I followed his blog about ramen shops. It was very, very useful."

King Tonkotsu Ramen is Casa Luca’s specialty. A creamy tonkotsu pork bone broth is mixed with two kinds of soy sauce, Japanese-style stock and herbs grilled in olive oil.

"This is surprisingly good,” says one Casa Luca customer. “It has a lightness to it compared to Japanese tonkotsu ramen."

Another says, "The noodles are chewy. Very nice."

One customer states, “This is real Japanese ramen.”

Brian offered his own thoughts on a bowl of Luca’s Ramen. He says, “The noodles don’t really hold the soup the same way that other kinds do. But the noodles are really tasty.”

Aki also tried a bowl. "The noodles... I was expecting it to be a little more like pasta, but then it’s not. I like that it’s a little hard, al dente. And I think it moves very well with the soup. "

Aki Shibuya spoke with Casa Luca’s Luca Catalfamo about his ramen.

Shibuya: How did you come up with the ramen you invented?

Luca: I put most of my effort into the soup. Because for Italian people, maybe it’s easier to make chashu meat and the other toppings but the soup is something that is so different from our soup, Italians’ soup. Every day I try to change something to make it better.

Shibuya: What is ramen for Luca?

Luca: Sometimes it’s an obsession. Now it’s my job but also it’s my passion. So, different things in my life are ramen. It is my life now.

Ramen blogger Brian Macduckston spoke with Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu about ramen.

Shibuya: I hear you live in Japan and teach English, and ramen is a big part of your life. Why did you start your ramen blog?

Macduckston: Well I had a Japanese blog about my life in Japan. And my friend said, “Oh, you’re posting too many reviews of ramen shops.” So then I thought that I would make a ramen-only website.

Shibuya: It deserves a solo website?

Macduckston: Oh, there are so many styles of ramen and so many shops to go to that definitely it deserves its own site.

Beppu: How often do you eat a ramen bowl?

Macduckston: It depends, but recently between 5 and 10 times a week.

Beppu: Okay, between 5 and 10, so it means almost once a day.

Macduckston: Almost once a day, sometimes 2 or 3 times a day.

Shibuya: Wow. What was your first ramen experience?

Macduckston: Well, actually my first day in Japan I had a bowl. It was a 180 yen bowl of ramen.

Beppu: 180 yen, so how many dollars is that... it’s about $1.50, less than 2, anyway.

Macduckston: Less than 2 dollars.

Beppu: You got a cheap one.

Macduckston: It really wasn’t very good at all. So, years later when I moved to Tokyo I really discovered great ramen.

Beppu: And coming back to your blog, what kind of people view it?

Macduckston: It’s about half from within Japan and half from outside. From outside, a lot of people who are planning a trip to Japan use it for ideas. And even sometimes people who are looking to open their own ramen shop use my site.

Shibuya: Like Luca.

Macduckston: Like Luca. I know he was a fan of my site before we met.

Beppu: And what kinds of reactions do you get from your viewers?

Macduckston: A lot of people say, “It looks so good, it looks so great! Where can I find this, it’s amazing!”

Beppu: The map here shows local varieties of ramen based on location in Japan. I heard that there are 700 different types of ramen all over Japan.

Shibuya: So have you traveled Japan to experience all kinds of ramen?

Macduckston: Yeah I traveled all over the country trying different styles.

Shibuya: Any favorites?

Macduckston: Up north in Asahikawa, the ramen is very, very nice.

Beppu: They use miso for the broth?

Macduckston: Sapporo is a miso, Asahikawa is more of a soy sauce ramen.

Beppu: And the south uses tonkotsu, pork broth.

Macduckston: That’s right. They love the tonkotsu down there.

Shibuya: I hear by some counts that there are 1200 shops worldwide. The map shows the number outside of Japan.

Beppu: In the US, your country, there are like 300.

Macduckston: Yeah it’s getting popular.

Shibuya: Do you see this movement of ramen all over the world?

Macduckston: Absolutely. People really like local foods these days. And local soul foods, like ramen, are getting really popular. Everyone wants to have authentic Japanese ramen.

Beppu: And how about the slurp sound?

Macduckston: Slurping, yeah. It’s hard for people to do.

Beppu: It’s not really rude here. You shouldn’t do it too much, but if it happens, it happens. It’s not rude at all.

Macduckston: Right, it’s hard for a lot of people to understand that it’s okay, but once people start to do it, it’s great, they love it.

Shibuya: Finally, what’s an authentic ramen for Brian?

Macduckston: It’s about that balance of noodles, soup and toppings. People overseas can have their own spin on things, but as long as you stick to the heart of ramen and really put the time into developing it, I think anyone can make a really great bowl.