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Friday, January 7, 2011

Everything You Will Ever Need to Talk about RAMEN


It's big in Kyuushuu. Well, to be more precise, it's big all over Japan.

But here in Kyuushuu, especially so close to Fukuoka, Hakata-style ramen is practically daily bread.

What sets it apart is the 豚骨 (とんこつ;pork bone) broth, milky and well known for its OVERPOWERING and often unpleasant aroma while cooking, but delicious taste .

You might remember we mentioned it when we talked about 九州男児: For the 九州 MAN,
ramen that ain't tonkotsu isn't considered ramen.

In any case, I was invited along on カチカチワイド'sのグルメ巡り(ぐるめめぐり;gourmet tour) segment. It's called 「花金グルメ」and it's the segment that I appear on most often.

グルメ巡り will be familiar to anyone who has ever turned on a TV in Japan. It's the equivalent of western food shows (Anthony Bourdain springs to mind), where entertainers or reporters visit interesting or unique restaurants and introduce the food. A common western remark about the Japanese shows though, is that you'll hardly EVER see anyone eat something they don't absolutely LOVE, and the squeals of 「おいしい!おいしい!」are kind of over the top.

Despite the overwhelming impression that all it takes to make one of those clips is someone to shout 「うまいこれ、」it's actually very hard to talk in detail about food. So I've taken to finding out what kind of restaurant we'll be going to and spending a couple of evenings beforehand researching descriptive words that I might be able to use.

It's a huge help that the woman I co-host with most often, Young He, is really good at it.

I'll take a bite of the featured food, and get out two or three sentences, trying to highlight various aspects of its taste or texture, and then she will expound on its merits at length. No exaggeration, she'll go as long as 8 minutes, talking about why and how it's so delicious. I hide a notebook under the table and as soon as the cameras stop rolling, I try to write down as much of what she said as I can remember. Of course, of that 8 minute speech she made, only 10-20 seconds will get used, but the editors get to choose the best parts to use. When it comes time to edit me, they have much less of a selection.

So I keep studying.

For the most recent segment (click to see the segment in pictures), we went to an area called 三瀬 (みつせ;Mitsuse) in Saga, famous for being a そば街道 (かいどう;Soba highway), but in recent years it's started to develop a reputation for churning out some good ramen as well.

Research was easy because the magazine I write for, 福岡Walker, recently did an all Ramen issue. I just pulled that out and started making a list.

So, if you are ever in a situation where you need to talk about how your ramen tastes, order your noodles cooked to your liking, or just talk about ramen on TV, here's what you need to know.
Where applicable, I've organized things into scales:

First, let's get into 麺 (めん;noodles):

The two most important scales for noodles are those for their thickness, and their hardness:

Thickness, from fat and thick to thin and fine:
 太い <ーーーーーー> 細い
 ふとい         ほそい

Hardness, from hard to soft:
かため <ーーーーーー> やわめ

To expand on hardness, everyone has their personal preference, but for the most part, I think al dente is the way to go for ramen.

Noodles are referred to as 粉もの (こなもの)meaning they're made from powder, like flour. All 粉もの have the unfortunate tendency to get soggy the longer you let them sit after cooking, especially when you let them sit in hot water. To talk about this getting soggy in Japanese, you can use the word 延びる(のびる; to stretch out; lengthen). 延びる is great to talk about any kind of noodles, but on another グルメ巡り outing, I recently learned that the pros also use it to talk about たこやき!

You don't want soggy noodles. The textures you're looking for are

シコシコ:al dente, kind of chewy, with a little bit of a snap. In this instance, picture the moment when your teeth break through the noodles, and there's like a tiny recoil.

Yuri cautioned me against overusing this particular 擬態語 (ぎたいご;mimetic word) on TV, because it's a homonym for the sound produced by, well, jerking it. Like a Japanese "fap."

モッチリ: also springy in texture, but (easy to remember) more springy like もち. It's got some give to it when you bite it, but doesn't have the same sharp SNAP of シコシコ。I suspect it of being moister.

You can also use the phrase 腰がある (こしがある), and yes, that is the kanji for "hips." It can refer to the "body" of things like hair, noodles, and according to Rikai-chan, paper. 麺 that have 腰 are going to be "resilient." Hand in hand with either シコシコ or モチモチ、they'll bounce back, to different degrees, depending on how much 腰 they have. A little 腰 can be a good thing. Too much, and maybe they're undercooked.

Here's an example of how I put some of this together when I got to eat some thicker noodles.


Briefly, you might also want to touch on whether the noodles are more 丸い (まるい;round) or 平ら(たいら;flat) and definitely mention it if they're 滑らか(なめらか; smooth).

Also good to know is that the verb for slurping up noodles is 啜る(すする), and there's a 擬態語for talking about the pleasant sensation of noodles that slurp easily: するすると入る

Since the possible combinations of 具 (ぐ;solid ingredients) are endless, let's finish off with

The major scales for ramen broth are:

あっさり <ーーーーーー> こってり
simple; light <--------------> rich; strong


さっぱり <ーーーーーー> 濃厚(な
simple, or crisp <-------------> dense; thick

These two scales are very similar, but I think it's safe to say that あっさり and こってり are more for describing flavors, while さっぱり and 濃厚 are more for tactile sensations.

Not entirely sure, but from bartending, I know that あっさり and さっぱり are both words that get used to describe things like ginger ale, lime, and Corona; the key words there are CRISP and REFRESHING.

A soy sauce ramen broth would be thinner and watery, and I think more likely to be called さっぱり。A tonkotsu broth is milky and creamy, so it gets 濃厚。The level of HOW こってり ramen is, that's a matter of flavor, so it can be adjusted by how concentrated the broth is. Some restaurants will even ask you how strong you want it.

When the soup is REALLY creamy, ramen broth can be described with とろみ、which means thick like a sauce, or like the yolk of a sunnyside-up egg. Not quite sure how to define grades of とろみ、but they used it to talk about my eggnog. I think creamy to the point of being gooey, like あんかけ is too far to take the word.

As for flavor, there's my favorite: まろやか, which gets defined as "mild." But don't think of it as bland. Think of it as smooth, where all the flavors come together in a very well-rounded way. I think it's possible for something to be 濃厚, rich, and まろやか, mild, at the same time. Please tell me if I'm wrong!

Other important points to touch on for ramen, ESPECIALLY tonkotsu ramen are 臭み(くさみ;odor)、and あと味(あとあじ;after-taste)。

Pork bones and the meat that they use to make the broth... they don't usually smell good. And when the broth isn't prepared well, some of that stink carries over. It's hard to find a review of Tonkotsu ramen that doesn't go out of its way to use the phrase 「臭みがない。

After-taste is also big because the problem with a rich, creamy, milky broth is that people can't eat large portions of RICH foods. The first few bites are delicious, but if it's too rich, you get tired of it, which is 飽きがくる in Japanese.

It's important for any ramen, even rich ramen, to have a refreshing after-taste to prevent this problem. This time, the word we want to use for refreshing is すっきりする。

Here's another quick まとめ、drawn from my research, with a few extra additions:


There's actually more, but this has gone on long enough!

I'm going to make a follow-up post, talking about how the actual broadcast went, some new phrases that got thrown in, and how even though I did all this freaking research, in the end, I ate soba and Chanpon while Young He ate the ramen!

Don't worry, a lot of the vocab crosses over well, so I was safe!

And as per your requests, I promise that in the near future I'll post about exactly how a person gets into this in the first place, and what you're expected to be able to do if you wanna keep it up.


Defendership said...

I always suspected there had to be a lot of furious paddling under the water to make things work, but I didn't know it was THIS nuts. I'd be awful on those shows.


I'm still sad I cannot actually see the show :( At this point, it seems I'll just have to fly there to remedy this.

How long does it take between filming a show to airing it? And have you done anything live besides that cooking show (which I THINK was live)?

Bobby Judo said...


I seem to remember that was the EXACT phrasing you used to try to sell my Empanadas at Sakai no Kuni Matsuri over the summer. You have to remember that most people don't want their heads to explode.

At the longest, a couple of weeks between filming and airing. They try to keep everything seasonal, so if you filmed during the rainy season, it's weird to broadcast way after that.

Every show is a live broadcast.
The various segments get filmed in advance, and then the reporters appear in the studio to present live.

But we don't get to leave after our segment. Usually there's an intro where we say hi, then we lead with our segment after the commercial and then we stay on air for the rest of the hour giving our comments on all the other news, segments, and guests.

Defendership said...


And HOW many empanadas did we sell?


Maybe I should be on TV, after all...

oh man, you're one of the people who gets to hang around in the peanut gallery? That is...actually really awesome.