When I learned that we were moving to Japan, I was so excited to explore and truly immerse myself in the culture. I was so worried about the cultural differences and offending someone due to my ignorance. Before coming, I learned about taking off your shoes and how to place your shoes after they are removed. I read about rules for the train and to always have something small in your bag to gift if someone helps you.
I also learned about eating food and to how use utensils properly. So I was ecstatic when I got to put all of these lessons to work. My husband and I had to go to a week long training class when we first arrived. Part of the class was a field trip into Kamakura, which is place I frequent often and love. For this trip, we were asked what kind of food we wanted to eat and the guide would take us to her local recommendation. I like my food to be cooked fully so sushi was not something I was daring enough to try, which left the safe option of ramen.
Our guide informed us that this was a traditional ramen restaurant and that there was no English on the menu. My heart began to pound as my fears of looking like a stupid American quickly surfaced. She must have seen my panic because we ushered our group to the front of the restaurant where there was a window filled with plastic food. This is very common in Japanese restaurants (and you can even purchase your own plastic food in Tokyo). The food that is served is displayed for their customers to see prior to entering the restaurant. Our guide told us that if you can't read the menu, then you can walk with your waitress to the window and show them what you would like. Ah, I breathed a sigh of relief and quickly studied the window while our guide pointed to the dishes and told us what they were.
I ordered the spicy ramen and enjoyed chatting with my husband sans kids while we waited for our food to arrive. My husband and I rarely get time alone so I dressed up a bit for our field trip. I wore a cute little creme colored cami with a colorful cardigan (yes, this will be important soon).
My ramen arrived and my mouth immediately began to water. I quickly smelled the spice from the seasonings and the rich broth. Before beginning to eat, I ran through the list of things I needed to remember while eating in Japan.
* Never leave your chopsticks sticking up in your food.
* Slurp your noodles, it's a compliment to the chef. This is probably the hardest thing for me to do.
* If you want more water, make sure you don't serve yourself.
* Make sure you eat all of your food or you may offend the chef.
I was ready to begin. I carefully lifted up a small portion of noodles to my lips with the chopsticks provided. As I moved my face closer to the bowl to narrow the gap, I felt the steam from the broth blow across me like a humid beckoning call. I gave my noodles a quick blow to cool them down and savored the first bite. While I chewed, I couldn't help but scan the restaurant. The American guests were carefully eating as I was but the Japanese customers quickly slurped their noodles and broth. How in the world were they eating this so quickly...I think I may have burnt my lips from that first mouthful. It was extremely hot with a good amount of spice. Maybe my mouth needed to build up a tolerance to heat.
As I dug back into my noodles, I consciously made an effort to try and slurp some of my noodles to show my approval of the meal. I can still remember the taste of this particular bowl of ramen 5 months later. The flavor has not been repeated elsewhere. It was a spicy batch though and as I went for a napkin, I realized there wasn't one. This is not uncommon either. Most restaurants do not have napkins but occasionally they will have a box of tissues for you to use.
I politely excused myself to use the restroom so I could clean up. When I got to the mirror, I instantly saw that my face was as red as the broth from the bowl. No, not from splattering but because of the spice. I quickly wet my hands and tried to cool my face down. After the flush began to subside, I noticed that the red was not just on my face. The top of my white shirt was covered in red flecks. Literally red flags that I was a beginner in the world of ramen eating. I buttoned up my cardigan and headed back into the restaurant and balmy, warm summer weather. My husband questioned my buttoned up attire and giggled as I unbuttoned a few buttons and pointed out my novice slurping skills.
Needless to say, we giggled about this the whole day as I wiped sweat from my forehead and refused to take off my sweater. I learned my lesson though and practiced eating ramen at home before trying out my next restaurant.
I have learned that each ramen restaurant has their own spin on how they serve their ramen. Most will use a pork base while a few will use beef or chicken. Some like putting in the skinny mushrooms, seaweed, green onions, and pork with back fat.
While others get you started with their basic seaweed, pork, sprouts, and flat mushrooms. And then give you the option to add fixings like green onions, corn, ginger, or freshly crushed garlic.
Whichever you prefer,there is always one to suite your fancy. I have tried several out and each one is unique and tasty in its own way. I am also learning that the broth itself is different. My family tends to go towards the miso route but there is also a salty broth and soy sauce style broth. I am excited to venture out and try new broths.
There are also different kinds of noodles. The above pictured noodles are called udon noodles and they have a thicker, chewier consistency. They had a different feel but are just as tasty.
So many foods to try and I am welcoming the challenge.
Great slice! What an adventure you are on!ReplyDelete
I had to read your slice today, as we visited Tokyo for the first time this past November--and ramen was my "safe dish", too! Surprisingly, I only got to eat it once--but after practicing with chopsticks for a week at home, it was satisfying to use them successfully with the ramen bowl. Thanks for sharing this memory with us!ReplyDelete
I admire that you are willing to try and to improve, Elizabeth. What a memory of this "first" time. My son was in Japan, Tokyo & a few other places last year, & had some experiences that were challenging, too. Thanks for sharing some of the traditions you needed to know.ReplyDelete
I loved your description. What fun to learn a new culture and try things there way.ReplyDelete
Haha! This is great moment that makes me think everyone should travel. There is no learning experience like being in a different culture. I love this - hilarious!ReplyDelete