Mr. Noodle

January 2, 2008

Ramen is a deceptively complicated subject. For many the word has come to mean packaged instant noodles, which are to real ramen as Kraft Dinner is to homemade Italian pasta. Ramen may be a quick meal to make but real ramen broth is no easy thing to master—that struggle lies at the very heart of the epic 1985 Japanese comedy Tampopo, which chronicles the efforts of a woman and her truck-driving mentor to create the perfect bowl. When Tampopo was released there was really no place in Vancouver to satisfy the cravings it inspired. That finally changed in 1999. Seven years after arriving from Tokyo, Daiji Matsubara opened Kintaro Ramen in a rather dingy little shop on Denman that had earlier housed a failed attempt to offer okonomi-yaki, another of Japan’s fast-food favourites. There was no guarantee Kintaro would have any more luck.

Things were slow at first. Unlike his film counterpart, Matsubara had no mentor. But he knew the territory. Having grown up in Tokyo’s Ogikubo district, where ramen shops scramble for business along the Chuo rail line, Matsubara understood how the real thing should taste. After a few years in which his ramen was inconsistent—“Not the same in the morning as the afternoon,” he admits—he turned a corner: “I learned how to make good ramen all the time.”

The locals needed education, too. “At first, Canadian customers would look at the menu and leave,” Matsubara recalls. For most, ramen still meant instant packaged noodles. But word of mouth eventually worked its magic. Before long lines snaked out from Kintaro and down the block.

Some apprentices study under a ramen chef and branch out; others start franchise operations and get a recipe. The best, Matsubara believes, are the dedicated, self-taught individuals who pursue perfection on their own. His own studies have led to the entirely new menu offered at Motomachi Shokudo, his new restaurant just down the street from Kintaro.

Kintaro offers Tokyo-style ramen—a pork-based broth with shoyu (soy sauce), shio (salt), or miso flavours added. Motomachi Shokudo offers the same flavours but with a chicken broth base, a relative rarity. Ramen has not generally been considered health food, but with Motomachi Shokudo Matsubara is intent on working an image makeover. In addition to showcasing the new broth’s lower fat content and lighter flavour, Matsubara wanted to use organic products in his soups. As at Kintaro, his noodles are imported from Nippon Trends Food Service Inc., a San Jose, California, company that specializes in Japanese ramen noodles. Miso varieties make use of the same rice grounds used to create sake. Although Japanese usually refer to ramen as “Chinese food,” over the years the original Chinese soup-and-noodle dish has been thoroughly remade. Modern ramen is as Japanese as a Wii console.

One part of Matsubara’s recipe that has not changed is the fish content. Both Kintaro’s pork-based and Motomachi’s chicken-based ramen contain a significant percentage of fish broth, crucial to balancing the flavour of the soup. It’s a definite selling point for the health-conscious but Matsubara initially played it down—because, he says, “Canadians don’t like the smell of fish.”

Motomachi’s real innovation shows up in a bowl of miso broth coloured a rather alarming dark grey. The strange tint comes from charcoal powder, an ingredient the chef discovered in Kyoto. Charcoal powder is generally used in traditional Kyoto dishes and even some Japanese sweets (something a Western child would probably take as evidence that Santa was displeased). Although rarely used in ramen, charcoal is widely considered a healthy toxin cleanser by the Japanese. Cleansing or not, Chef Matsubara’s charcoal miso ramen is a revelation; the smoky charcoal flavour adds depth to the chicken broth and miso flavouring. This particular recipe might well become his signature dish.

Chef Matsubara has long been the unchallenged master of his culinary domain. But competition has arrived. At press time a new ramen shop named Benke Ramen was preparing to open on Robson Street, just around the corner from Kintaro. That’s as it should be. Twenty-three years ago Tampopo told the story of one chef’s competitive struggle to rise to the top in the discriminating world of ramen. “Yes, I know that movie,” Chef Matsubara smiles. “It’s good.”

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