No Ramen No Life - A Conversation With The Ramen Beast
Ramen has become a worldwide culinary trend. Every major city now has its popular Ramen shop, and from connoisseurs to casual eaters, everyone is craving for this noodle soup from Japan.
But calling ramen a trend actually doesn’t do the dish any justice because a trend comes and goes, but Ramen established itself as a global staple dish that has surpassed a lifestyle span of a typical food trend and the word ‘trend’ itself. We don’t talk about Poke Bowls here.
Even though ramen made it globally with each city from London to Paris & New York, and even every smaller town having its own famous ramen spot nowadays - Ramen still is a vastly unexplored field and dish. The lack of knowledge on both sides - chefs and customers - outside of Japan is still enormous, and many restaurants that have “Ramen” on their menus do not have Ramen on their menus. It is just noodle soup. Calling it ramen does not hit the spot.
And those restaurants who come close to real Ramen or really make it happen are lacking in diversity when it comes to their actual ramen offering. Ramen outside of Japan mainly consists of the very same bowl/recipe in almost every shop you go to - Tonkostu style ramen, a ramen/broth style based on pork bones.
If you look at the best food your hometown has to offer, made with the most effort and skills, you will most likely end up in an expensive restaurant. In Europe and the US the top levels of food are exclusively reserved for the people with the right amount of money.
Ramen and Japan are different: exceptionally good food, prepared with the highest levels of skill or even exceeding culinary levels is available in many restaurants around the country for a fair amount of money and everybody. Welcome to the democratisation of good food, welcome to the world of Ramen.
A real ramen master - a Shokunin - puts his craft over money, a small restaurant over a maximum amount of tables, a small kitchen in his own reign over many restaurants that just copy a style or technique but don't master it. Quality over quantity found its home in Japan. One of the many things the Western culinary world can learn from.
Since this Ramen world is so diverse and in many ways complicated, a plane ticket to Tokyo does not mean you’re opening the doors to the best, most diverse and special ramen immediately. It’ll mostly mean you’ll find yourself at a typical chain ramen shop. With that being said, these main chain restaurants will serve you a good bowl of ramen most definitely, especially when you are new to this world, but again you are just eating at the tip of the iceberg.
As mentioned above the knowledge about this culinary world is still small. Except a few English speaking people, there are not many people in the entire world that know about the deep levels of Ramen. One was the famous chef Ivan that opened up a ramen restaurant in Japan, becoming an international star being documented across Japan and the western world. On on the other side of the counter - the eater side - there is probably just a handful of English speaking people in Tokyo that go that deep into this dish that they acquired a knowledge, love, skill set and experience in this genre that is truly unparalleled in this world.
One of them is The Ramen Beast. An American writer, and now a food entrepreneur that came to Tokyo over 10 years ago. The Ramen Beast has eaten in over 2000 ramen shops so far, and every year he crushed up to 250 bowls. His life and love are centred around good food and especially ramen. The Beast literally breathes ramen. He even actively works on bringing authentic bowls overseas with opening up a restaurant in San Francisco 3 years ago and has more plans in the making. If you really want to talk about real ramen, know about real ramen, and eat real ramen, there is no way around the Ramen Beast.
To make it in this ramen world, in this big town called Tokyo is one of the greatest achievements you can think of in a culinary sense. The Ramen Beast in literally one of the first people that went behind this dish and its many layers. Years after years and bowls after bowls he is still here eating, learning and reporting about it. He deserves a unique and iconic place in this food world and scene. A guy who is decoding an authentic dish and a food scene for the rest of the world. A culinary pioneer with a clear mission: telling the world about ramen, and guiding us to the right spots.
Big words for a big guy, that actually keeps it very humble and low key. It’s about time to find out more about him and his Ramen life.
Time for Biancisismo to talk to the Beast his love for Ramen and why vintage Jordans played a huge role in his first years in Japan:
No Ramen No Life - A Conversation With The Ramenbeast
Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your Tokyo story?
My name is Abram, and I am from San Francisco. When I was growing up I was hardcore into Wu-Tang, and through their music, I got heavily influenced by Asia and the Shaolin. Totally by chance, I started to study Japanese in university and that's how I got into Asia and Japan.
I was also always into food, and the Asia food scene in San Francisco was quite big. When I was a kid my parents used to bring me to a lot of restaurants, and I loved it, and so I was used to non-American food from an early age on.
When I went to Japan for an exchange, I had my very first real Japanese food and ramen, and this one just blew my mind. I realised how next level it was, and - holy shit - I knew I had to come back and live here for at least one year.
So how did you make it out here?
Of course, I started as an English teacher when I moved here with 21. That's how my life here began. So many come here and start as a teacher but the whole deal and accomplishment are to sustain here and get out of that. For me, I found a way with sneakers.
I was already into sneakers when I was in college, and when I got to Japan, I could buy a lot of sneakers here and sell them on eBay. It all started as a hobby that turned into a job. I began to check Japanese auction sites daily, bought vintage Jordans, and flipped them on eBay. Like a day trader, I was hustling all the time with sneakers. But after turning 30, it was time for a change. I always loved sneakers, but I had to get out of this. I did not want to sell sneakers for the rest of my life. By that point the market also peaked, and I knew it was the right time to get out.
So this is how your ramen journey began?
Exactly, you know, my real passion always was food. And ever since I was a kid, like so many other people, I loved instant ramen. That 25 cent pack, dried vegetables, and powder. That was Ramen for me. Then I came to Japan, and it blew my mind. Everything I thought that was ramen I suddenly realised it was not, it’s shit. It’s a whole other world here. My mind exploded, and I realised how big this ramen world is. There are so many different styles, you can literally eat ramen every day for a month and eat a different style every day.
After that month you can start with Tsukemen, and then there also is Maze Soba, or its chilled version the Abura Soba - Japan goes crazy for Ramen.
On top of that Tokyo is the mecca! There are about 30.000 ramen shops in Japan and about 10.000 of them in Tokyo. Over 365 new ramen shops opening every year here, and the same amount closes every year. So you could literally eat ramen for the rest of your life, and barely just scratch on the surface of new shops that opened up, let alone the 10.000-30.000 shops that already exist.
So in the world of ramen, Tokyo is the fucking Mecca, the holy place!
So how did you get all your Ramen knowledge and knew about all the spots you had to check out?
From the moment I got here, I started to ask people. I was a teacher, so of course, I asked my students. I built up a good amount of knowledge about the Ramen scene here.
When did your ramen hustle start to get real? When did you turn this hobby into a job?
Fast forward to 2010/2011 I randomly met a guy at a bar, like in one of my local Yakitori spots. He is a writer for a Japanese magazine - Playboy Japan - and he writes about food, and sometimes about ramen. So we just started talking about ramen. So when we talked, I could see his eyes getting bigger and bigger and he then kinda turns to me and says: “You know more about ramen than most of the Japanese people, I want to start a weekly article about you visiting ramen shops!"
He also asked me if I knew another foreigner have this amount of knowledge and there is this dude called Brian aka Ramen Adventures. I asked him if he wants to join and so we started this weekly column about us called “Ramen Americans” eating ramen all the time literally became my job from this moment.
So from writing about Ramen, and eating it all the time you even took it a step further with your own ramen project right?
Yes, so I was eating ramen all the time, and the guy who landed me the job and I were thinking about what more we could do. In the back of my mind, I always had this idea of opening up a restaurant in the states. I am from San Francisco, I know the food scene there, I know the Ramen scene there - it was fucking shit. I knew if we would bring a real ramen master out there, 100% we would crush.
Like I did not know about running a restaurant, but my brother is in the business, I had a friend in this business. I had the support I needed. So that's what we did then. We partnered with the writer, and we found a Japanese Ramen master that was legit, and we brought him to San Francisco. We all partnered and opened up a restaurant there 3 years ago. Right now we are even trying to push things further and opening more restaurants. We really want to try bringing authentic ramen overseas!
So what do you think about Ramen outside of Japan, how different is the real deal from overseas Ramen at the moment?
You know, all foreigners are into Ramen, even people that never had real Ramen. They still don’t know anything about it. I would say still 80-90% of the ramen shops outside of Ramen is not even Ramen. It’s noodle soup and they call it Ramen. So the potential for Ramen right now is huge, and it's gonna get better and better, cause everyone loves a good noodle soup. People are hungry for it, but the knowledge still is so limited outside of Japan.
What you find in these Ramen shops outside of Japan are either Japanese people that aren’t Ramen masters. They don’t know how it works and has been done in Japan. Or you find foreigners that are good chefs, know about flavours and all that, but they just don’t know about Ramen.
A lot of them just try to duplicate Ramen from overseas. But you can't get this shit overseas, like the dried fish they use here, even the water in Japan is different. A lot of people order noodles from big companies, and they come frozen. There are so many obstacles still, and this is why Ramen still is such a mystery to make. You just can simply duplicate it like that,
But with that being said its gonna get better, slowly over time, it just gonna take time. The interest is big and the knowledge is spreading. I really wanna help that movement.
So what exactly makes you happy sharing this love and the perfect Ramen?
I love when people having a good bowl of Ramen for the first time. You can literally see it. Their mind is fucking blowing up, and they just discovered a new world!
What about your own Ramen life? Can you please tell us a little bit about the Ramen Beast and your daily Ramen hustle?
So, I was crushing over 200 ramen bowls every year since 2011. I probably ate in over 2000 Ramen shops in Japan, in 2018 I even visited up to 254 - and I have been outside of Japan almost half of the year…
So sometimes I go to a prefecture for four days and eat like in 17, 18 shops in those 4 days. It’s really fun, I really like doing it. So the level of food in Japan is so high. Even the average Ramen shop is better than almost every best Ramen shop everywhere else in the world, and you can still eat something new every day.
Where do you get your info about ingredient and such? Your descriptions are always on point when it comes to each bowl.
I always try to get as much info as I can. In some places, it is possible to talk to the Ramen master in some, it’s almost impossible. Some of these guys running the shops all on their own. There is no time for talking, and most atmospheres are not made for talking. You go in, you beat it, and then you get out, people are waiting outside in line already for their bowl.
What about your app? When did this happen and what can we find on it?
The whole purpose of the app is documenting, I eat so much ramen now, and knowledge is so important if I don’t document it, and write about, it's almost like a waste. But I don't document everything. Some are shit. I just curate the good ones, the best ones, and the better than average ones. And places worth checking out! Even when they are not so good, but the atmosphere is or the place has a good story.
How many spots can we find in your app?
You mentioned the non-existing knowledge about Ramen of most of the people. So what would you say are the common mistakes people make when coming to Japan looking for ramen?
When people come to Japan everyone wants Ramen, but the amount of information is limited, people literally don’t know what to do, and they end up going to Ichiran. That’s fucking bullshit, and it’s sad.
It's like ppl going to America and go to McDonald's instead of a really good burger restaurant. Of course, it's difficult when people that have no opinion or experience can rate on all these apps. That's why Yelp gets watered down so much or TripAdvisor. The number one at ramen on those apps is Ichiran in Shinjuku. There is a line all day long, all foreigners and tourists. It`s crazy.
But you know, I don’t have a problem when people going to this places once but I do have a problem when I hear comments online like “this is the best ramen in the world”. I will be like “Oh my god you gotta be kidding me!”. You know you not gonna know the best quality if you don’t know the average quality. So there I nothing wrong with Ichiran. It's fine. But it’s a chain, it's not exceptional. There are so many good like mom and pop crafted shops in different places to check out, it's a little sad if you just eat at Ichiran.
So what would you advise the first time Tokyo tourist to do, to get the most out of their experience. Is there a best ramen of them all in Tokyo they can start with?
First of all, you should try as many styles as possible. Find your style, and, what you like, and what you don’t like. A common misconception about ramen is that people always ask me for my top three. That’s fucking impossible.
Ramen is subjective, and it all depends on personal taste. Maybe you like rich, creamy pork Ramen, maybe you like a light fish based soup, maybe you like a big salty punch with little pork fat, maybe you don’t like the fish taste at, you know. It’s so hard for me to say.
Like, “this orange is better than this apple or grape” - maybe you don’t like grapes. It's like comparing different types of fruit, there are different genres of Ramen shops. Find your style instead of looking for the best!
So what is your favourite style?
I eat a lot, so I say, for some reason, I like the nostalgic old school Tokyo bowls, no fancy shit.
What about all these new generation ramen joints?
There is this movement right now Japan that is trying to bring Ramen to new levels. They see what they can do, they wanna break boundaries, use no methods, bring in their personality and gimmicks. For me, some make sense. Some are like cool, but only for trying once, some are crap. Right now you have many new school people that try to use Hamaguri Clams or duck, or truffle. That's where the Ramen game is on fire right now,
Would you say there are special neighbourhoods that are best for Ramen in Tokyo?
So the best Ramen shops you find outside of central Tokyo. Ramen, as you know, is cheap, like 10 Dollars or less. It’s not a super lucrative business. Like, how many bowls can a shop make? Most shops are small, it's not like these guys making tons of money. They can't afford to be in places like Roppongi or Ginza. It does not make sense, that's why mostly chains are there.
So a lot of the best shops are far out. There is good Ramen in central Tokyo, but for the high quality you have to go to the suburbs for. So Ogikubo is a great area for example, with tons of good ramen around. Also, Shinjuku is good!
So what do European Ramen shops with their 50-plus-seat-restaurants not understand about Ramen if we compare them to the small ones in Japan?
One thing about Japan the “Shokunin” way of thinking. These guys (Shokunin) want to - whatever they do - use the best of their ability. They don’t care so much about money, it's about what they do. Whereas overseas everyone wants to make money. "How can we scale this bigger, how can we make more profit and reduce cost." So that's definitely one of the reasons.
All of this Japanese Ramen guys don’t want to scale, open a second shop, water down their quality. They do not want to teach someone else their secrets for a second shop. They only trust themselves, making anything on their own, from noodles in the morning till they close the shop later the day by themselves.
Is there one shop you always go, somewhere you repeatedly eat at?
Not really, because I try to go to new places as much as I can. Of course, I go here and there again, or take people to my favourite places. But if I have the time, I wanna go somewhere new, try some hot new bowl. I have a list that never ends, there are so many new shops opening, closing and then there are recommendations. It never stops.
Do you ever get sick of Ramen, is there never a time when it is too much?
I never get sick. Of course, sometimes it's hard when I eat, let's say, 4 thick Tonkostsu ramen in one day. The last one is like “What the fuck”. Or sometimes, I am in a prefecture, and I eat like 20 Tonkotsu in 5 days. That can be hard, but I still feel and taste the difference and uniqueness in each spot!
Ok. Second last question. What about your love for sneakers. Does it still exist?
Yes, and no. You know, I kinda graduated on sneaker, I don’t care as I did before.
Back then having a really special, rare sneaker meant something, but now it doesn’t mean the same thing. Because of internet releases, everyone can get anything. It's not the same feeling as 10 to 15 years ago.
So Abraham, tell me, are you on your way of becoming a Ramen Shokunin?
Oh, shit (laughs). No, I just like to eat good food. NAAAAH!