There's no doubt about it, in multiple cultures all around the world, winter is soup season.
My counterpart had the same notion-plus an elephantine amount more ambition-to procure a big, steaming bowl of ramen to battle the dark days of winter ("Momofuk'in good," Zack Fields, Dec. 10). While he smoked, simmered and boiled his own batch of Momofuku-style ramen, I went to Naruto.
Nestled on the end of a strip mall off Minnesota Drive, Naruto beckons the cold and hungry masses with its red and black paper lantern hung from the eaves. When you enter the unassuming establishment, you're welcomed by aromas and a friendly server. The walls are adorned with vintage Japanese movie posters, Naruto swag, and a few TVs that play muted Japanese anime cartoons. Nestled into the corner at the far end of the bar is a book shelf full of manga comics.
I ordered the Naruto ramen with a side spicy tuna roll ($16.50). If a restaurant is proud enough to put its name on a dish, it's one I'll be sure to try. Under pressure from the server, my dining partner ordered the shrimp curry ($13) and a seaweed salad ($3.90).
The sushi came first. It was fresh, light and served with a smile. My companion's salad was served cold in a small dish with sesame seeds that gave a delicate crunch with each bite. While he said it was typical of every other seaweed salad he's had, it was exactly what he was hoping it would be. The same could be said for the sushi.
When the rest of our meal came, I had to draw my attention away from the TV that was showing an anime of what I can only describe as a demon basketball game. My partner's shrimp were served tempura-style, arranged artfully across a mound of rice and dipped into a sea of curry inside an oval bowl. The shrimp were excellently done and the curry was an interesting venture away from the Thai and Indian curries I'm more familiar with.
Mine was a large bowl, full to the brim with broth, noodles, chashu pork, green onions, bean sprouts and a hard-boiled egg. The ramen packed a salty punch. The Naruto signature broth, an opaque mixture of pork and halibut, was lighter than I expected. The pork was chewy and a bit fatty. The noodles seemed related to the instant version, but not closely, like cousins who have the same freckles on the bridge of their nose. Several bites in, I knew I was out of my depth; this would require further study.
For those of you who might be ramen newbies like me, I'm going to start with the basics.
Nearly everyone in the U.S. is familiar with instant ramen, and credit is due to World War II. Soldiers brought back a love of, and a mean hankering for, foods they tasted while stationed abroad. Thanks to Momofuku Ando and his instant version of the traditional ramen noodle, the world has slurped with gusto since 1958.
In 2000, the BBC reported findings from a Japanese national poll that rated the instant ramen noodle as the country's greatest export of the 20th century-above karaoke, the Walkman and Kurosawa films. There's even a museum dedicated to ramen: the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum in Osaka.
Traditional ramen is much different and varies in preparation from region to region, with about 20 established varieties in Japan, though there is a formula. A bowl of authentic ramen is made of four parts: the broth, the tare, the noodles, and the toppings. Nate Shockey, with online magazine Lucky Peach, describes the tare as, "strong, salty flavored essence placed at the bottom of each bowl." Think of it like pizza sauce, the tare is a base but you can go in many directions from there.
What the tare is made of will usually determine the type of ramen you're eating. Often ramen is split into four categories: shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), miso (fermented bean paste) and tonkotsu (pork). However, there are other connoisseurs who classify ramen broth by heaviness, broth base and then the seasoning source. This way they can describe outlying combinations that don't quite fit into the four-part system. Tonkotsu is the most widely recognized broth made from boiled pork bones. According to J. Kenji Lopez-Alt at Serious Eats, the best tonkotsu are "a milky, golden color and leave a sticky sheen of gelatin on your lips as you slurp them."
Next there are the noodles. The size and shape of the noodle (thin, thick, wavy, or straight) depends on your ramen chef. A chef chooses the noodle they feel will best interact with the soup they're serving. The reason behind all the slurping in ramen houses is that the ideal noodle only lasts five minutes after being dropped into the hot broth. To be polite, guests must eat from the moment the ramen is set in front of them and stop for nothing until finished. Serious ramen chefs are known for being strict about this facet of ramen-eating manners.
Then there's a myriad of meats (chashu pork being the most popular, by far) and toppings (eggs, vegetables, preserved vegetables and condiments), which I won't delve into. I've led myself down the rabbit hole, and if this has piqued your interest, set aside a couple of hours for you and Google.
There are so many elements to authentic ramen that it's easy to get overwhelmed with doing it right. If you're feeling this way, take my advice: It's OK not to be an expert. Let your taste buds be your guide.
Armed with my newfound knowledge, I returned to Naruto for lunch on a bright, biting-cold day. It was packed with fellow Midtown business people, some well-versed in ramen and others visibly confused by the cartoons and menu options.
I took a seat in the corner booth and ordered the tonkotsu ramen with chashu pork and a side of gyoza ($15.50). The gyoza, thin dough dumplings filled with meat and vegetables, were dropped off first and paired with a sweet dipping sauce.
When my ramen came, the look and flavor made much more sense. The meat was a bit fatty and tender, like pork simmered in soy sauce and rice wine should be. The sheen of fats and oil added flavor to the bowl, imparting creaminess into the broth. It's not that this bowl tasted better, because the first time was good as well, but this time I understood its complexities. And, like with lovers, that made all the difference.
As with my first visit, the meal ended with a complimentary dish of sweet soy custard topped with granola and a drizzle of syrup in the perfect size to eat even though I'd already eaten enough to burst.
Avid readers of the Press may remember Shannon Kuhn's love note to Naruto ("Spenard's Top Ramen," Jan. 24, 2013). I can't say with authority that Naruto is still the top ramen. Naruto is no longer the only restaurant offering authentic ramen in Anchorage, but options are still pretty scarce. I found it flavorsome, with a nap-inducing side-effect when eaten on a cold day, which is exactly what I look for in a winter soup.
Published in the Anchorage Press on January 14, 2016.