Ramen Rambles: Part One

On a cold snowy day on Japan’s northern-most island of Hokkaido, its citizens are likely to be slurping a bowl of miso ramen. After all, it is their invention – at least the miso part of the dish – and its hot broth and long, thin noodles slip down so comfortably.

I’m in Winnipeg, with a similar craving for ramen. I’ll explain why in a moment, if there can be a rational explanation for craving ramen in Winnipeg. But it is cold outside, just like Hokkaido, and I do need to walk. Somewhere. Nowhere. Anywhere. This winter, walking for ramen seems a reasonable goal and, fortunately for my new obsession, there are at least five ramen destinations scattered through the city.

First on my list is Yujiro, a Japanese restaurant only four kilometers away. The general direction is familiar, just head south across the Assiniboine River and down a grid network of residential streets in the River Heights neighbourhood. I choose Lanark, boringly straight and long except for a series of bays protruding off one side. I loop around each bay, alongside the modest houses that line the outer perimeter, looking onto yet another snowy, treed park at the centre. Later, a complex of apartments arranged at an angle to the rectilinear street patten create their own network of bays.

Yujiro is on its own bay of sorts, on Grant Avenue. The banal bays of strip malls everywhere with their sidewalk-facing a field of asphalt parking. I’ll momentarily forgive this urban-edge tragedy. Inside, hot broth and noodles call out.

Fittingly, ramen is a limited-time winter special at Yujiro. Four bowls are on offer, but the rich, creamy pork (tonkotsu) broth of the Hakata ramen speaks to me. Just like French wine, ramen has its terroir. Hokkaido and its main city of Sapporo has its miso-based broth. The Hakata district of Fukuoka city champions today’s tonkotsu soup.

I’m a sloppy eater at best and ramen brings out my worst. With chopsticks in one hand to manage the thin long noodles and wooden soup spoon in the other to scoop up the broth, I slurp and slop. Tabletop and chin require continuous wipes of my napkin. But it is oh-so good. Hidden in the nest of noodles and milky soup are treasures of melting pork slice, ginger, boiled egg and wafer-thin sheets of nori (dried seaweed).

My history with ramen is brief and recent. Earlier encounters, best forgotten, date back to my university days when the cellophane-wrapped packages of instant noodles were a cheap and quick dinner while completing design projects. Any resemblance to my current meal is completely accidental. Yet those little packs are what made ramen universally famous. Ramen was arguably invented in Japan at the beginning of the 20th Century. It took the Nissin Foods company to put ramen on the world stage in 1958…as a package of dried noodles with little sachets of flavouring.

It was our trip to Japan last year that hooked me on ramen as fine cuisine. Not that I ate much there. Our trip was brief, cut short by devastating family matters back home. But I managed one delightful ramen treat in a small Tokyo restaurant. Enough, I guess, for an obsession to take hold.

My rambling path home meanders through a nearby shopping mall and a complex of walk-up apartments before it stiffens into the rectilinear pattern of residential streets, forcing me straight north. It’s an odd street. On both sides are narrow lanes serving the backyards and garages of older houses. In between is a thin row of new bungalows stretching north-south for several long blocks. Their front doors and living room windows face into the lanes, looking onto the garages, the chain link fences and the rusting barbecues.

This is urban infill, using land that was a railroad spur line until recently. Once upon a time, trains would have shunted within spitting distance of the homes lining the route. Now the land has been cleverly repurposed with a taut string of residences scaled to the existing neighbourhood. Sidewalks line the back lanes, weaving between strips of new houses.

I can’t tell you the name of the ‘street’ I followed. It is really just two pre-existing backlands that were never called anything. So the new addresses use the names of the old, established streets that cross the development  in an east-west direction.

An uncharted urban place. I like it.

I’m in Winnipeg, with a similar craving for ramen. I’ll explain why in a moment, if there can be a rational explanation for craving ramen in Winnipeg. But it is cold outside, just like Hokkaido, and I do need to walk. Somewhere. Nowhere. Anywhere. This winter, walking for ramen seems a reasonable goal and, fortunately for my new obsession, there are at least five ramen destinations scattered through the city.

First on my list is Yujiro, a Japanese restaurant only four kilometers away. The general direction is familiar, just head south across the Assiniboine River and down a grid network of residential streets in the River Heights neighbourhood. I choose Borebank, boringly straight and long except for a series of bays protruding off one side. I loop around each bay, alongside the modest houses that line the outer perimeter, looking onto yet another snowy, treed park at the centre. Later, a complex of apartments arranged at an angle to the rectilinear street patten create their own network of bays.

Yujiro is on its own bay of sorts, on Grant Avenue. The banal bays of strip malls everywhere with their sidewalk-facing a field of asphalt parking. I’ll momentarily forgive this urban-edge tragedy. Inside, hot broth and noodles call out.

Fittingly, ramen is a limited-time winter special. Four bowls are on offer, but the rich, creamy pork (tonkotsu) broth of the Hakata ramen speaks to me. Just like French wine, ramen has its terroir. Hokkaido and its main city of Sapporo has its miso-based broth. The Hakata district of Fukuoka city champions today’s tonkotsu soup.

I’m a sloppy eater at best and ramen brings out my worst. With chopsticks in one hand to manage the thin long noodles and wooden soup spoon in the other to scoop up the broth, I slurp and slop. Tabletop and chin require continuous wipes of my napkin. But it is oh-so good. Hidden in the nest of noodles and milky soup are treasures of melting pork slice, ginger, boiled egg and wafer-thin sheets of nori (dried seaweed).

My history with ramen is brief and recent. Earlier encounters, best forgotten, date back to my university days when the cellophane-wrapped packages of instant noodles were a cheap and quick dinner while completing design projects. Any resemblance to my current meal is completely accidental. Yet those little packs are what made ramen universally famous. Ramen was arguably invented in Japan at the beginning of the 20th Century. It took the Nissin Foods company to put ramen on the world stage in 1958…a package of dried noodles with little sachets of flavouring.

It was our trip to Japan last year that hooked me on ramen as fine cuisine. Not that I ate much there. Our trip was brief, cut short by devastating family matters back home. But I managed one delightful ramen treat in a small Tokyo restaurant. Enough, I guess, for an obsession to take hold.

My rambling path home meanders through a nearby shopping mall and a complex of walk-up apartments before it stiffens into the rectilinear pattern of residential streets, forcing me straight north. It’s an odd street. On both sides are narrow lanes serving the backyards and garages of older houses. In between is a thin row of new bungalows stretching north-south for several long blocks. Their front doors and living room windows face into the lanes, looking onto the garages, the chain link fences and the rusting barbecues.

This is urban infill, using land that was a railroad spur line until recently. Once upon a time, trains would have shunted within spitting distance of the homes lining the route. Now the land has been cleverly repurposed with a taut string of residences scaled to the existing neighbourhood. Sidewalks line the back lanes, weaving between strips of new houses.

I can’t tell you the name of the ‘street’ I followed. It is really just two pre-existing backlands that were never called anything. So the new addresses use the names of the old, established streets that cross the development  in an east-west direction.

An uncharted urban place. I like it.

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