Tap the pork. Nudge it lovingly with the tips of your chopsticks. Then, quietly apologize to the pork, saying, "Until we meet again."
These are just a few of the rules of eating ramen that are introduced in Tampopo, Juzo Itami's 1985 Japanese classic that is currently getting a newly restored theater run. The film, cheekily dubbed as a "Ramen Western," follows a woman named Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), a chef who learns the art of creating the perfect bowl of ramen for her new restaurant. It follows classic Western storylines with rival ramen chefs and ingredient envy, and has both comedic and sexy asides (some that advance "food porn" to the literal level). But first and foremost, Tampopo is a love letter to the star of the show, its main dish, the ramen.
To celebrate the film's theatrical re-release, Janus Films and the Criterion Collection set up various promotional events, including partnerships with Momofuku and Lucky Peach. One highlight, however, centered around the Ramen Shop pop-up at Brooklyn's Diner for a one-night special on October 19. From midnight to 4 am, chefs from the Oakland-based noodle shop—who specialize in a Northern-California style that leans heavily on local ingredients like Meyer lemon—served bowls of veggie and duck ramen to the most dedicated of ramen heads, tapping into the religious, sexual, out-of-body experience of eating an exquisite bowl that's shown in the film.
We caught up with one of the owners of Ramen Shop, Rayneil De Guzman, about his rules of eating ramen, how Tampopo influenced his own ramen-making, and whether or not apologizing to the pork is part of his process, too.
Was this movie crucial to you when you were learning to make ramen?
Oh yeah. Watching her create her ramen shop in the movie brought back so many memories. We were in that same process with demolition and creating a space with the shop and then simultaneously figuring out our restaurant.
Why ramen, and where did you get your training?
I took a trip to Japan and fell in love with ramen. I'm Asian in background but those flavors were not what I was doing at my old job working at French and Italian places. Growing up, I wasn't taking sandwiches for lunch; I was taking thermos of noodles or rice. It was my comfort food. I wanted something hot and warm. Taking that trip to Japan threw me into this world of ramen and it didn't feel like that was happening in the Bay Area. My other partner Sam went shortly after I did and had a similar epiphany. Our third partner had lived in Japan and then we took a trip together and it all kind of developed from there.
One of my favorite scenes from the movie is when the Sensei is teaching his protégé how to eat ramen. First thing you do is contemplate the broth, observe and savor the aroma. As a professional, what is the first thing to do when you get a bowl of ramen? Do you contemplate it?
Kind of. I mean so much went into the whole process. We didn’t realize how much time it took and all the different aspects that came with noodles, the making and blending of the broth. The veggie ramen is the most distinctive bowl for us because it's so delicate. As you move throughout the bowl, for me, it's similar to the master in the movie: [When you eat it] you play this part in the Holy Trinity of the bowl. That's my thing—I like to taste a little bit of the broth in different parts of the bowl, and then from there I go for the noodles.
At the pop-up, I ordered the duck ramen with the pork on top, which was perfect. And in the movie they kind of idolize or almost sexualize the pork. The master says to tap it and lovingly gaze it, even apologize to it.
Right, exactly. The interaction is the beautiful part of ramen. There are so many different approaches. With ramen you can take a serious approach, but at the same time it's also very comforting.
Is there a traditional explanation for why he says “Pick up the pork and put it on the right side of the bowl”?
We have a third partner who lived in Japan for many years. He informed our whole approach to the technicality and the constantly changing menu. He has a more traditional approach to ramen. As long as you critically and thoughtfully approach the bowl I think that’s what it's about.
So how do you personally apologize to pork?
[Laughs] My first thing always is the broth because of that long process of us learning how we wanted to create it with the blending and building of flavors. Even with that duck broth that delicateness was very complex and layered in flavors. From there I try all kind of toppings and see how that works, and the pork is something maybe more in the middle stages of eating a bowl of ramen.
There’s a scene where she notices that someone slurped the ramen too fast and it was an indication that it was the wrong temperature. Do you end up watching people in the same way and judging your own ramen through that?
Yeah, definitely. The place that we took over was originally a sushi place so they had this huge sushi bar that we converted into a ramen bar. It's so important how hot and fresh the bowl is. Even the cooks run the food to make sure everything gets to everybody in a timely fashion. So we get to view firsthand how people approach it, and not everybody does it in the same way. As soon as you get the bowl you should enjoy it and really dive in, but people are talking and engaged in conversation. Stop the conversation, enjoy the bowl [laughs]. When the bowl comes back, we pay attention to how much people eat it. Like if I get a bowl that's not empty I am concerned.
So you personally don't really have strict rules on how someone should consume their ramen.
When the person gets the bowl it's in their hands. I have an opinion but I'm not that kind of tutorial chef. As long as they enjoy it. People may leave reviews saying we're not doing it right, we're not doing it like they do in Japan, and I have to accept that. I have a deeper appreciation in what we're doing and what we're creating, so hopefully it connects with people.
Lastly, thoughts on instant ramen?
I don't eat it anymore. Growing up going to college, there was instant ramen that was better than others. There's lots of things you could add, like an egg. I used to always do that. And if you have any kind of green onions to chop that would be great. But for me I no longer need to have instant ramen.