Dining With Moira Hodgson

For Post-Holiday Grounding:

A Little Noodle-Shop Zen

The other day my teenage son rented Tampopo , the Japanese movie about a ramen-noodle shop in Tokyo. Even though we had just finished dinner, we began to drool as the camera zoomed in on a bowl of noodle soup that was set on the counter in front of an old man wearing traditional garb. He was instructing his neighbor, a youth in a Hawaiian shirt, on the proper way to eat it. “First observe the bowl. Savor the aroma and the jewels of fat glistening on the surface. Watch the seaweed slowly sinking and the pork slices floating on the surface. Caress the surface with the chopsticks to express affection. Then poke the pork.”

“Do you eat the pork first?” asked the young man.

“No, just caress it and dip it into the right side of the bowl. Apologize to the pork by saying, ‘See you soon.'”

Floating in the bowl over a nest of the long, thin noodles called ramen were slices of cha-shu (roast pork), naruto (a white fish cake with a red stripe running through it), a square of dry seaweed, half a boiled egg and bamboo shoots. The old man pressed his chopsticks down on the pork and sighed.

“I know where we can get noodles like that,” said my son. “There’s a place in the East Village where the whole street is Japanese shops.”

So, the next day at lunchtime, we set off for Rai Rai Ken on East 10th Street between First and Second avenues. Indeed, this block and the one below it have quietly been transformed into a sort of mini-Japantown. Not only are there close to a dozen Japanese restaurants in the vicinity, but also Japanese hairdressers, acupuncture and massage parlors, and even a Japanese supermarket selling everything from sushi to unidentifiable candy in packages decorated with smiley raindrops.

Rai Rai Ken is like a stage set for a noodle shop in old Japan. A large red paper lantern and red flags covered with Japanese writing hang outside the front door. Inside, the premises are narrow and cramped; we had to squeeze past people sitting at the counter to hang our coats on one of the racks behind them. The place has a patina that makes it feel as though it’s been there for years: Its bare brick walls are covered with a brown glaze and gold-leaf paint and washed-over collages of old Japanese manuscripts and drawings. The ceiling is decorated with wooden lattice and, to make dining less claustrophobic, little mirrors are set into the back of the counter, which seats just 12 on low red stools. Japanese pop music was playing softly over the sound system as we took the last two empty seats.

As in Tampopo , the steam was rising up from behind the counter, where vats of broth laced with bunches of scallions and soup vegetables were simmering on the stove. The same traditional red bowls we’d seen in the movie were stacked upside-down on a shelf overhead. But even though the three cooks, dressed in white, wore Japanese bandannas, two of them were Spanish-speaking. My son ordered a chilled Oolong tea, and when I asked for Evian, they joked about it, and one of them went out to buy a bottle from the grocery store.

When our soup arrived, we burst out laughing: It was exactly the same soup the old man had been eating in Tampopo . “Savor the aroma,” I said to my son. “Caress the surface with the chopsticks to express affection. Then poke the pork.”

Next to us, a young Japanese man rubbed his chopsticks together, looked at his soup and then, as if following my order, massaged his broth and then moved on to the meat.

Ramen noodles are a Japanese passion, from the top ramen served in the best restaurants to the instant Styrofoam-cup noodles that are the food of students (in Yokohama, just outside Tokyo, there’s even a museum devoted solely to ramen noodles). But it’s actually a Chinese noodle-the word is apparently derived from the Japanese pronunciation of “lo mein.”

There are three kinds of soup on the menu at Rai Rai Ken. Shoyu ramen, the soup we saw in the film, is every bit as good as it looks and is the perfect light-yet-filling antidote to all the rich food eaten over the holidays. Shio ramen is a subtle, seafood-based noodle soup laced with the usual trimmings-bamboo shoots, boiled egg, roast pork, spinach, fish cake, dry seaweed. Miso ramen is much heartier, made with a thicker, yellowish broth based on soybeans. It’s served with chicken, bean sprouts, cabbage, onion and clouds of dark brown things that at first I thought were roasted peanuts but turned out to be garlic chips, and it’s quite spicy. All the ramen soups are topped with a forest of green chopped scallions-and at $6.95, the price is right.

But there’s more to the menu at Rai Rai Ken than soup. Gyoza, fried dumplings stuffed with minced vegetables and pork, are browned in oil and served very hot. The dough is delicate and soft and the dumplings are greaseless. Cha-han (fried rice) is a wonderful, zesty melange of shrimp and scallops or pork with eggs. Menma, which my son felt was an acquired taste, is made with marinated bamboo shoots that have a springy texture and taste like a slippery sliced mushroom, served with seaweed, red pepper mix and a shower of scallions. Rai Rai Ken must go through bushels of scallions each week, since they show up on just about everything. You can also get side dishes such as kimchee (Korean pickled cabbage), takuwan (pickled radish with dried bonito) and the now-ubiquitous Japanese snack edamame (boiled soybeans).

In Tampopo , there’s an unforgettable scene in which a group of young Japanese women about to travel to Italy are taught how to eat spaghetti alle vongole without slurping-but the spaghetti is so good that they can’t stop themselves. At Rai Rai Ken, you can slurp to your heart’s content. With your bill you get a ten-meal card, like a discount rail ticket or the slips they give out at manicure parlors. The manager stamped off two meals; after 10 meals, you get one free. Our card is going to fill up fast.