‘People who eat noodles are all amateurs.’ Tampopo
A quarter of a century ago, I wrote a book for wagamama, Way of the Noodle. Mr Alan Yau OBE, who invented wagamama, thinks he wrote it himself. When I remonstrated with him, he said. “It’s my book. I told you what to write.” “Indeed,” I concurred, “and then I wrote it.” “But this is just semantics,” exclaimed Mr Alan Yau OBE, impatiently. “Yes,” once again I agreed, “semantics are a writer’s stock in trade.”
Way back in 1992, when he launched London’s first ramen bar, even the precocious Alan Yau – he had yet to earn his honorific, never mind bag a gong – could not have foreseen today’s profusion of apparently more authentic noodle shops, never mind an era in which two white guys at separate London locations – one of whom won MasterChef! – both purport to serve what they have the nerve to call, ‘Japanese Soul Food‘.
wagamama has changed hands several times since Mr Yau cashed out of the compamy in 1997 and no longer serves its legendary Miso Salmon Ramen, the dish that first required me to confront the vegetarian’s – OK, piscatarian’s – dilemma when it comes to ramen soups. Classically, they are made with pork broth. wagamama started offering a veggie soup option as I started identifying as Veggie (it now has a vegan range) yet I found myself wanting to stick with the piggy one.
I had a long-running affair with the Laksa @TukTuk in Old Compton Street, asking them to hold the meat, despite being fully aware that the luscious soup swam with liquified pig. As much as the depth of flavour, it’s the lipsmacking mouthfeel of pork broth; the way the fat coats the palate. And then there’s the way it sticks to your ribs. In chilly, damp London weather a bowl of bone broth spiked with chilli may be just what the doctor ordered. So, I innoculated myself against COVID-19 with Tobanjan ramen at Yamagoya.
Writing Mr Alan Yau OBE’s book for him, I made repeated references to the Japanese film, Tampopo, A Ramen Western, from 1985. If you haven’t seen it, you have a delelectable cinematic experience forthcoming, with a Rotten Tomatoes Audience Score of 93%. Its auteur, Juzo Itami, came to film making late and had a brief, brilliant and ultimately tragic career that ended soon after he was striped by the Yakuza.
In the film, Gorô, a truck driver, stops at the widow Tampopo’s noodle shop and resolves to train her in the service of superior soup noodles. He wears a hat and so I too wear a Trilby, brim snapped low, as I conduct my investigation. As my name suggests, I am a renegade Samurai, one who declined to commit seppuku upon losing the fight, but bears the shame of living along with my battle scars as I, the Ramen Ronin, roam around the South London ramen-ya,
Like Tampopo, the legend of Yamagoya also began, half a century ago, with a truck driver. Masatoshi Ogata might have been the model for Gorô. He dreamed of opening his own ramen shop while travelling the highways and byways of Japan. He sampled ramen from all regions and rumaged through shops’ rubbish to discover their secrets. Finally, in 1969, Masatoshi built his first ramen shop with his bare hands and, simmering pork bones for long hours in that crucible, eventually perfected his very own Yamagoya ramen!
Yamagoya came to London in late 2017, opening up opposite The Young Vic. It doesn’t mess around. There’s a limited menu of only five hot ramen bowls and three salads, some of which are represented in the window as plastic models. One orders at the counter and gets a pager that flashes when the food is ready. They do a Tofu Miso Ramen, but I chose the spicier version of their signature pork bone broth that inevitably comes with two slices of rolled and roasted pork chashu. Mmm… meat. Pork is closest in texture and flavour to human flesh, which is why cannibals call us, ‘long pigs’. Since eating people is taboo, a bowl of tonkotsu ramen is the best we can do.
Even though I have long been veggie and am about to go vegan for Lent – because I’m going vegan for forty days – I deliberately chose to pollute the purity of my bodily temple with pig flesh and its derivatives for wantonly transgressive and intentionally carnal reasons. It was a Leap Day, your honour, when the rules are suspended. I wondered what it might feel like to slurp at the carnivores’ trough. I am not too ashamed to report that Tobanjan Ramen – the signature pork bone broth with a jigger of chilli – was satisfyingly rich and spicy.
Slurping my ramen on Leap Day – guiltily hiding the three little piglets under the bamboo shoots on one side of my bowl while whispering to them, “see you soon” – I came to a Resolution. Yes, I shall seek out the best vegan ramen, but at the same time I am determined to discover the meatiest tonkotsu South London (and Panton Street) has to offer. This of course means that I must sample several bowls of bone broth for the purpose of comparison.
Tamagoya Ramen is quintessential fast food, unceremoniously served in utilitarian surroundings and as cheap as chips. It is the best value ramen in London, probably, and the counter service style doesn’t leave room for sneaky additional charges. If you interact with a wait person in London, a theoretically ‘optional’ 12.5% service charge is likely to be levied, plus VAT on top at 20%. It’s easy to spend £20 in a ramen bar, especially if alcohol is involved, but I shall endeavour to stay below that bar as, meekly and discreetly, I make my way around. I’ll let you know what I find.
**** Yamagoya, 49 the Cut, London SE1 8LF
Tobanjan Ramen, £9.50; Kimchee, £1.50; Asahi beer 300ml, £4.50 = £15.50