Ramen, the iconic Japanese noodle soup, is one of those foods that, at first slurp, inspires fanatical devotion. Ubiquitous, ultra-inexpensive bricks of instant ramen may have been, for many Americans, the original frame of reference for the dish, but the more time-intensive original has made its way to the U.S. food scene. This version of ramen, which bears only a passing family resemblance to the crimped noodles that unfurl into chewy curls in flavor-pack-spiked Styrofoam cups, have been converting diners to a veritable culinary religion of fresh noodles swirled in rich, densely layered broth, piled high with garnishes like soft-boiled eggs, snowfalls of nori, vivid pink slices of fishcake, dollops of fiery yuzu-chili paste, and whorls of fatty roast pork. The world’s cuisines are rich in noodle soups, but ramen speaks to its acolytes in a language perhaps uniquely primal. “It’s like a drug,” says Shigetoshi Nakamura, the chef and owner of the New York ramen restaurant Nakamura NYC. “What is the last meal [I’ll eat] before I die? Ramen, I hope.”
He’s not the only one. In this video, the latest installment in our “Annals of Obsession” series, Nakamura and others unpack the allure of ramen: its art, its tradition, and its rituals. Always starting from its straightforward foundation of noodles and broth (each of which is subject to its own obsessive perfection: Sun Noodle, the U.S.’s largest producer of ramen noodles, makes more than six hundred different varieties), ramen adapts through uncountable evolutions. Starting with the rigid formalism of Japan’s traditional ramen-yas, to which any culinary flourishes are anathema, it’s been adapted into haute-cuisine elevations and hipster remixing—like Nakamura’s Italian-inflected tomato ramen, with a Sunday-gravy broth and noodles made from durum wheat, or Ivan Orkin’s blend of Japanese and Jewish flavors, or the Instagram-bait repurposing of instant-ramen bricks into taco shells, burger buns, and pizza crusts. It’s a vehicle for creativity, nostalgia, and profound gastronomic pleasure—so much more than just a bowl of soup.