A Case of Ramen

May 6, 2010
I grew up watching Mom experiment with new culinary ideas and ingredients, tasting my way through the development of her signature dishes. To her, cooking is not so much an obligation as it is an expression of maternal love. Instead of asking, "How are you?" Mom likes to say, "Have you eaten?" And in the case of her food, her love comes in all forms imaginable and never ceases fire. She can transform the most mundane ingredients into the most enticing results, never limiting herself to any cuisine or technique. What makes her food special is the passionate curiosity involved with each dish, as well as the personality she introduces through a confluence of flavors recalling the places she has lived. As a result, I regard home-cooked meals with particular fondness, finding that the most delicious foods elicit a visceral sense of affection and nostalgia. Always the eater and never the cook, I decided one evening that I'd prepare myself a complete meal for the first time. My initiation into cookery would be meaningful. I would re-create one of the best meals I ever had.

In Japan, ramen is a national dish intensely loved for the comfort and pleasure no other cultural food can offer. In 2003, I had a particular bowl in Osaka that remained a singularly resonant, gastronomic experience. It was obviously well-thought out, with perfect chunks of chicken floating atop thin slices of seaweed, sided by scrumptious fish pastes and small, crunchy leeks, all topped by a semi-raw egg. The balance between the textured noodles and salty miso was impeccable. It was a presentation of nature’s ingredients – to the point, yet utterly original.

With the ambitious feeling that I could re-create an equally gratifying bowl, I grabbed some fresh green onions, a handful of Taiwanese fish-paste balls, a hunk of barbecued pork, and carefully chopped everything up. I poured broth into a clean pan, turned on the gas, and eventually tossed my ingredients into the impatient boil.

“Don't cook the noodles right away,” Mom kept reminding me, “And be careful with the heat!”

Little did I know the value of her words.

I submerged my noodles into the pot. While everything simmered, I proceeded to prepare for the most ceremonious meal of my life. I pulled the finest bowl from Mom's dishware collection, onyx chopsticks from Grandma, and leaves of my favorite green tea from Taiwan. This ramen was going to be beautiful...

"POP!"

A nerve in my body twitched as a spark of soup shot at my face, and an eruption of foamy bubbles swallowed the pot whole. Heat transmitted so speedily, my ramen overflowed onto the floor like limp fish out of water. In my preoccupation over the final presentation, I neglected to watch over the stove. The moment was positively gutting, but nevertheless, I could not give up altogether.

While I went hungry, I understood that mistakes brought progress. With the technicalities of ramen preparation duly noted, nowadays I cook ramen for Mom. My first foray emphasized that any achievement requires care and thoughtfulness. Consequently, since then, I've refined my techniques in accomplishing the right "chew" to the noodles and the right brininess or meatiness to the soup. I've even experimented with variations, using ingredients such as dashi, different meats and sausages, and vegetables ranging from earthy to nutty. My creations echo the balance I sought the first time – simple in composition, but rich in taste – and most importantly, evoke the feeling I derived from that special bowl in Osaka.

More than just a fundamental, character-building lesson, I've learned how to create something imaginative and distinctly my own. My originality gives me freedom to not only succeed at cooking ramen, but to also experiment and progress towards my ultimate bowl. To me, people cannot maximize their potential without running into personal trials, and without my errors, I certainly wouldn't have the luxury of fulfilling nostalgic yearnings so deliciously.

Life will bring me closer to realizing my possibilities, not only through the things I will learn, but also through the things I will learn to leverage in my endeavors. As with creating an honest bowl of ramen, my personal efforts shape who I am – through failure, I am able to recognize the redemptive consequences from which I can imagine further achievements, and higher pursuits.





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