Justin Mccurry In Tokyo, The Guardian, Decmeber 04, 2015
At ¥1,100 (just over £6), a simple bowl of ramen noodles must rank as the cheapest Michelin-starred meal in the world. And on a cold, drizzly morning , the restaurant that serves them was surely the most popular restaurant in Tokyo, a city teeming with places to eat.
Tsuta, a tiny ramen shop tucked down a side street in Sugamo, in Tokyo’s northern suburbs, opened for the first time on Thursday since becoming the only ramen shop in the world to be awarded a Michelin star. I arrived 90 minutes before it opened and found myself 18th in line for one of its coveted nine seats.
There were gasps when the middle-aged man at the front was overhead saying he had been waiting since 6.30 am. By the time the first group of diners was seated, well over 100 people – most of them solitary diners – had formed a line stretching around the block.
I knew that my time would be brief. Like most of the other diners lining the shop’s single L-shaped counter, I opted for its trademark yakibuta shoyu soba – noodles made from four kinds of stone-milled wheat, in a chicken and seafood stock enhanced by soy sauce, and topped with sliced chashu pork, spring onions and fermented bamboo shoots.
A friend had warned me that the perfectly polite staff at Tsuta did not do small talk. On this day, neither did their customers. The silence was broken only by the slurping of noodles – a non-negotiable part of Japanese ramen etiquette, that enhances the flavour and prevents stray droplets of soup from ending up on shirtfronts. Then there was the occasional clatter of kitchen utensils, and the slap of water being freed from colanders of just-cooked noodles.
The long wait had been worth it. The noodles, though spindle thin, had plenty of bite. The broth was light, and with just enough saltiness to make every gulp a guilty pleasure, but without the raging afternoon thirst that often accompanies a ramen lunch. The pork couldn’t have been more succulent if had been carved from a well tended Sunday roast. All that, and for just ¥1,150.
People queue around the block waiting to be seated at Tsuta. Photograph: Justin McCurry for the Guardian
Junya Kawashima, a 26-year-old company worker, had come all the way from Yokohama on his day off to eat his first Michelin-starred meal: the same pork and soy dish but with the addition of a boiled egg, sliced lengthways to reveal a runny yolk. “It was absolutely delicious,” he said. “The soup was tasty, but very light at the same time. I eat a lot of ramen, but this was the best so far.
“Ramen is a part of Japanese culture, and it’s one of my favourite dishes, so I was delighted when Tsuta was awarded a Michelin star, and was determined to come as soon as possible. I’ll definitely be back.”
Shortly before it received its Michelin star, Robbie Swinnerton, a food writer for the Japan Times, described Tsuta as “arguably the best ramen in northern Tokyo”. If the geographical criterion sounds narrow, it isn’t: there are about 5,000 ramen shops in Tokyo alone, according to the Ramen Database, and 20,000 throughout Japan.
Swinnerton said the Michelin award “shows that ramen is shedding its reputation as a cheap, fast, stomach-filler for students and salarymen. And it’s overdue recognition that there are ramen artisans for whom quality, flavour and balance – between noodles, broth and toppings – are just as important as they are for any other chef.”
While Michelin listed 27 other Tokyo ramen shops as Bib Gourmand – a rank below its three-tiered star awards – Swinnerton believes more could soon join Tsuta as a starred establishment. “There’s no reason why other ramen shops shouldn’t win stars too,” he said. “There are other ramen artisans who are even more inventive and focused on quality. But few have quite the same presence and style as Tsuta.”
From ordering my dish via a ticket dispenser just inside the door to fishing the last noodle remnants from the leftover broth took less than 15 minutes. Outside, the rain was still falling and the queue didn’t appear to have shortened. No one was prepared to give up, even when a chef appeared to tell them it would be another two to three hours before they could eat.
It was a reminder of why ramen instills such devotion in its Japanese – and increasingly global – following. While it is ruinous for the waistline, it can do wonders for the soul.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Justin Mccurry In Tokyo from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.