Expand genuine tastes of 2nd-class Japanese gourmet food

PARIS - For the last several years, every time I visit Paris, I've noticed the number of ramen shops sharply increasing. Particularly around the famous Palais Garnier opera house, local people are lining up in front of them. I'm probably not the only Japanese who wonders why so many ramen shops are there.

Ramen originated from Chinese noodles, but it has developed into a Japanese dish due to people's efforts to incorporate it into our food culture and give it various flavors. It's not too much to say that its history represents Japanese craftsmanship. I think ramen, like anime, is gaining a made-in-Japan image.

Many anime events overseas attract more than 10,000 people, and the most remarkable food provided there is ramen. Food stands there usually sell instant ramen, with many people willing to stand in line and wait to get it.

I frequently go abroad, and when I do and even when I'm in Japan, I often feel like eating proper Japanese dishes. So I'm pleased that washoku cuisine was recently added to UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.

Meanwhile, it is also good news to Japanese people that ramen, which is a B-kyu (second-class) gourmet dish in Japan, is booming overseas. Restaurants overseas that serve Japanese dishes are often expensive and not everyone can dine there very often. So I imagine young people overseas eat ramen while developing their affection for Japan, like those who have nurtured their love for anime.

When I recently visited Brazil, I talked about ramen with a Japanese-Brazilian woman who had lived in Japan for many years. She said she was quite familiar with the flavors of Japanese ramen.

According to her, connoisseurs of genuine Japanese ramen say the taste of ramen served at shops in Brazil has been deteriorating for several years. Nevertheless, more people than ever are lining up in front of the shops.

"One problem is broth, I think," she said. "For me, there's no true broth flavor in soup here. Another problem is that the noodles aren't sufficiently firm. It's partly because Brazilians don't require it."

Spaghetti, ramen and any other noodles served in countries other than Japan and Italy are often boiled too long for many Japanese. Maybe as long as the noodles meet the tastes of local people it's all right. But I don't know.

If a restaurant in Japan were to fly a French flag while serving dishes of which the basics are obviously different from those served in France, Japanese people wouldn't like it. Such restaurants are never popular.

When I went to Sacramento in the United States some time ago, a young man I met there took me to a popular ramen shop. Although I am not a ramen fanatic, I was certain the taste of the ramen served in the shop would be perfectly acceptable in Japan, too. I told this to the woman who ran the shop with her father. She said it took a long time for local people to get used to their broth, which is free of artificial additives. Their persistence in sticking to their recipe established their good reputation, she said.

In Sitges in Spain, which I visited with two Spanish friends last year, we happened to go to a take-out place operated by a Japanese man and his younger brother. I bought takoyaki and ate it with my friends. Takoyaki is also booming overseas. Generally, I feel there's a bigger taste difference between the takoyaki made overseas and what we have in Japan than there is between ramen in Japan and overseas.

But the takoyaki at this shop tasted truly Japanese. Both of my Spanish friends said: "It's very delicious," which I was happy to hear.

I think Japanese people tend to easily get used to the authentic tastes of overseas foods. But I think this can happen to people overseas as well, as young people now naturally accept the Japan depicted in Japanese anime.

Japanese cuisine is booming overseas-not only traditional kaiseki multicourse meals and tempura, but also inexpensive but tasty dishes such as ramen and udon noodles. It's important that people involved in the food business and the central government have the guts to champion the authentic tastes of these dishes around the world. If they just rely on current trends in popularity or UNESCO listings, there will be no progress.