For over 20 years Shirane, the owner of Mouko Tanmen Nakamoto in Tokyo, Japan, has swirled ramen with a smattering of spices, crafting a fiery bowl of noodles that has become legendary as the city’s spiciest ramen. But it’s important to examine the history of ramen to understand how Shirane began making his version.
People often joke that their favourite foods actually make up a chunk of their physical being (“I may be 68 percent water, but I’m 32 percent pasta”), but Makoto Shirane, Japan’s King of Ramen, insists ramen is something inherently spiritual.
“I believe that, for Japanese people, ramen is a part of their very soul,” he says. “Ramen is a bit like community: when the ingredients – the people – are on their own, they mean nothing. When they are together, they become something.”
Shirane certainly felt that something when he opened Mouko Tanmen Nakamoto in Tokyo, the city’s premier destination for a spicy bowl of noodles. Long before Shirane opened his shop, he had been a regular at Nakamoto Ramen, the birthplace of the very same fiery dish. The restaurant opened in the 1960s and developed a cult following, but it closed in the ’90s when chef Nakamoto’s health declined. Shirane was devastated.
“I was dreaming about the ramen about three months after it closed,” Shirane says. “I started to wonder if I could do it myself.”
Shirane recalled that bowls at Nakamoto Ramen were flush with curly noodles, slick with red pepper, swimming in a broth that had simmered for hours – a soup stained bright red to match the colour customers’ cheeks and ears would inevitably turn after a single slurp.
Fuelled by the lack of spicy ramen in his life, Shirane begged and begged Nakamoto for the recipe of his famed creation. After months of constant pleading, Nakamoto took Shirane under his wing, teaching him all his secrets and granting his blessing for the student ramen-slurper to become the master noodle-maker. With an extensive knowledge of ramen now under his belt, Shirane reopened the restaurant – and eventually 10 other locations – just a year after Nakamoto Ramen closed, calling his iteration Mouko Tanmen Nakamoto.
At Mouko Tanmen Nakamoto, the spicy ramen – denoted on the menu with 10 (out of 10) fire emojis – endures as the star attraction, the recipe remaining wholly unchanged.
“This is the spiciest ramen in Tokyo,” Shirane maintains. “If you’re up for the challenge, together we’ll teach you how to embrace the heat. You’ll be proud of yourself when it’s over.”
People often exit the restaurant with their cheeks flushed, tears still streaming down their faces from the intense spice. And yet they keep coming back for more. Twenty years after Mouko Tanmen Nakamoto opened, people from around the world still flock to the restaurant to see if they can take down this unparalleled bowl.
“I’ve managed to take the ramen that I fell in love with,” Shirane says, “and get other people hooked on it.”
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