The first times I had “authentic” ramen, prepared in the traditional Japanese way as opposed to the poor-college-student-plastic-pack way, I thought something was wrong with my order. In search of better ramen experiences, I kept eating ramen at different Japanese restaurants and kept ending up not thrilled with the experience, until I looked up ramen’s history and reconciled my feelings towards the noodle soup.
Growing up, I strongly disliked Chinese food (both the real stuff and the Panda Express stuff). While I can tolerate a lot more Chinese food now and am even eager to eat many items, I am still not a big fan. Chinese food often has harsh flavors, goopy sauces, and lifeless textures.
What I did love to eat was instant ramen. My parents took my health very seriously and fed me wholesome, nutritionally balanced meals, which did not include deep-fried and chemical-doused instant ramen. Even today, I still consider instant ramen a special treat and will savor a pack on my birthday because I’ve been conditioned not to consume it often. I adore the bouncy chewiness of instant ramen noodles and the umami of the intense-but-not-rich soup packet.
I also adore Japanese food, which always struck me as more intentional and considered than Chinese food, with its obsessive prioritization of high quality ingredients, seasonality, and balanced flavors, not to mention its modest portion sizes and attractive presentation. I loved Japanese food and loved instant ramen, so I had high expectations for real ramen.
The first real ramen I had tasted Chinese. A huge disappointment. Japanese food, to me, was so different from Chinese food and I expected ramen to reflect that. Thinking this was a fluke, I kept eating ramen. And the next one tasted Chinese, and the next, and the next.
When I finally read up on the history of ramen, I realized why it tasted Chinese – because, in a way, it was. “Ramen” is the Japanese pronunciation of “la mian,” which means pulled noodles in Mandarin Chinese. La mian was brought to Japan by Chinese workers, where it became popular as a filling, working class meal. So that is why real ramen always tasted Chinese to me. Although Chipotle is not authentic Mexican food and Panda Express is not authentic Chinese food, the influences come through clearly, and I experienced the same thing with ramen. Although Japanese ramen has evolved from its la mian roots, it is often hard for me to separate the two, because the taste of the la mian I grew up eating comes through. Happily, I have now learned to enjoy the Chinese flavors of la mian.
Sukiya is a Japanese chain serving gyudon (beef and rice bowls), other donburi, Japanese curry, and noodles, along with other things. I visited Sukiya at the mall across the street from my dorm in Shanghai and had a good experience with the ramen. If you had told me it was la mian, I would have believed it, because that’s what it tasted like.
The smooth soup, sweet because of the tomato, paired well with the savory beef. It clung in a velvety sheen to the narrow, glossy noodles, which swirled beautifully in the shallow wooden spoon the bowl came with. Bok choy amped up the Chinese factor.
These noodles need to be eaten quickly, because they turn into a soggy, slimy mess of disintegrating starch after sitting in liquid for too long.
My friend’s beef bowl, with flavorful caramelized onions, scallions, and egg, made her very happy. In total, the bill came to 54 RMB (less than $8) – 24 RMB for the ramen, 22 RMB for the gyudon, and 8 RMB for two refreshing sides of spicy kimchi.
Sukiya serves up good food at good prices, with quick service and a navigable menu for non-Chinese readers. Convenient like any fast food place should be, with food you can slow down and appreciate.