Editor's note: What's it like to be a vendor at Brooklyn's popular—and competitive—outdoor market Smorgasburg? Here's Sun Noodle's Ramen Lab.
Don't let the frenzy created by Keizo Shimamoto's ramen burger distract you from Sun Noodle Lab's core mission of spreading the gospel of ramen at Smorgasburg. The stand, as we explored in a previous column, functions as an incubator for aspiring ramen-yas looking to open up their own shop. But in their push to introduce Americans to a greater variety of ramen styles, they're exploring what regional ramen identity means here in New York, and finding the place where Japanese noodles and mozzarella whey converge. (See our tour of their LA facility here.)
In our conversations, Noodle Lab's Kenshiro Uki stressed the importance of local ingredients to ramen, and how integral they proved to popularizing the comfort food in Japan. Like with any other food, what is popular in one neck of the nation may be deemed inauthentic in another. So while New Yorkers are now accustomed to southern Japan's tonkatsu, or pork broth, they're less familiar with the use of cheese, often blended with miso, or shaved Parmigiano as a topping in Hokkaido. Down south, Kenshiro says, the use of cheese "is not really accepted."
Embracing the regionalism of ramen, though, means adopting it to the local culture.
Earlier this summer, Noodle Lab introduced a cold mazeman made with whey from Hoboken pizza parlor Dozzino Pizza that was, in a nod back to Japan, blended with miso. This dish, more than any other, gets to the essence of what Kenshiro and chef Makomora are accomplishing. It's throwing off the shackles of authenticity, and not mimicking the food as it is produced in the homeland, while staying true to ramen's origins. It's creating a ramen for New York, informed by Japan but tied up in the history and character of our city by way of our most iconic food: pizza.
Kenshiro credited Smorgasburg with allowing his team to experiment with these kinds of dishes, offering an environment where they can try new things and play with ingredients without having to worry too much about success or failure. That's not to say there aren't hurdles, namely that, for many Americans, their first introduction to ramen came by way of those .25 cent instant sodium bombs.
Over the phone, we talked about how the dishes came about.
"We did a pop-up in Hoboken, where we were supposed to use local ingredients, support the farmers and suppliers. The cheese water only happened because this local pizza parlor makes their own cheese, and they have this leftover whey that they were always throwing away," Kenshiro explained. "We thought the whey would add an interesting flavor to the dish, so we asked them to bring it over and blended it with miso, because in northern Japan cheese and miso are thought to go together. We were playing around with that, and it just so happened to be really good when chilled."
"It's a bit different than what you'd see in Hokkaido," Kenshiro continued, "where they'd put Parmigiano on top of their ramen, but the concept is the same. We're using local ingredients to make a great bowl of ramen."
A ramen fit for New York.
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About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats and Anatomy of A Smorgasburg Pop Up columns. Follow him on Twitter, if you'd like. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.