It was Sunday and I had a yen for ramen. When I searched Zomato, it threw up over 10 restaurants. Somehow Aki Bay Ramen shop caught my eye.
At first sight ramen may look like soupy noodles. But they are much more than that. The dish, liked I explained in my previous post, has three layers. Broth or soup, which is made from seafood and vegetable, home-made noodles and toppings that are usually vegetables, egg and meat. It is a wholesome meal with lot of proteins.
When I entered the restaurant, it looked very much like the ones you see in anime or manga. High counters and a small seating area. The owner of the shop Satoshi Akimoto, from Kanagawa prefecture in Japan, was an Automobile Engineer for over two decades. He was candid, friendly and expressive as he spoke about the restaurant he opened when he was little over 40. He came to Chennai Nissan branch in 2012 and was here for about two years. When he frequented Japanese restaurants, he realised there are not ramen shops in the city even though they are one of the most popular Japanese food. “Why not open a new ramen shop,” Akimoto thought.
So Akimoto quit his job and learnt how to make ramen. “I attended a two week course in Japan. I came back to Chennai and opened this shop,” he added. Of course it was not easy. “My wife did not like it one bit. It has been two years now and she still does not like it. I had to borrow money from friends and plug into my retirement benefit. Times are still tough. But I think you should do thing that you enjoy,” Akimoto said, laughing.
In the meantime, vegetable soba with garlic and veg gyoza I ordered arrived. “I will let you eat in peace. We will continue the talk later,” he said and left me with my ramen.
Baked momos, Gyoza.
What I loved about the shop was that they give you sheet that tells you how to eat your ramen. Like you should eat sample soup first to get the taste of real Japanese style broth and slurp your ramen. “That is how Japanese eat ramen,” Akimoto offered.
“When it comes to gyoza, cooked momos or dumpling, you should eat them with sesame and home-made chili sauce and vinegar. But most Indians do not like vinegar, so I recommend sesame and home-made chili sauce,” he said. I tried the dish as he instructed me to, the Japanese way. I liked it. It was crunchy yet easy to chew. The tangy flavour sesame and chili sauce gave went well with gyoza. Next was ramen. The broth was light and noodle was nicely cooked. You could barely notice the garlic from the soup. Before I noticed I had finished my ramen.
This is my second time trying to eat ramen with chopsticks. I was still sloppy. Akimoto-san as friendly he is, I asked him the right way to holding chopsticks. “First place one chopstick between your thumb and index finger. You should not move this chopstick. Now support the other chopstick using your thumb, index and middle finger. Keep moving your middle finger to move the chopsticks,” he instructed. Well, it of course was not easy. “It is ok. You are still young, You will get it when you practice,” he chuckled.
For someone like me, who watches as much anime as the Japanese or an American, I’m very much aware of the importance of using a chopstick. But hearing it from the horse’s mouth of course threw some light into the culture itself. “It is something we were taught when we were young. My mother used to place a bowl of beans in front of me and give me chopsticks. I was supposed to pick the beans using chopsticks and place it in another bowl. That is how we master the technique of handling chopsticks,” he said.
“The way you handle chopsticks is very important because your upbringing is judged based on that. When I went to visit my father-in-law before marrying my wife, he scrutinised the way I was holding my chopsticks,” he said, reminiscing. Well that is a lot to expect from chopsticks, is it not?
All said and done, I wanted to know why he was very specific about ramen. Akimoto only smiled. “In Japan it is very difficult to learn culinary skills directly from master. It takes years. But for ramen we have a two week course in a school there,” he said. But that is not all. While Japanese dishes like sushi are more popular, Akimoto feels Indians do not really like original sushi. “We use raw fish in sushi but Indians do not like it. May be you will try and tell your friends. But there will never be repeat customers for sushi,” he said.
“But ramen is different. Since people are already used to noodles, ramen is something they are willing to try and come again and again. Even in Japan, ramen shops are very famous. There are close to 35,000 ramen shops in Japan. Around 4,000 ramen shops open and close every year,” Akimoto explained.
“I’m enjoying being a ramen master. When I was an engineer, it was all work, work and work. I was earning well. But it is was not something my two sons will be proud of. I wanted to do something that will make my sons look up to me. That prompted me to start the shops,” Akimoto said with a wide smile.