Ramen. The college dorm room staple. Desiccated bricks of noodles, dropped in tap water, heated in a microwave for three minutes and sprinkled with powdered bouillon. 33 cents a pack. This is what I knew of ramen during my formative years at Butler and the penny-pinching years that followed. I’m sure you may have had, and may still have, that same idea in your mind. Oh, how wrong we are. Ramen, real ramen, is a thing of beauty.
“I moved to Indianapolis in 2005,” says Jun Kuramoto, “since then I was looking for a good ramen restaurant, but nobody open it.” Jun sits at a red table with two of his employees, Paul Yu and Khaleel-Jamal Harrison. Jun is soft spoken and his demeanor is kind, his face is seemingly always set in a slight smile, a look I equate to a person with inner peace. “I missed the good ramen and I was looking for a solution. So I started researching how to get good ramen for a restaurant and how can I bring it from Japan. I eventually found the solutions and I executed my plan and opened my own place.”
It was an amazing leap for a man who had spent years working in machine manufacturing, an occupation that had brought him from Japan, to the Netherlands, to San Diego and finally here to Indy. He took time away from his work to pursue his love of ramen. “There is no ramen school here in Indianapolis,” he laughs at this, recognizing the absurdity of that even being a possibility, “even in Japan there are some places to teach us, but usually to learn how to make ramen we have to work in a ramen restaurant and get the proper training for many, many years. But, I live here and I don’t have a long time, so I have to find a good instructor to teach Sapporo ramen.” He did just this and trained under a ramen teacher, the instructor even flew here to the U.S. to continue teaching Jun and his wife.
After training and learning the art of ramen — and it is an art — Jun opened Ramen Ray earlier this year. Since then he and his team have been serving authentic Sapporo style ramen to our city and giving people an idea of what true ramen is. Paul, Ramen Ray’s general manager, prepares a fresh bowl of ramen for me, so that I may understand just how authentic this dish truly is.
A graduate of The Chef’s Academy, Paul has been with Jun since the beginning of Ramen Ray. He tells me, “After college I was thinking of opening up a noodle soup business; I wanted to specialize in Asian soups. Then I saw this place was opening and I contacted Jun and we started working together from there. The reason I wanted to work with noodle soups is food that’s very powerful will have a nostalgic factor to it. For me growing up, noodle soups like ramen were very nostalgic and so I came here to make ramen.”
The steaming bowl of noodles, soup, and toppings sits in front of me. I’ve had ramen many times on the West Coast, but I’ve never had instruction on the best way to enjoy the dish. According to Jun, “Ramen is a combination of topping, soup and noodle. Quite often people enjoy the topping first, and then the soup and leave the noodle a long, long time. That whole time the noodles are getting soggy and thicker and thicker. The best way is for the toppings, noodles and soup to be eaten together. Other than that, there are no rules. Don’t worry about using chopsticks. Just use a fork and a spoon and enjoy it while it’s hot and fresh. The whole set is the art of the ramen.”
So, I do as the expert says and mix my chashu (pork belly that has been stewed for two hours), corn, green onions, sprouts, nori and soft boiled egg into the rich broth and wavy noodles before digging in with my chopsticks and Asian soup spoon and slurping away. One bite in and I’m reminded of something Khaleel-Jamal, the night manager and dinner expediter, said, “The noodles we keep al dente, to the tooth, so you can get that good slurp action.” Jun had gone into detail about the importance of the noodles, “First of all, for ramen, the noodle is very important. There are two ways to get the noodles, either buy them straight from Japan or buy the machine and make by yourself … I really wanted to bring the really authentic ramen, and so simply I decide let’s bring it from Japan.” I had seen the Japanese noodles aging when I walked through the door. Out of all of the ramen I’ve had in my life, these noodles are the most slurpable and in ramen, that is a part of the process.
I’m reminded of another thing Khaleel-Jamal said as well, “the broth is the main key.” This is true when it comes to any and all Asian noodle soups, if you have a watery broth, the soup will be flavorless. But at Ramen Ray that broth is cooked for seven hours, using fresh ingredients including bones, collagen, vegetables and miso. This broth is packed with flavor, and the toppings themselves add an intricacy to the dish that makes each bite unique.
This is unlike any ramen I’ve had before and one of the best noodle soups I’ve had — one of the best dishes I’ve had. But, Jun and his team are fighting an uphill battle here in Indiana because some people don’t understand it. The main issue is we all have spent too much time eating, well, there is no better way to put it, fake ramen. The Maruchan packs are great for college, but to call that ramen is like calling SpaghettiO’s pasta Bolognese. Still, people have trouble spending $14 on a bowl.
Jun says this is the first misconception Ramen Ray is trying to break, “We have to let them know actual ramen is really fresh and very time consuming [Close to ten hours goes into creating a bowl, not including aging the noodles] and has a very long history in Japan.” In fact ramen was created during one of the hardest times in Japan’s history, right after World War II. The country was very poor and so were its people and they were forced to use the limited resources they had to create hearty dishes.
Much of the best cuisines in the world were created during periods of great strife, as Jun points out, “It is like a soul food [which came out of slavery], you can’t just teach soul food to people just by words, and so we just have to try to let them eat. This location is more like a school, actually. People come and try and they may like it or they may not like it.”
People have been coming and trying in droves and while they’re enjoying the authentic ramen, Jun and Paul have been listening closely to feedback and taken away many lessons from it. “We’ve now been open six months and we start to understand we have to localize the food as well,” Jun says, with obvious agreement from Paul and Khaleel-Jamal. “Authentic is not everything, it depends on the community, town and region; people’s tastes are different. We are even thinking now of changing the recipe a little bit, we will keep the best quality always, but just adjust to the people’s taste.”
Paul furthers this thought, “People in Indianapolis are looking for something authentic, but something they can connect themselves to. So how can we connect ourselves to the people who grew up here in Indiana. Ramen is very much a people’s food and people add their own personality to it that’s why there are so many variations of ramen. In Japan if you just have a good soup and good noodles you can build a pretty strong foundation. But it’s kind of like a canvas, people just add their own preferences and style. We’re trying to bring the Japanese foundation here for Hoosiers, but maybe in the future we can add some localized ingredients to the menu.” They have a few ideas up their sleeves to localize the taste, for example I went with the spicy miso, which hits my particular tastebuds that enjoy a bit of heat in my dishes.
Not long after I walked in they all sat down to a bowl of ramen between the lunch and dinner hours. It was reminiscent of a family meal. Jun has created a family in this first restaurant endeavor, not just his staff, but his returning customers. “So many people come here and try the food and enjoy it and even shake our hands and thank us. It is nice to see so many smiles,” he tells me. “This is our first restaurant, and as I mentioned, we started this from scratch. We are learning new things everyday, we use this restaurant more like a school to give opportunity for people to eat ramen. But at the same time we want to use this place to think about how to make the best ramen for the community and for the future.”
They are all joking around, laughing with each other when I ask what they imagine for the future. Khaleel-Jamal, easily the most excitable of the bunch, says, “We are going to see a Ramen Ray Germany, Australia, Japan, Canada, we're going worldwide.”
The other two laugh and Jun adds, “Khaleel mentioned our big project. But one of my dreams is taking [my workers] to Japan and enjoying the ramen. Not just ramen, ramen is just one of the many foods in Japan and there are so many umami foods to enjoy; ramen is just the start.”
Paul finishes that thought, “For Ramen Ray I want to open the door to more traditional Asian food, the real tastes. Not the fast-food Chinese food or the stuff that has lost its cultural identity; something that is like the food I grew up loving to eat. I want to spread that love and share my culture. I think food is a great way to share what you grew up with and your culture.”
Check back Monday to see a video showing the entire process of making a bowl of Ramen Ray's ramen.