Ivan Ramen: More than Novelty

A foreigner's take on the classic Japanese comfort food

By Joan Lambert Bailey    - 4 min read

What's an American doing making ramen in Tokyo? “Doing it rather well, thanks,” might be Ivan Orkin's answer. Serving up piping hot bowls of this quintessential Japanese comfort food since 2003, Orkin, the only foreigner in Japan with his own shop, attracts customers with novelty. His innovative flavor combinations such as chili sesame tsukemen (cold noodles dipped in a side of hot sauce) along with solid versions of the classic shoyu (soy sauce) and shio (salt) ramens keep them coming back.

As our group walked along the shotengai (shopping street) it felt like something out of Tampopo, the classic 1985 Japanese film that set Ivan on the road to ramen. Faded signs and shuttered stores line a street that once bustled with commerce, but now sits mostly forgotten in a Tokyo suburb. Ivan's tiny shop, along with laundromat, a tofu shop, karaoke bar and tobacconist are all that's left.

Visitors to Ivan Ramen find an inviting space with simple modern decor. While no grizzled ramen master works his alchemy here, customers will see the usual repertoire of simmering pots of broth, vats of boiling water ringed with noodle baskets, and a line of topping containers just under the counter.

After surveying the photos at the machine, we gave tickets for roasted garlic ramen, chili men, shio ramen, and buta (pork) roasted tomato chahan (a side dish of rice mixed with perfectly greasy bits of pork) to the staff and settled at the counter. Cool evening breezes came through sliding doors open to the street and shotengai. Sirens and clicking heels animated the rhythm of the two staff putting Ivan's motto “Slow food fast” into action. Orkin believes that while ramen isn't a health food it can be made well from whole ingredients.

Ladles of homemade roasted garlic paste landed in deep bowls and were closely followed by hot broth, noodles and a generous topping of thinly sliced negi ( a giant green onion). Topped with a single roasted clove this dish is so full of goodness that a vampire might order it against their better judgment. “It's pure garlic. I love it,” said one friend after the first taste.

Soon after, my husband's chili men, a steamy red from the nest of pepper strands on top to the spicy sauce bathing the noodles, followed. The smokiness of the peppers perfectly balanced their heat. It was the hands-down favorite of the evening.

“The shio was good, but the chili...” said another friend, “That was 'Mmmmm'. That was really good.”

Unlike the traditional bowl of hot broth brimming with noodles, seaweed, bamboo and a round of fish sausage, the roasted garlic ramen and chili men are more akin to the Italian noodle experience or abura soba (cold noodles in spicy oil). There's enough sauce to coat the noodles and perhaps slurp a few spoonfuls at the end but no more.

The highlight of the buta roasted chahan surely was the tomato. No sauce or spices, just a thick slab of ripe roasted tomato on a layer of shredded chashu (roasted pork filet) over rice. Served cold with more negi and black pepper, it was brilliant.

Full, we passed on the homemade ice cream with its bits of citrus dotting the surface. There's always next time, right?

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Joan Lambert Bailey

Joan Lambert Bailey @joan.lambert.bailey

Joan Lambert Bailey lives and writes in Tokyo where she is lucky enough to get her hands dirty on a local organic farm in between forays to explore Japan from top to bottom. You can read about her adventures learning about Japanese food from seed to harvest to table at Japan Farmers Markets.

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