Sunday, March 16, 2014

More on "Authenticity": Wramen

It's an interesting question at what point a variation of a dish has been stretched so far that it can no longer be considered a member of that dish set. A recent article in the Seattle Times referenced a blog post by Jay Friedman proposing that we distinguish between ramen, which is to be "authentic" (my quotation marks), versus Wramen, for when someone is trying to create something new.

Now, I definitely have strong puristic tendencies and appreciate the desire make such a distinction. You get into a bit of eye-rolling territory when restaurants slap together their own me-too fancy or homey high-concept versions of whatever is the latest hip dish or cuisine without really appreciating what actually goes into traditional versions of that dish and its culinary context. Ramen is the obvious example, but consider also maki sushi (which Friedman also mentions), tacos, pizza, and I think bibimbap shows potential to have this trend, too.

However, I also highly value creativity and appreciate the arbitrary nature of setting down bright line definitions of dishes and cuisines. The same dish will vary between individuals, and approaches evolve even within one individual over the course of time and as we are exposed to new things. I'm glad Friedman makes sure to express that he likes both ramen and Wramen. It's not that taking foods and ideas out of their existing boxes is a bad thing. Rather, there's a point beyond which you can't really call a noodle dish "ramen" anymore. Or beyond which you can't call a dish "Chinese food" anymore. Or beyond which a dish is really a variation of a hamburger steak or a sandwich and no longer a "hamburger". And of course the next question is "where is that point?" And that's another subjective and arbitrary question to ponder.

But wait, you say, pizza, in all its crazy diffusion has become a unique American product distinct from its Italian prototypes. And that, I think, is exactly what Friedman wants to distinguish: American takes on ramen, or Wramen, as opposed to traditional versions of it.

Where I think Friedman runs into trouble, though, is the question of why it is that all the creative exploration and evolution of ramen in Japan--which is ongoing--is all automatically "authentic" while foreign explorations are not. If a Japanese chef adds real Chinese cha shao (which is roasted) to a ramen instead of Japanese cha shuu (which is braised and actually is a sweeter version of what is called kong rou in Chinese), would it be "authentic"? Because Friedman calls out one Seattle chef's take on ramen that has Chinese cha shao and kimchi brussels sprouts as being Wramen. Or was it the kimchi brussels sprouts that made it Wramen? If a Japanese chef had put that together would it still be Wramen? Or would that be Jramen? Or ramen?

Ultimately nomenclature and classification is useful in that it enables us to discuss and compare things meaningfully. But I'm not sure getting people to say "ramen" and "Wramen" is going to help.


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  2. William, I really enjoyed your thought-provoking response to my blog post and the subsequent article that followed in the Seattle Times. You hit upon my greatest fear: that when I return to Tokyo this spring, there will be Japanese ramen chefs putting kimchi Brussels sprouts and such in their ramen! But just as I still don’t see Westernized sushi rolls so often in Japan, my research shows that there isn't much ramen with Western (or non-Japanese) elements, either. At least not yet.

    Here in Seattle, I see a lot of diners who say they love sushi, but only eat rolls because they dislike fish and are fearful of eating typical nigiri. As a result, sushi has come to mean crazy rolls. That's why I worry that ramen will come to mean the spins I describe in my blog post. It's already hard to find a good, basic shoyu ramen in Seattle. And I hold no hope of enjoying a traditional niboshi-based ramen, with the soup made from dried sardines or anchovies. I find that only in Japan.

    In proposing the word “Wramen,” I’m not thinking I’ll get an actual change in nomenclature, but I'm thrilled with the conversation my post has already provoked! Thanks for adding to the conversation...

    (This is a revision of my previous comment, as I couldn't find an "edit" option.)

    1. Thanks for taking the time to respond, Jay. Yeah, sorry about that--just got whatever Blogger's offering.

      But yeah, that's great that your post is provoking discussion. Have you gotten a lot of response through the Seattle Times? Certainly calling out ramen places for being very westernized will catch people's attention (possibly by offending fans of various places) and improve understanding that what they're consuming is a dumbed down version of things. It was a revelation to me when I finally realized that the "Chinese food" and "ramen" other people were poo-pooing (Americanized and instant, respectively) were different than the Chinese food and ramen I was thinking of. At least the step to thinking of Wramen is better than people's thinking only of their college repasts.

      On the other hand, this dumbing down is probably a big part of certain international cuisines' popularity. The really authentic stuff doesn't appeal to a very broad audience. Hence, the hip international foods end up being what is Americanized and/or already a very easy step away: ramen, sushi, Korean BBQ, pad thai, etc.

      I'm continually surprised at how conservative most people are about their food. But I suppose that probably had evolutionary advantages.