Food tales of a migrant: Sapporo Ramen

by Kris Adam Santos
Stripes Korea

During the winter of 2012, I found myself wandering the streets of Itaewon in search of a good place to eat. I was new to the area, looking for something familiar to eat.
Ramen was a no-brainer. After all, it had been a good while since I had a warm bowl of the Japanese favorite.

Before deciding to eat ramen, I had done prior research and found a place called “81 Banya Ramen” on the internet, which was a good few blocks from the Itaewon metro station and across the street from the Cheils Communications Building.

When I arrived at the geographic location of the ramen house, I saw that a burger eatery had taken its place. Without any warning or notification from the research I had conducted, I learned that 81 Banya Ramen went out of business some time ago. Needless to say, my first winter in Korea was colder than most.

Fast forward to spring, I found myself wandering around again, but at the local Yongsan Electronics Market, or what most people refer to as the E-Mart.
I had known about this place for quite some time, mostly because I arrived in South Korea only in the late fall and had done my fair share of perusing the hundreds of shops that do business there. But on this particular spring day at the E-Mart, I had what Bob Dylan referred to as “A Simple Twist of Fate.”

Out of hope of finding a decent ramen place in South Korea (one that was near my residence), I walked around an area that I had never been to before in the E-Mart. This area was at a far end of the E-Mart where American franchises like Starbucks, California Pizza Kitchen,  and Uno Chicago Grill are nestled subtly away from most chains.

As you may imagine, I had to walk up plenty of stairs to get to my destination. Perhaps it was the struggle and journey that rewarded me this wonderful discovery.  And the discovery I found–with the help of my parents–was no other than “Sapporo Ramen.”

In my initial research of ramen houses, Sapporo Ramen was not on any reviewers list. It seemed almost strange to me that I found something hidden in an area so densely crowded. It was like finding a speck of dust floating in the midst of the morning sun rays.

When I approached the restaurant, I first noticed the quaint décor of Sapporo Ramen. From my experience, most ramen houses were small and hospitable. This ramen house was no different, because there were stools facing the chefs as they cooked ramen for the customers.

Outside of the restaurant, a picture menu shows the many selections that they offer. The menu offers a general array of ramen, such as miso Soup Ramen, shoyu-based soup ramen, seafood ramen, curry ramen, and spicy kimchi ramen.
Customers not looking to eat ramen can also enjoy rice bowls such as curry or fish delights. Side dishes such as gyoza, a dish that I like to traditionally order, can be ordered as well.

The particular ramen that I ordered was the house special: you guessed it, the Sapporo Ramen. The Sapporo Ramen is a Kimchi based ramen. In the ramen are onion, bean sprouts, bok choy, and spicy chicken. One could say that it is a balanced ramen, thus yielding a balanced taste.

When I received the particular bowl of ramen, I salivated immediately. It had been almost a year since my last ramen bowl and it was conveniently served in a giant bowl that was perfectly sized for a growing man. With my chopsticks, I carefully reached for the noodles like a conductor of the opera.

While it was a particularly hot day in South Korea, I could not fathom why I would order a spicy dish. It must have been my excitement. Almost immediately tasting the ramen, I felt the usual intensity of spiciness. Fortunately, this was a dish that I could tolerate very well.

Keeping in mind to other types of ramen I have ate in the past, the Sapporo Ramen is for people who are lovers of spicy food – particularly Kimchi. In fact, eating the house special bookended my childhood eating days in a positive way. It reminded me of the Kimchi bowls that I would eat from the grocery store, only now they would never measure up to the bowl of ramen I was eating at that moment.

They say with every bowl of ramen a person eats, a person does not walk away without a full stomach. With my stomach full with a balance of vegetables and protein, I walked away with a big, full smile on my face.

After my experience of eating the Sapporo Ramen, I believe that it is the real deal. The ramen encompasses the tastes of South Korea, blending its flavor into a large bowl waiting to be indulged. One could think of the dish as an homage to the forefathers of Korean flavor and Japanese cuisine.

Another might think of it as a match made in heaven.

I’d like to consider it as a mutual bond of wonderful flavor and cuisine, a cultural interaction and relevant taste that everyone can enjoy.

Unlike some of my favorites (such as Tan Tan or Pork Katsu ramens), the Sapporo remains a unique flavor that I would not mind having again. It would especially be perfect for those cold winter days when a person is desperately looking for warmth. Maybe next year, winter will be a little warmer.

In closing, it is wonderful to know that Seoul is a cultural region where cultures spatially interact to create some of the world’s tastiest foods.
It keeps me guessing what else I will find next while I wander aimlessly through the streets like a hungry expatriate.

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