Ramen in Boston is not rare or particularly noteworthy, but l have a special place in my memory for late-night ramen from my childhood years in Tokyo, where, as night deepens, the city becomes populated by yatai (mobile food stands). They cater mainly to salarymen and laborers leaving late from work, who, either alone or with co-workers, stop by to have a drink or two and a snack to help them decompress before heading home. Yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) and oden (seafood and vegetable stew) are common, as are yonaki soba carts. The latter serve ramen, and one such cart used to station itself right in front of our house. It was easy to tell when it arrived, because the proprietor would play while pulling his cart the traditional yonaki tune (G-A-B---A-G, G-A-B-A-G-A---) on the charumera (from the Portuguese charmela, a double-reed instrument that sounds like the Turkish zurna) to advertise the fact. ("Charumera" is also one of the oldest brand names of instant ramen in Japan.) On occasional weekend nights or during vacation when I was allowed to stay up later than usual, I eagerly awaited the gastronomic siren song to approach from a distance. When the simple three-note melody ceased, I knew that it was time to go outside. As my mother did not trust the sanitary conditions of the mobile cart, she always made me take my own bowl from the kitchen cupboard.
A large part of the yonaki soba attraction is watching the step-by-step process of your ramen being assembled. When the order is placed, the chef deposits a handful of kinky yellow noodles, fragrant with kansui, into a vat of boiling water. He then puts a dollop of tare (soy-sauce-based seasoning fluid) into the empty bowl along with a heaping teaspoon of MSG. Then he ladles steaming translucent broth redolent of pork and chicken bones from another vat into the bowl. After a minute, he scoops out the single helping of noodles from the bubbling water with a large wire-mesh skimmer and lets it settle into the bowl of flavored broth. The swirl and flip of the skimmer to dredge and wring out excess water from the perfectly done noodle nest is economical and elegant, like a French chef swooshing out an omelette with a few flicks of the wrist. He loosens the tangle of noodles and equilibrates them with the broth with a few deft chopstick pokes.
Now comes my favorite part. From a wooden cabinet full of drawers he removes a hunk of aromatic chaashuu (Chinese-style roast pork), blanched spinach, naruto kamaboko (serrated cylindrical fish cake with the characteristic pink spiral), rectangles of nori, and scallions. (The spinach is a peculiarity of this yatai--the "veggie" topping is more typically menma, fermented bamboo shoots.) The cabinet is mysterious; I imagine the topping ingredients being prepped inside by Lilliputian line cooks who scurry to hide when the head chef reaches for a drawer. The cabinet also has a dark side; I think of the yonaki chef working in nearby Nishinippori who was astonished to find a freshly severed pinkie instead of chaashuu on his first drawer pull of the night. It may have been an urban legend, but you never know with the yakuza.
Rapidly and smoothly the chef carves out a few thin slices from the chaashuu and naruto, chops a small portion from the bundled cords of spinach, minces a thimbleful of scallions, and floats them all in segregated neighborhoods on the surface of the broth. The finishing touch is the nori and a shake of ground white pepper on top.
In my memory it is a warm humid summer night as I bring back the scalding bowl into the house to eat. I am in my light cotton yukata and wearing flip flops. Perhaps the TV is on and playing one of those nutty late-night variety shows featuring garishly dressed comedians and B-list actors. The ramen is gloriously delicious, as the privilege of staying up late like an adult serves as an umami enhancer more powerful than the abundant MSG.