Toaru Ramen no Hanashi
"Ah, this is bad... I can't go on..." says a boy in his school uniform sighing in front of a ramen shop. It seems the scent coming from the establishment took over his desire to go home straight for an immediate meal to counter his hunger. After checking the meager amount of cash in his worn-out wallet, he decided to enter the ramen shop to get a quick meal.
A somewhat smooth, not so loud voice greeted him upon his entrance. From the sliding door, he immediately took notice of the owner of the voice, the chef, probably his late 50's donning the usual get-up of a standard ramen owner. Hairnet plus complimentary hat, bulky white apron, ladle in his right hand and a colander on the other.
"Sit anywhere you like, kiddo."
His follow-up words urged the boy to take the seat near the counter as most of the tables have other guests occupying it.
The ramen shop was rather small. The wood foundation looks old enough to be dated back 30 years ago. The order signs, the written ramen prices, even the table and chairs looks like they were older than him which actually impressed him in a weird manner. In his mind, the fact that the shop has been running since whatever time he had in mind, proves that the place is a winner.
As soon as he sat on the near counter, a glass of water arrived on his designated space. It was handed by a kind-looking lady, who fits the image of the chef's wife. The boy bowed his head to show his respect and thanked the lady with a smile.
"Mhmm... You're a pretty respectful kid. Good to see your kind isn't extinct yet."
A different voice sprung up all of a sudden. The boy slowly turn over the direction of the voice to see a man, in a white suit, with a cowboy hat, with a majestic beard, with a cigar hanging on his ears and a tanned face.
"Whoa... a weirdo..." of course, this was his initial monologue.
The man in question, looks like he's not far from the Chef's age, sat closely to the boy by skipping two seats that kept them apart. Now, he sits beside the kid, much to the kid's confusion.
"You're new here. Haven't seen your face around. Is this your first time here?" the weird man asked.
In which the boy replied, "Yes, sir. The smell coming from this store was just too enticing."
The weird man laughed a healthy yet short one.
"Good! That's a good story, kiddo." then he continued to laughed for quite a while. "Say, Boss. Don't you just feel happy when you hear a new customer say that about your shop? Don't tell me you're not cause I can see your ears getting beet red."
The weird man continues to laugh. The chef's wife can also be seen giggling nearby. The embarrassed chef then stoicly continued to do his job whilst having the aforementioned reddened ears.
"Now, where were we, huh? I am..." the weird man paused for a while with an extended hand that obviously inviting a handshake. As the boy reached out for it, the weird man continued his words. "Call me Gourmet. I'll call you Boy in return, is that all right?"
The handshake marks the start of this story.
The boy ordered the second cheapest ramen from the hanging menus. As aforementioned, they looked quite old that the written ink is somewhat distorted. Whilst not unreadable, it definitely looks like it needs to be reprinted again. As the boy's thoughts wonder as his eyes hover left and right the entire shop, Gourmet restarted their conversation.
"Say, boy. Why did you order a shoyu ramen?" he asked with a deep expression, akin to a philosopher riddling for answers. The boy, somewhat intimidated, faced the man properly as he prepares to give an answer. While it would take no thinking to actually give his answer which is he ordered a shoyu one because it looks like his best bet for the money he had left, his somewhat rattled self made him conscious. Gourmet could somewhat sense that the boy fell in silence to think, but like his usual weird self, Gourmet tapped the boy's developing shoulders.
"Don't get too serious on me, boy." he said as he lets out another hearty laugh. "I actually just finished a shoyu earlier and today, the chef is on top form! You're quite a lucky bastard, boy!"
The chef glared at Gourmet to protest. One can see his eyes speaking the lines, "I'm always on top form, you numbskull!" but again, the chef continued his stirring without wasting his breath.
"By the way, boy. You know that ramen, is historically an imported food, right?"
"Oh, yes. Supposedly, it was originally a Chinese recipe from the old times."
He enthusiastically nodded to the boy's answer.
"Just until your shoyu and my shio gets served, how about we talk about ramen?"
The boy found no reason to refuse his seatmate and said, "It's my pleasure, Mr. Gourmet."
"Alright! But ditch the honorifics, my boy! Sounds stiff!" he retorted while wagging his right index finger. "Okay, while I did play my words earlier. This is more like a storytelling rather than a history lesson. Listen carefully so that, one day, you can share it to others!"
Year 1751, in a rural village in some far away land in the border of Soviet. Zhao Alliona, a half mix of Chinese and Russian blood, is slowly mixing something on the corner of a shed amidst a wide pasture.
"Hey, Al! Have you finish mixing the potion the old pharmacist gave us to help our pigs stay lean?" an old man asked. Presumably, this is Alliona's father, a Chinese who chose to live close along the Russian border. For those who wants to ask the reason, he would not divulge anything apart from "When I came to, I was already living here." type of answer. To sum her father in a nutshell, he's an ultra carefree person.
"Not yet, pops! The old coot told me to mix it slowly for at least a quarter hour. More like, do you really think that poser's potion will help our piggies? I really don't mind a chubbier pig, though."
Her old man pondered for a while, slightly scratching the back of his head as if he's trying to find some answers. He then looked at their livestocks, seemingly lively and noisy. All signs are leading to the fact their pigs are well-raised.
"Well, I won't argue with that statement. But you know, I kinda heard of a story from a pig owner one time when I went to Manzhouli." he paused. "He told me that obese pigs can sometimes die without warning. I can't have that happening to our little critters."
"Oh, so that's why you want our pigs to stay leaner. But don't you think it's kinda pretentious? If it's a pig, you always want it to be a lot bigger, heavier, fatter so that we could have more meats to harvest."
Again, the father would give another scrutinize look to his prized livestock. As aforementioned, they are well-raised, looking at the peak of their health and is primed to be a good source of meat once they're ready to be eaten. But at the back of his thoughts, he knew that there's something to be done and that having the pigs grow leaner, it will help his venture in the long run.
"Don't worry, my lass! Trust your pops on this matter. Besides, whether it be pig, ox, or even the mountain cats, you don't discriminate, you carnivorous daughter!" he said while poking his daughters bountiful sides.
"You! Don't you dare touch my..."
"Your what? Your flabby love handles?"
The lady grew furious and ditched her mixing as she gave chase to his laughing father.
Around 1 o'clock in the afternoon, her Russian mother came to fetch them for lunch. As soon as the father and daughter sat on their tables, they were greeted by an unfamiliar dish with a nostalgic smell on their plates.
"Oh, this is... a char siu?" they said in unison. Her smiling mother said nothing but just gestured to start eating. Still, Alliona and her father are trying to gather their thoughts. Apart from the usual smell of the roasted meat of reddish color, the signature look of the typical char siu is missing. Not only that, the cuts made on the meat are so much thinner than usual that threw their perception off the mark."
"Hey, pops. Is this... really char siu? That dish was supposed to be your specialty, right?" the girl still not taking any chances to take a bite. His father all the same, has expressed the same notion. After a while, her annoyed mother took the meat on the table and appeared to clean up the table, but in that moment, the confused duo finally took their first bite.
As soon as they put the meat on their mouths, a watery fountain of drool began to flush out. Alliona and her father again, took another look at each other but this time, their eyes are sparkling like a kid getting a brand new toy.
"What the heck?! This is like melting in my mouth! It's so delicious!" Alliona exclaimed as she put another serving to her drooling mouth. Her father, simultaneously, gobbled the food at a fast pace that resulted another scolding from the lady of the house.
"You two! Take your time to chew the good food! You're showing bad manners!"
"Umm... what's this story all about anyway?" the boy questioned the Gourmet in the middle of his story. The Gourmet, folded his arms and leaned his back on the counter table. "Patience, boy. Patience." he said.
The boy with a confused mien, was then served his order. It was a 700 yen shoyu ramen with the typical toppings of garlic in light number, garnished with spring onions, with 4 lean slices of chashu and a softboiled egg that is yet again, dyed in soy sauce color. The boy's initial reaction was animated enough to spell his positive reception. It wasn't until another ample seconds that the Gourmet was served his shio ramen.
The Gourmet then handed the boy chopsticks and appeared to throw a complimentary toast, though this time, not with a mug or glass, but with chopsticks. As the two fell silent to a quick prayer, they then let out a hearty "Itadakimasu" chant before slurping their first bite of noodles.
"Oh, exquisite! Today's really a fine day. The chef's really on top form!" Gourmet exclaimed. He then rallied everyone's attention, the regulars on the shop to give a complimentary applause in which everyone quickly responded. The chef's wife tried to hide her giggling, whilst serving other tables.
"Geez, you overdramatic fella. Besides, how long are you gonna stay here eating ramen, you numbskull!" the chef with a pair of reddened ears graced the boy and the Gourmet with some additional egg toppings. "Just scram after you finish your bowl! You're distracting me!"
The Gourmet still laughing then responded, "Don't mind me, boss! Besides, it's not like there's a huge line of customer turnover."
"Damn you, you cheeky underclassman." the boss retorted, then shortly returning to his cooking spot in the kitchen.
It appears that the chef and the weird man beside the boy had a relation of senpai-kouhai from their school days. The lady of the ramen shop also was a schoolmate and thus, their connection was establish.
"You really love teasing him, don't you, Gourmet?" the wife approached after rounding everyone's order. Still with a playful mien, the Gourmet slurped another mouthful of ramen soup before responding. "Who can't help it, Ane-san? Your hubby's a big softie. He really couldn't take a couple of compliments without him blushing."
The wife smiled and responded, "That's the best part of him. I never get tired of his purity even after being married for 25 years. But on another matter, don't take too much of this boy's time. I'll kick you myself if you bother him too much, are we clear?"
All of a sudden, there was a chilling air that passed through Gourmet's spine. It's not really sinister, but still the sharpness was enough for him to stay meek for a while. The boy would continue to slowly savor the thick soup from his shoyu ramen and the lull was ample for him to slurp two spoonful.
"Whew, the missus really doesn't disappoint. She's the same as ever." Gourmet whispered whilst slurping his soup as well.
"So you were also acquainted with her. She kinda looks dignified to me, like she's some sort of bigshot."
"Of course, she was! She was..."
Somewhere along his lines, a sound akin to a cracking of knuckles echoed inside the establishment. The gourmet's face grew pale as if he saw something terrifying, forcing him to go back slurping his soup. The boy innocently wondered and asked his seatmate what's the matter, much to the Gourmet's chagrin.
"Don't ask! Let's just go back to our story, shall we?" he forcibly stated.
After getting a taste to a peculiar variant of the char siu, Alliona was all silent throughout the entire afternoon. Her father would then feed his pigs, while trying to start a conversation.
"It was really delicious, huh? That char siu."
The girl would snapped from her trance and immediately replied, "But to be honest, it doesn't really taste like the normal swine, isn't it? It tastes similar, but there's this bits of sweetness to it."
"Oh, so you also noticed it. I am not entirely sure, but I think this one is from a wild boar. You know, those kind that's kinda violent. They have quite a temper, I tell you."
"Wild boar, huh? Can those be domesticated?" she asked while playing with her bangs.
"Of course not! Not these types. Their diets are completely different and they strive better on their own rather than being on a pen."
"Umm, for the second time? What's this story all about? Why are we talking about a family who lives in the border of China-Russia, with a half-mix protagonist, and a char siu dish?" the boy went straight to question the Gourmet.
"Geez, aren't you an impatient one?! And I was about to tell the good parts too." Gourmet growled with wrinkles visible on his forehead.
The boy's uncertainty on the matter is valid. Not only he was being forced to understand the point of their conversation, it also feels so mundane whilst having a ramen. As one would normally slurp the soup and eat the noodles quietly, he is listening to a jargon of a man he just met.
Gourmet then continued his gibberish talking seemingly not running out of topic. Still, the gourmet is not as foolish as he looks. He's actually a good reader of atmosphere. Albeit a natural prankster, he doesn't force an issue if he sees his listener doesn't really absorb his words.
He sighed heavily and said, "Let's take a break, boy. How about we grab a bite of our toppings? The chashu in particular. What say you?"
Still confused as to what's the point, the boy just nodded without much pondering. As they both gobbled at the same time, their reactions were almost simultaneous as well.
"So, boy? Any words?" the weird man asked his younger companion.
The boy chewed everything and gulped his glass of water. Before answering, he carefully wipe his mouth with a tissue.
"I think it's safe to say this chashu is really tasty. It seriously packs flavor." he said with an exuberant mien contrast to his mild-manner actions.
"Oh, you really get it, do you? Back in the day, we old folks used to get this fatty chunks of pork as our chashu toppings. While really delicious, it kinda sticks for awhile in the system. You know, the cholesterol thingy."
"Oh... like a kakuni?"
"Nah, not like a kakuni. A literal piece of pork chunks dumped into the soup."
"Eh, sounds like a blast. You get to really eat chunks of meat in your ramen in the past, huh?"
"That's right. Not like every ramen shops before value aesthetic."
The boy took a look at his bowl. While he already consumed some of it, the visual arrangement of the ingredients and the soup's clarity does translate a good picture.
"Mhmm, I see. But is it really that important to put up a good arrangement in a ramen bowl?"
"I get you. You want to say that all foods are the same once consumed, right?"
The boy didn't answer back, but instead just nodded. The conversation may sound mundane, but the two participants are both engaged.
"While I'm not really picky, I would say it is imperative. Not only it would give the consumer a certain sense of pleasure by eye metrics, it would also translate on an emotional level that will process their preparedness. In short, their minds would cognitively tell them they are about to consume something delicious just by looking at it."
"But we can't ignore the instances that there will be times that the food looks good, but the actual taste is not."
"Good point. At those rare cases, it's best to just leave and never look back!" Gourmet said before laughing.
The boy frowned on the idea. The Gourmet who noticed it followed up with a light tap on the youngster's back.
"Well, my bad. What I mean by that is..."
"Nah, it's okay. I wasn't really that bothered by it. It's just, on such case, I feel like the one who made the food will be hurt if you just leave the food untouched or anything. If ever I am into such situation, I'd have it wrapped and then take it home to recook into something my palate would accept."
Gourmet was astonished at the boy's principles. What was just a trivial talk while they pass time became something meaningful.
"You cheeky imp... Well said, my boy!" said a comically-looking Gourmet with tears on his eyes tapping the boy's back in crazy speed. After recovering his composure, Gourmet cracked his neck with crunchy sounds popping out. He signalled the boy a break, gesturing they take a mouthful of their ramen before restarting.
"But to be honest, while many would perceive eating as just a simple motor action, it's actually quite complex. There's a saying that before you can truly eat a food, your eyes and nose will be the first to dine in before your mouth and stomach." said Gourmet still tilting his neck left to right.
The boy who earlier found himself wondering why is he listening to an eccentric man's ramblings, now is wholeheartedly participating a conversation with full attention.
"But is it really true that once you grow older, you get really worried about cholesterol?" he asked before taking a short slurp of noodles to his mouth.
"You little... after all this time, we go back to cholesterol, huh? But geez, what's with the scientific analytic nowadays. It used to be the fatter the meat, the tastier back in those days. But as you said, once you get into a certain age, you really have to mind your food intake." Gourmet said while slightly massaging his stomach.
"Personally, I don't really have a preference, but I think the thicker, the better." said the boy with a blushing expression.
"Wow!" said another new voice springing up the sliding door entrance. "I just heard something daring about a boy liking his girls thicker."
All the men's eyes were now glued at the entrance. The origin of the voice, a somewhat tall lady, voluptuous assets paired with seductive curves, wearing gaudy earrings and flashing lip gloss now sits on the left side of the boy.
"You're quite bold, declaring such stuffs here, boy." she said as she reached for the boy's ear and even getting as close to the point her assets are almost touching the boy's chest. The sight of the split mountain being covered by a maroon-colored tank top would result too much stimulation and as a normal reaction, the boy would now be tossed in a world of confusion. Seeing the boy loss for words made the lady lick her lower lips and appears to bite a part of it. The boy, struggling to even stutter his words, looks like he was about to succumb to the pressure at any moment. But before it could happen, a ladle dropped on the girl's head, ever so lightly but enough to make the newcomer froze like a gargoyle statue. She would not even breathe, or blink at that matter.
"Your order, customer?" the chilling voice of the ramen shop's lady clearly broke the weird atmosphere that was about to take over the establishment. The girl would then laugh a silly one, as if she wants to appear innocent.
"Ane-san, good day to you. Well, I'd have tonkotsu ramen with a jumbo toppings of menma, egg and kamaboko. Oh, please don't forget the extra noodles too."
"Mhmm, mhmm. Duly noted." the ramen shop's lady said before ripping the piece of paper to hand it to her husband. "But no more excessive flirting here, am I clear?"
"Sure! I won't do it again, Ane-san!" answered the lady who even saluted in panic.
"Good, then please wait for a bit."
It would seem that every one of the regulars are scared, or more like, thoroughly respect the chef's wife to the point they would fell silent just from her cracking her knuckles. The boy realized that the "last boss" of the said establishment is none other than the gentle-looking lady with a beautiful gait for her age.
"Phew. I thought she's gonna murder my ears again." the young lady murmured quietly. "But anyways, nice to meet you, boy. You can call me "Onee-sama" here." she said with a cutesy wink.
"More like, you can just call her Eroi. It's what we call her here." Gourmet inserted much to the girl's chagrin.
"Mhmmp, still spouting your usual stories, I see." she countered with a sneer. "So, was it Alliona? Or more like Juan this time? Maybe Oscar? Helen? Vivianne?"
Gourmet took a spoonful of soup and slurped it quietly. "We're having the Alliona story sorted, but then you just have to make your sensual entrance as if this is a cabaret."
Before she could continue her words, her order arrived. Of course, the one who served it was none other than the overseer, the ramen shop lady. After serving the order carefully, the lady dropped a bow and gracefully said, "Please enjoy."
The aroma of the tonkotsu ramen filled with bountiful greens of menma, plus triple egg serving and the exquisite-sliced kamaboko was enough to appease the growing hostility between Eroi and Gourmet. Eroi then asked the boy to hand her chopsticks in which the boy quickly complied.
"Alliona, huh? If she's real, she must've been a real cutie being a half mix of Chinese and Russian blood." she blurted with a blushed cheeks before slurping her noodles alongside a third of the whole portion of menma.
"Of course, she's gorgeous! She's an unparalleled beauty and not only that, she has purity too! Not someone like I know!" Gourmet proudly said as if he's bragging his very own daughter.
"Tsk! You old raccoon, you're really getting into my nerves..." Eroi countered with visible wrinkles on her eyebrows.
Again, the echoes of cracking knuckles played like a short BGM inside the establishment which opted the two bickering regulars to drop their hostile banter.
"Ahem. Let's get back to the story then, shall we?" Gourmet puts his chin atop the folded fingers of his elbow resting in the table.
"Eh, you mean the char siu story?" the boy frantically asked.
A quiet chuckle emerged from the direction of the young lady. "It's not that good, right? I mean sure, Alliona-chan herself is an interesting subject. But char siu, man. Char siu... It's very trivial compared to the majestic kamaboko. Don't you agree, boy?"
"What drivel are you saying? I'm a big fan of kamaboko, but it'll never top the chashu as toppings, you succubus!"
"Who are you calling lewd, you phony? I bet all your gourmet stories are something you just read on Futaba-channel!"
"How dare you! I believe it's high time I put you into place, young lady."
"Oh, bring it on, old chap!"
Before they could even restart their skirmish, a cold glare from somewhere pierced their direction. Without any intention to draw the ire of the ramen shop lady, the two of them eased themselves by releasing enthusiastic sighs. Amidst the brewing tension that was about to blow up earlier, they were quick to regain composure and settle for an amicable continuation of their debate as to whether which of the toppings are better than the other; the chashu versus kamaboko. The boy would then find himself agreeing to one point of Gourmet and yet at the same time supports Eroi's conjunctions. For a while, it was a healthy debate while they eat their ramen for a short break.
"But you know, I'm actually starting to wonder. This is not really a true story, isn't it? I mean there's no way this is some sort of a history lesson, right?" the boy stated.
Naturally, it took the other two participants an ample moment to answer. They stuffed their faces before answering.
"Well, you see... definitely fictional. It would've been tedious and even boring if we just talk about the ramen's history. I mean, most of the ramen lovers know that once upon a time, ramen was introduced by some Chinese migrants and our ancestors would innovate their own style and so on." Gourmet answered with a serious mien.
"True. Basically, the history of ramen is already well documented at this point of time. How to make the stock or broth, the correct ratio of combining stock and broth, how to prepare ingredients, how to make different noodles etc. Heck, you could even read them on wikipedia." Eroi added who's also donning a serious expression not suiting her flashy demeanor. After an ample silence she continued, "I actually like this make-believe stories this weird pops is making, I mean, most of us regulars do. We would talk silly over a single bowl of ramen and spark some debates along the way." she said with an apologetic smile.
The Gourmet chuckled as he smacked the boy's back lightly. "Hahaha, my bad, boy. I'm in a very talkative mood today so you better prepare yourself."
"So is that the end of Alliona's story then?" the boy quickly asked.
Gourmet smirked before saying, "Of course not, her story is far from over!"