In Japan, ramen is like baseball, according to Takashi Nishiyama. People love their city's style of soup with the same passion as a sports team, and even have allegiances to individual ramen shops, as baseball fans do for particular players. Third grade classes in Japan even take a tour of a ramen factory as part of their curriculum.
Nishiyama should know. He's the president of Nishiyama Seimen Company, which provides noodles to more than 2,000 ramen speciality shops in Japan, and 4,000 restaurants total, most of them in Sapporo. They also provide noodles to Daikaya, D.C.'s hot new ramen shop.
Nishiyama was in town for a whirlwind two-day visit to the U.S., which included a stop at his client's Penn Quarter restaurant and izakaya. He spoke to Eater about all things noodle-related, with Daikaya owner Daisuke Utagawa acting as translator.
Nishiyama's company got its start as a ramen stand in Hokkaido, founded by his father and his father's cousin. The early founders of ramen in the Sapporo region were a tight-knit, if competitive bunch, he explained — another ramen stand owner was the inventor of the miso style of Sapporo ramen. Though the noodle supply business has grown dramatically in Japan from its humble beginnings, American customers are still a rarity for Nishiyama Seimen, though they include both Daikaya and Ren's Ramen, D.C's other restaurant that serves the soup in the Sapporo style (neither Utagwa or Nishiyama were familiar with many restaurants in the U.S. beyond those two that specialize in the style here).
So what's "Sapporo style," anyway? Those who have visited Daikaya are already familiar with some of the varieties of the style, including shio, shoyu and miso. But all Sapporo-style ramen varieties share certain characteristics, Nishiyama explained. They use the clear stock called Chintan, they are fried to order in a wok, and the curly noodles have a certain elasticity and glossiness, and are designed to sop up the flavor of the soup. The style is one of the newer forms of ramen in Japan, which has had some form of ramen noodles since the 1800s and boasts about 26 different varieties throughout the country.
"For me, growing up I knew Nishiyama noodles," said Utagawa. When he decided to open up a ramen shop, he first looked into domestic companies to produce that signature style of noodle, but couldn't find one. He called up Nishiyama and left a voicemail, and soon got a return call from the vice president of sales. After meeting Utagawa and hearing his plans for Daikaya, the company agreed to take the restaurant owners on a tour of the factory, and eventually, to provide the noodles and help develop a specific recipe for the restaurant. That recipe had to meet FDA requirements, which include no egg. It took about two weeks to develop the recipe.
Daikaya's noodles arrive frozen, and the restaurant defrosts them in the refrigerator, Utagawa explains. The restaurant goes through anywhere from 300-550 bowls of ramen in a single day.
Nishiyama said there were two main reasons he agreed to be a supplier, despite the fact that it's extra work for the company (beyond the specific recipe and relatively low U.S. volume of sales, the company also ages the noodles for Daikaya before shipping them). One was straightforward: he liked Utagawa. The other reason is that he expects major growth for ramen in the U.S. market — he thinks the market will grow to be ten times as large as it is now in the next ten years. As a result, he wants the Sapporo style to be known in the U.S., and he's considering opening up a U.S. office for his company to make it easier to communicate with U.S. customers.
That's important, because right now, the tonkotsu style of ramen is most known to U.S. customers, largely due to the success of places ike Ippudo in New York (as well as in D.C., Toki Underground). In Japan, the ramen noodles from Tokyo, Sapporo and Kyushu (where the tonkotsu style is from) are the most prevalent, Nishiyama says. In each region, they just call it ramen, much like how in Philadelphia, a cheesesteak is a cheesesteak, he said. "In Sapporo, they think Sapporo style is the best," he said. "In Kyushu, Kyushu is the best." Here in the U.S., maybe he can convince people of Sapporo's merits without regional loyalty getting in the way.
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