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Culture Initiative puts a spotlight on ramen

The sixth annual showcase reminds us that food is art, too

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What one dish can solve world hunger, be found in both a swanky urban restaurant and a Styrofoam cup on a construction site, and pairs perfectly with a multi-faceted art experience?

The answer is ramen, of course. That steamy, savory bowl of springy noodles and brothy goodness.

Think about it. If you're out on a chilly February night admiring the work of over 80 visual artists, climbing through large-scale interactive installations, watching a fashion show and a contemporary dance show, jamming to a concert of jazz and funk and hip-hop, you're gonna build up a wicked appetite for a dish that's equal parts hot, comforting and interesting.

That's what the folks at Culture Initiative, an organization that champions Charlotte's art scene, was thinking when they added a pop-up ramen cafe to their 6th annual showcase (which also features all the aforementioned exhibits) happening Feb. 7 at The Chop Shop.

Culture Initiative founder Joel Tracey said ramen was a natural fit for the art event. "There is so much about food that is art, as it calls on the same creative process as any other art form. You build your palette of ingredients then blend them together to create something unique and fresh. A bowl of ramen stimulates so many of your senses. It is visually beautiful. The smells can take you away to another place, the sounds of sizzle and tactile experience from the different textures, and most certainly the taste. There's little like the sensational pleasure that food delivers, and to me, that is most certainly art."

The pop-up ramen shop will be among the first for Charlotte, which has somehow missed the trending boom of ramen shops or "ramenyas" that have become increasingly popular in most metro areas.

That's not to say you can't get a decent bowl of ramen here in the Queen City. Japanese restaurants like Musashi and Mai serve up some delicious and authentic varieties. And restaurants like Fern and Soul offer their own creative versions on occasion, utilizing ingredients like exotic mushrooms, goat cheese and veal cheeks.

There's really no wrong way to do ramen. There never has been. That's because ramen is relatively new, even to the Japanese diet. While different regions of Japan all have their preferred ingredients and techniques, a traditional method around making it never really developed. It's kind of like a blank canvas waiting for each culinary artist who embraces it as a medium to create their own vision.

Ramen was introduced to Japan in the late 19th century, and introduced everywhere shortly after World War II. During this time, Japan was going through a post-war food shortage. The country had no indigenous tradition of breadmaking, and it was badly in need of a cheap, but substantial staple food. That's when a man named Momofuku Ando discovered how to manufacture the alkaline noodles so they could be shelf-stable and made in under five minutes. Instant ramen was born and the hunger crisis in Japan ceased. But Ando didn't stop there. He truly believed ramen could feed the world and put a stop to future wars, so he unleashed the affordable comfort food phenomenon across the entire globe.

In a poll conducted in December 2000, the Japanese chose instant ramen as their greatest innovation of the 20th century. (That's saying a lot, considering they also gave us the Walkman, digital cameras, transistor radios and Pokemon.)

Until recently, most Americans were only familiar with Ando's instant ramen and considered it jazzed up if they added an egg and some hot sauce. But the more elevated non-instant variety has become a foodie favorite.

Chef Chris Young of Hot Box Next Level food truck and chef Nick Slezak of Ramen Central (a roaming ramen bar "dedicated to raising ramen awareness") will be preparing the ramen at the Culture Initiative event. Tracey says the hunt for the perfect bowl has been going on for the past year. His favorite is chef Slezak's shoyu (soy based broth). "He builds the broth with smoked turkey necks and then tops it with soft boiled eggs, pulled pork, pickled cabbage or kimchi, corn, and scallions. I get a bowl just about every week."

I asked Tracey why he thinks there's no ramenyas in the Queen City. "Charlotte tends to be on the back side of trends when it comes to large U.S. markets. This applies to art, culture, fashion, music and, most certainly, food. I don't think this has anything to do with the lack of demand, as much as the right entrepreneurial chefs to make it happen with the ability to deliver."

Will Culture Initiative's culinary artists deliver? Ask me Saturday night if you can catch me without a mouth full of noodles.

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