The Proper Way to Eat Ramen: A Meditation from the Classic Japanese Comedy Tampopo (1985)

There is a right way to eat every dish, as an ever-increas­ing abun­dance of inter­net videos dai­ly informs us. But how did we nav­i­gate our first encoun­ters with unfa­mil­iar foods thir­ty, forty, fifty years ago? With no way to learn online, we had no choice but to learn in real life, assum­ing we could find a trust­ed fig­ure well-versed in the ways of eat­ing from whom to learn — a sen­sei, as they say in Japan­ese, the kind of wise elder depict­ed in the film clip above, a scene that takes place in a ramen shop. “Mas­ter,” asks the young stu­dent, “soup first or noo­dles first?” The ramen mas­ter’s reply: “First, observe the whole bowl. Appre­ci­ate its gestalt. Savor the aro­mas.”

Behold the “jew­els of fat glit­ter­ing on its sur­face,” the “shi­nachiku roots shin­ing,” the “sea­weed low­ly sink­ing, the “spring onions float­ing.” The eater’s first action must be to “caress the sur­face with the chop­stick tips” in order to “express affec­tion.” The sec­ond is to “poke the pork” — don’t eat it, just touch it — then “pick it up and dip it into the soup on the right of the bowl.” The most impor­tant part? To “apol­o­gize to the pork by say­ing, ‘See you soon.’ ” Then the eat­ing can com­mence, “noo­dles first,” but “while slurp­ing the noo­dles, look at the pork. Eye it affec­tion­ate­ly.” After then sip­ping the soup three times, the mas­ter picks up a slice of pork “as if mak­ing a major deci­sion in life,” and taps it on the side of the bowl. Why? “To drain it.” To those who know Japan­ese food cul­ture for the val­ue it places on aes­thet­ic sen­si­tiv­i­ty and adher­ence to form, this scene may look per­fect­ly real­is­tic.

But those who know Japan­ese cin­e­ma will have rec­og­nized imme­di­ate­ly the open­ing of Tam­popo, the beloved 1985 com­e­dy that sat­i­rizes through food both Japan­ese cul­ture and human­i­ty itself. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert describes the ramen-mas­ter vignette as depict­ing “a kind of gas­tro­nom­ic reli­gion, and direc­tor Juzo Ita­mi cre­ates a scene that makes noo­dles in this movie more inter­est­ing than sex and vio­lence in many anoth­er.” Not that Tam­popo, for all its cheer­ful­ness (Ebert calls it “a bemused med­i­ta­tion on human nature in which one humor­ous sit­u­a­tion flows into anoth­er offhand­ed­ly, as if life were a series of smiles”) does­n’t also con­tain plen­ty of sex and vio­lence. Wal­ter Ben­jamin once said that every great work of art destroys or cre­ates a genre. Tam­popo cre­ates the “ramen West­ern,” rolling a cou­ple of cow­boy­ish truck­ers (seen briefly in the clip above) into boom­ing 1980 Tokyo to get a wid­ow’s fail­ing ramen shop into shape.

Through par­o­dy and sly­er forms of allu­sion, Tam­popo ref­er­ences cin­e­ma both West­ern and East­ern, and its cast includes actors who were or would become icon­ic: the stu­dent of ramen is played by Ken Watan­abe, now known to audi­ences world­wide for his roles in Hol­ly­wood pic­tures like The Last Samu­rai and Incep­tion. The mas­ter is played by Ryû­tarô Ôto­mo, a main­stay of samu­rai films from the late 1930s through the 1960s, who chose this as his very last role: the very day after shoot­ing his scene, he com­mit­ted sui­cide by jump­ing from the top of a build­ing. (Ita­mi would die under sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances in 1997, some say with the involve­ment of the Yakuza.) Now that inter­net videos and oth­er forms of 21st-cen­tu­ry media are dis­sem­i­nat­ing the rel­e­vant knowl­edge, we can all study to become mas­ters of ramen, or for that mat­ter of any dish we please — but can any of us hope to rise to the exam­ple of ele­gance, and hilar­i­ous­ness, laid down by Ôto­mo’s final act on film?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Right and Wrong Way to Eat Sushi: A Primer

How to Make Sushi: Free Video Lessons from a Mas­ter Sushi Chef

Watch Tee­ny Tiny Japan­ese Meals Get Made in a Minia­ture Kitchen: The Joy of Cook­ing Mini Tem­pu­ra, Sashi­mi, Cur­ry, Okonomiya­ki & More

Cook­pad, the Largest Recipe Site in Japan, Launch­es New Site in Eng­lish

In Japan­ese Schools, Lunch Is As Much About Learn­ing As It’s About Eat­ing

The Restau­rant of Mis­tak­en Orders: A Tokyo Restau­rant Where All the Servers Are Peo­ple Liv­ing with Demen­tia

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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