What it Takes to Bring Authentic Japanese Ramen to America
Months of sampling broths, fights with the FDA, and refractometers are just the beginning when it comes to nailing traditional Japanese tonkotsu on American soil.
All photos taken by the author
My wife is Japanese and a lover of ramen. For several years, I didn't understand why she refused to return to the Japanese ramen shops that we tried in Seattle—Hey, I'd think—that last one wasn't so bad!
When she took me to Japan for the first time, I was introduced to the real, ever-lovin' deal at many small, crowded shops across Kyoto and Tokyo. My world opened up to the noodle Matrix. The vaguely dishwater-scented broths and stringy noodles I had been ingesting with ignorant glee back home were suddenly and disgustingly made clear to me.
But a few months ago, when I saw an empty storefront with posters in the windows indicating that a Kukai would soon be opening in Seattle, my wife—Riho—became vivid with anticipation. Kukai, a lauded ramen chain, solely existed in Japan until recently.
Jessmin Lau and her two business partners, Brandon Ting and Nuri Aydinel, have now become the exclusive Kukai franchise rights-holders in America, seeking to bring the chain's quintessential Japanese ramen to the New World.
"I just really wanted a ramen shop," Lau told me as we sat at the original of the three Kukais that now exist in the Seattle area. Lau is unexpectedly youthful in appearance for someone masterminding a rapidly growing franchise across the United States. We were surrounded by hunched, lunch-rushed patrons whose slurping mouths were connected to the ramen bowls in front of them. "We only started getting into it," Lau went on, "because we waited for so long and nobody ever opened what—to us—was an authentic Japanese ramen shop."
I travelled specifically there just to eat ramen. Each time it was like two weeks to a month and all I would do is eat ramen all the time.
But once Lau and her associates had made the decision to open an authentic ramen shop in Seattle, Lau pursued years of business preparations and culinary study which included enrollment at the Yamato school on Shikoku Island, Japan—the same ramen school as lauded ramen chef Ivan Orkin. Lau also made several ramen pilgrimages across Japan. "I travelled specifically there just to eat ramen. Each time it was like two weeks to a month and all I would do is eat ramen all the time. It was pretty crazy. We talked to small business owners about their recipes too—as long as we liked the ramen, we would talk to the owners about it. Eventually, we found Kukai, which was the perfect ramen for us to bring to America."
The reason Lau and her partners chose Kukai was that they offered several types of broths that they were interested in bringing to America. "Tonkotsu [pork bone broth ramen] is very popular in America, but it's kind of rare to find a brand that has good tonkotsu and also good non-tonkotsu broth."
Back in America, another major problem made itself known as Lau geared up to open the first Kukai in Bellevue, a Seattle suburb. Many ingredients being used in Kukai's recipes were not FDA-approved, and thus, illegal. Lau tried using American-sourced ingredients but was disappointed with the results.
"A lot of what makes the soul of ramen is what we call tare," Lau said. "It's the major seasoning that goes into the ramen and is made with many different ingredients. It's a very long and complicated process. We thought about having that done in America, but while researching the various ingredients, we realized that you couldn't get the same quality here. You can get kelp in America, but the difference in quality is very big. And even little things like bonito—there's a hundred varieties in Japan alone—needed in order to produce the really deep and concentrated flavor that we were seeking, were not in America at that time. The resulting thing that we could make in America fell so far short that we decided to directly import from Japan. We had to talk to the manufacturers there and get them to get a license through the FDA."
The back-and-forth bureaucratic proceedings with the FDA were maddening and time consuming. Lau, formerly an accountant, had to quit her job to focus on getting Kukai up and running in America.
"It took us a whole year," Lau remembers. "We all quit our jobs. We all had different jobs at that time. We decided it was taking up so much time we had to all quit our jobs."
While working and training at Kukai in Japan, Lau had met Masayuki "Mickey" Miyata—who had been working at Kukai in Japan for years. Miyata is a sprightly noodle chef who brings his decades of experience with Japanese cuisine to Kukai's first American location. He originally started working in a ramen shop in Japan when he was 17 years old.
Miyata brought me back into the kitchen and showed me his refractometer. This is an instrument which utilizes the refraction of light passing through a sample of the ramen broth in order to monitor its density. To make the various broths, 40 pounds of chicken and pork bones are boiled down in huge pots for upwards of ten hours.
Miyata came to America three years ago to help open the first American Kukai and has been so busy he hasn't seen his family since, other than through the distancing pixelization of Skype, so he's excited to be heading back for a vacation to Japan next month. (Incidentally when I left Kukai, I went around the back of the building to catch my bus to discover Miyata happily slurping down a bowl of the ramen he had made).
Kukai has now expanded to the Portland area. The three owners: Lau, Brandon Ting, and Nuri Aydinel were all buddies in college, but nowadays, Lau and Ting are engaged to be married. The trio's camaraderie is part of the reason they work so well together.
"I think it helps a lot," Lau tells me, "that we had a strong relationship before the business."