Ramen Has Finally Arrived in Israel

The absence of pork ramen at Mian Noodles represents the chef's willingness to forgo gustatory greatness in exchange for accommodating Jewish customers’ dietary restrictions.

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May 26 2016, 8:00pm

My brother Ezra suffers from acute Japanophilia. As a soldier in the IDF, he satisfies his fix with piles of manga comic books, but army grub does little to slake his cravings for Japanese food. Most "Asian" food in Israel is greasy stir-fry, overcooked, and drenched in sweet chili sauce. Sushi bars serving anything but flaccid fish are a rarity, and most customers dunk their rolls in spicy mayonnaise like they're chasing a heart attack.

The only noodles you can find in Jerusalem are in the eponymous kugel. Ramen, that steaming hot bowl of goodness revered in Japan like a national treasure, is never on the menu.

To my brother's astonishment and delight, Jerusalem opened its first ramen restaurant in April. Mian Noodles features an assortment of Asian fusion dishes by its owner and chef, So Hai Chen. The noodles channel Japanese cuisine with the occasional inclusion of Korean and Chinese flavors.

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Inside Mian Noodles. All photos by the author.
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"My dream was to open a fusion noodle place," he said, his Cantonese-accented English peppered with Hebrew terms. "I like the creativity."

Also known by his English moniker, Billy, his noodle shop across from the upscale Mamilla mall opened in the midst of a boom in Chinese tourism to Israel. He grew up in Hong Kong and learned how to cook in the traditional way: under the tutelage of a street food cook. ("Everything ," he said, using the Hebrew word for "real.") He moved to Israel 25 years ago "for love, a Jewish woman," he said. He's been cooking and teaching Asian cooking—mostly in the southern city of Beersheba—ever since. Only recently did he capitalize on the spike in East Asian tourism, move to Jerusalem, and start serving hot bowls of noodles in broth.

Visitors to Israel rave about the hummus. But for the growing numbers of East Asian tourists to the Holy Land, the chickpea puree might not be their cup of tea. He recalled that a busload of visitors from Hong Kong made their way to Jerusalem after a week traveling around the country. They'd had more than their fill of hotel food, grilled meat, and hummus, so they gave Billy a call.

"I made them Hong Kong food and they ate it up," Billy recounted. "'You're from Hong Kong? Oh, we trust you!'"

Chinese tourism to Israel has jumped over 30 percent in the past couple of years, with new direct flights to Beijing and a greater number of hotels and tour operators catering to the needs of Chinese visitors. Since opening last month, Billy said a significant portion of customers are tourists from the Far East, but there's a steady increase in locals dipping in for a steaming bowl of savory noodles.

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So Hai Chen—a.k.a. Billy—of Mian Noodles.

The US Consulate, which is just around the corner, is a major source of business, too. Americans, he said, are familiar with Asian food culture through waves of immigration from China, Japan, Vietnam, and elsewhere. "In Israel, they don't know. They're missing the culture."

The restaurant is brightly festooned with Japanese prints, orchids, and a overwhelming photos of flowers laminated onto the walls; the atmosphere is cozy, despite its fluorescent lights, thanks to the exuberant friendliness of the chef and his wife.

Billy's a bubbling font of philosophy when we sit down between the lunch and dinner rushes, like Lao Tzu meets David Chang. He rambles seamlessly from anecdote to culinary insight to life advice, all with the animation and energy of someone passionate about what he does: "If you don't cook from the heart, the customer will taste it," "Don't follow somebody, OK? Follow yourself," or "Very important—that it come from your heart. If it's not your heart, it's no good. Customers will feel it."

The open kitchen at the back of the shop has two vast cauldrons of broth seething contentedly through most hours of the day—one chicken, one beef, and a third smaller pot with a shiitake broth.

Billy's favorite is the chicken ramen, which he recommended the first time I came in. The broth is rich and savory, but not overwhelmingly fatty or salty. The slices of chicken breast were succulent, not dried out and plopped into the soup.

The absence of pork ramen is Billy's willingness to forgo gustatory greatness in exchange for accommodating Jewish customers' dietary restrictions (it is Jerusalem, after all), even if keeping the place kosher is a drag for business.

"I know kosher very well, 15 years of cooking kosher," he said, throwing out some terminology he's familiar with.

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He explains that his style draws from an assortment of influences and that he experiments daily with new flavors and techniques. On a day when Jerusalem was cloaked in a blast of premature summer heat, he served up cold soba noodles paired with the subtle—if un-Japanese—heat of a garlic-chili paste. A small dish of kimchi accompanied the delicate buckwheat noodles and drew a prickle of sweat to the brow.

The key, he explained, is listening to the customer and adapting to the tastes and preferences of the time and place. Israelis, Billy pointed out with eyes smiling as big as his mouth, prefer heavy tastes, whereas the Asian kitchen tends toward more subtle flavors. His beef ramen caters to the Western palate, with ground beef instead of a chewier slice. But for those in the know, he'll fix it East Asian-style.

For now, Billy's the only one making decent ramen in Jerusalem, but he's eager for a competitor to open up shop.

"Competition is better, we can learn from one another!" he exclaimed. "No competition, no good!"