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Ramen Around: Tsutomu Higashi makes noodles in-house, in a glassed-in booth by Maru Ichi's front door.

Go Ahead, Slurp

Maru Ichi keeps a noodle tradition alive

By Stett Holbrook

THERE'S A disturbing trend afoot in Japan. The sensuous art of noodle slurping is reportedly on the decline among Japanese youth. Maybe they're rejecting the old ways of their elders or recognizing that other people around the world don't eat with an audible inhalation, but many style-conscious Japanese youngsters regard noodle slurping as uncool and now consume their ramen in stony silence. What a shame.

Slurping is indeed sensual and something of an art. Like sucking out the heads of boiled crawfish or gnawing the meat off barbecued ribs, slurping up your noodles is a visceral experience that enhances the act of eating. It's just you and your noodles. A properly prepared bowl of ramen made with freshly made noodles and a rich, warming broth afloat with sliced pork, fish cake, seaweed, pickled bamboo shoots and other ingredients is a glorious thing. It's cheap, healthy and immensely satisfying.

While slurping one's food is taboo in the West, in Japan slurping noodles is perfectly acceptable and, indeed, the norm. Some say slurping is a means of expressing appreciation to your hosts, but I think it's simply the sound of someone enjoying a good bowl of noodles.

But you must slurp with care. Inhale too hard, and a noodle may shoot down your throat before you get a change to chew it. Slurp too feebly, and you may splatter yourself. After studying the crowds at Maru Ichi in Mountain View, one of the Bay Area's premier noodle houses, I'm starting to get the hand of this subtle art.

If right-handed, hold a spoon in your left hand and chopsticks in your right. In one fluid motion, scoop up a spoonful of broth and noodles, grasping the noodles with your chopsticks and bringing the dripping mass to your mouth while emitting a loud slurp. The key is to slurp while lifting, holding your mouth about six inches from the bowl. You must find the proper equilibrium and slurp with just enough force, swallowing broth and chewing noodles as you go. Judging by the crowds in Maru Ichi, they know what they're doing.

"I feel like I'm on the Tokyo subway," said one man as he waited for a table during the busy lunch rush. Not only is the restaurant filled with Japanese like a Tokyo subway train, it gets as crowded as one.

Maru Ichi is a true noodle shop. While there are a few appetizers on the menu such as potstickers, tuna rolls and kakuni, wonderfully fatty stewed pork belly, you come here for noodles.

When it opened a year ago, Maru Ichi purchased its noodles, but now makes them in-house. On two of my visits, the noodle maker was at his post in the glassed-in booth near the front door. Sitting on a stool, he fed a thick roll of just pressed dough into the noodle machine and out came freshly cut strands of ramen.

The restaurant itself is a bare-bones but comfortable place. A horseshoe-shaped counter sits at the center flanked by comfortable reddish vinyl booths. Madcap Japanese game shows play on the (thankfully) silent televisions on the wall. What you hear instead is lots of contented slurping.

Kuro ramen ($6.75) is the house specialty and for good reason. According to the menu, kuro, or "black," ramen was invented in a noodle shop in Hitoyoshi, Japan, some 45 years ago. Made with browned garlic, the ramen became popular and spread throughout the country. At Maru Ichi, the broth isn't exactly black but an opaque, earthy brown. It's rich and deeply flavorful, no doubt the result of hours of slow bubbling in a stockpot. The plump, silky noodles are topped with meaty slices of pork, seaweed, sliced green onions, bean sprouts and an unremarkable boiled egg. Mix it all up and slurp away.

Just as good is the soy sauce ramen ($6.75). The broth is not as deep as the kuro ramen, but it's still hearty and beefy. I was disappointed, however, with the miso ramen ($6.75). I expected a lighter broth, but it was heavy and oily.

For a slightly lighter dish go for the cold bukkake noodles ($6.75). Available with udon or soba noodles, it's topped with barbecued eel, a single tempura shrimp, ground radish and bonito flakes all bathed in a light, salty-sweet soy sauce.

I can't do anything about the decline of noodle slurping in Japan, but I'm doing my part at Maru Ichi, where the tradition is alive and well.

Maru Ichi
Address: 368 Castro St., Mountain View.
Phone: 650.564.9931.
Hours: Mon-Thu 11:30am-3pm; Mon-Fri 5pm-10pm; Sat 11:30am-10:30pm; Sun 11:30am-9pm.
Price range: $1.75-$9.75.

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From the January 12-18, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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