First Sushi, Now Ramen | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

First Sushi, Now Ramen

First Sushi, Now Ramen

Kosher foodies slurping more noodles than ever before

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Deborah Hartman Blaiberg of Teaneck, 45, recently had a transformative experience that has become a near-rite of passage for trayf-eating New Yorkers: she sampled her first tastes of ramen and pho at what is billed as the first-ever kosher Asian noodle house anywhere, Pho-Men on Troy, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

“I don’t know what Vietnamese food is supposed to taste like, but I enjoyed it,” said Hartman Blaiberg. She particularly relished the “participatory” element of eating pho, a soup served with a basket of cilantro, basil, mint, bean sprouts, and lime that diners add to the broth. “I like the putting all the bits and pieces in,” she said.

As Orthodox Jews travel more and take notice of world cuisines, they adapt them to kashrut, as with the unabated sushi trend that kicked off in the mid-1990s. Riding the crest of what in 2013 The New York Times called “a greater New York ramen boom,” kosher establishments are starting to feature the Japanese wheat-noodle soup and its rice-noodle-based Vietnamese counterpart, pho, on their menus.

In February, Manhattan got its first kosher ramen joint: Boru Boru on the Upper West Side. The eatery serves Japanese, Chinese, and Korean comfort food and three choices of ramen, including a “pastrami ramen bowl” of house-made pastrami, miso broth, napa cabbage, and pickled mustard seeds.

“People say, ‘You know, I've really always wanted to try ramen, and I never could,'” says owner Dan Zelkowitz. He says his customers include a family who lives half the year in Japan but only tasted ramen for the first time this year at his restaurant.

With zoup mit lokshen fundamental to the Ashkenazi diet, it was perhaps inevitable that American Jews would adopt and reinvent similar fare from other cultures.

In 2007, Ivan Orkin from Syosset, Long Island, became the first American with enough chutzpah to open a ramen shop in Tokyo. It became an overnight success; he now has two. In 2013, he launched the first of two Ivan Ramen Slurp Shops in Manhattan.

Korean-born chef Joshua Smookler, adopted and raised by an Orthodox Jewish family in Port Jefferson, Long Island, opened the acclaimed Mu Ramen in Long Island City in 2014. Dassara Ramen in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, which closed in 2016 after a four-year stretch, was known for its matzah ball-topped “deli ramen” with Mile End-smoked meat. Co-owner Josh Kaplan told Eater.com he hoped to relocate in the area.

“It goes back to chicken soup,” says Elan Kornblum, publisher of Great Kosher Restaurants magazine. “Jewish people just like soup and they probably are accustomed to it, so it appeals to them.”

But not all first timers are enthusiastic. At Pho-Men’s grand opening, Rochel Katz and her daughter Chaya shared a bowl of black garlic chicken ramen, daintily using forks instead of chopsticks. “I like a meal in a bowl,” said the elder Katz, but “it’s a little fattening,” she said of the noodles. The pair comprised half the lunchtime clientele. “A lot of people are very into their old-school-style foods,” said Katz. “It’s gonna take people time to try new things.”

The author's daughter eating pastrami ramen at Boru Boru/ Courtesy Jennifer Rak 

Not so the diners in Lakewood, N.J. When Yussi Weisz introduced a ramen pho bowl chef’s special in early March at Snaps, his gourmet fast food restaurant there, it quickly became one of the top three sellers. Weisz relished “patchkening” in the kitchen to create his recipe, which draws upon “a lot of colorful vegetables” such as daikon, snap peas, carrots, and white asparagus. “We try to mimic whatever we can,” he says. Instead of pork, “we use a nice brisket and sear it really beautifully and slow roast it for hours so it’s nice and soft.” And then there’s the ultimate test of ramen prowess: the boiled egg. “It shouldn’t be raw or well done,” he says. Because he likes “to put jalapeños on everything,” the dish is garnished with jalapeño or chili pepper.

Upside Craft Burgers in Kensington, Brooklyn, introduced a pho special this year. As at Snaps, it shall remain on the menu indefinitely. “I think this is the beginning of a new kosher way of eating,” Weisz says. Indeed, Cradle of Flavor, another kosher noodle establishment is scheduled to open this year in Marine Park, Brooklyn, featuring Japanese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Korean, Malaysian, Burmese and Singaporean fare. For the past month, T Fusion Steakhouse, also in Marine Park, has been previewing a rotation of dishes from the restaurant. Diners can try Vietnamese caramel chicken wings with pickled vegetables, Vietnamese beef soup, and Thai papaya salad with fish skewers.

But will this culinary coup endure? “If these restaurants fail, maybe the cuisine might fail,” Kornblum says. Due to their complexity, the soups don’t lend themselves to widespread prevalence like sushi, he says. “Sushi is a phenomenon that is great because it's quick to make, quick to eat, it's easy. There's a thousand different combinations. With ramen, it's a little bit more intensive. You gotta make the noodles, the bowl is a little more complicated, there are more flavors.”

Though novel it may seem, kosher Japanese cuisine was actually introduced in 1980s New York at the short-lived SoHo supper club, Shalom Japan. Founded by Miriam Mizakura, a Japanese Jew, it served kreplach with ginger; sashimi (“Oy gevalt—try it, you’ll like it,” read the menu); “kamikaze” gefilte fish; “eagle fliegels,” chicken wings in ginger sauce); and “karate choppe,” a Japanese-style chopped liver.

Restaurant critic Gael Greene wrote in the November 17, 1980, edition of New York Magazine, “Miriam is a bundle of Debbie Reynolds, stripping from kimono to miniskirt, doing Zero Mostel in Yiddish and Japanese, coaxing a surprisingly game diner from his table to join her onstage…trilling her heart out to a sparsely settled room.”

Fast forward 33 years: husband-and-wife chefs Aaron Israel and Sawako Okochi name their Williamsburg restaurant Shalom Japan in homage to the original. But instead of resuscitating the soul of its dear departed forebear, this non-kosher establishment pushes the envelope with items such as “sake kasu challah” made with yeast left over from sake brewing; okonomiyaki - an omelet pancake - strewn with pastrami, sauerkraut, and bonito; kasha-crusted fluke; and matzah ball ramen with foie gras kreplach.

Time will tell whether kosher establishments follow suit. “This is the tip of the iceberg of what we can do,” Kornblum says. Both chefs and diners are learning more about Asian cuisines, their seasonings, and regions of origin. “Next, we’ll hopefully see noodles being made” and patrons wearing kimonos, he says.

Will the cultural appropriation run both ways? This year, San Francisco’s Wise Sons opened the first Jewish deli in Tokyo. It features house-made matzah, pastrami Reuben sandwiches, a “Big Macher" burger, and matcha babka. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before the diet of our fellow foodies in the Far East matches that of (some of) our Ashkenazi ancestors on the Lower East.

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