Poke & Ramen Hit the Mainstream
Dishes from two cultures advance the US trend of eating with an international flair.
In the age of rideshares andAirbnb-type lodging, traveling the world has become more feasible for younger generations. In fact, a 2016 study by the American Society of
Travel Agents showed that Millennials took an average of 44% more time off and traveled more than the average Baby Boomer. Millennials were also found to be the fastest-growing demographic of travelers, with an expected 320 million trips next year.
That interest in international voyaging translates into a greater interest in finding foreign dishes at home. “Nowadays, Millennials are traveling the world and experiencing different cultures early on,” says Keizo Shimamoto, a ramen expert and owner of Shimamoto Noodle Company in Long Island City, New York. “Instead of getting something adapted to their palate, they want the real thing. They can have authentic traditional ramen in New York without having to go to Japan.”
In cities like New York, Dallas and Los Angeles, the diversity that exists within opens up the doors to a variety of traditional customs and flavors from a variety of cultures. In many cases, one city block might be home to a pizza place, a Chinese restaurant, a sushi joint and a taco stand. And when foods from other cultures creep into mainstream American cuisine, those traditional flavors have a good chance of evolving, with modern chefs adding new twists and creating their own take on culturally inspired dishes.
Two examples of traditional dishes that have hit superstar status over the last few years: ramen and poke. Both are affordable and healthy while offering flavors from far-off lands. And while some may come in an authentic format, sticking strictly to traditional recipes, others might be more adapted to an urban palate.
Originally from China as a wheat noodle-and-broth bowl, ramen came to Japan in the mid-1800s. The Japanese then made it their own. “They converted that noodle dish into more of a Japanese style that’s now completely different from a Chinese noodle soup,” Shimamoto says. “Then it spread throughout Japan to different cities and regions, and every region put their own spin on it.”
Shimamoto would know: He was raised on ramen growing up in a Japanese-American family. “I was addicted at a young age; it was my comfort food and one of the only things I ate as a child,” he says.
That addiction led Shimamoto to eventually quit a 9-to-5 job and travel all over Japan to study ramen variations. The result was a 28-day trip to 21 cities, where he consumed 55 bowls of ramen. He started the blog GoRamen.com to report his findings, and inspired, moved to Tokyo to learn the art of making the dish—and eating around 600 bowls per year. In 2013, he opened his first ramen shop in New York City (where he invented the ramen burger, a ramen-and-chopped-meat mashup, which turned into a hit nationwide).
Shimamoto says there are three general variations of ramen: The soy sauce–based shoyu ramen, a salt-based shio ramen and the miso-based miso ramen. The stocks also vary from a clear or cloudy chicken broth—the cloudier variety meaning the bones were boiled hotter and for longer—to a cloudy pork broth called tonkotsu. “Usually shops only specialize in one style; if it’s a chicken broth shop, they might change between the types of ramen [bases],” he says.
Inexpensive freeze-dried ramen noodles have been famous for years as the ultimate quick-cook dorm food. However, the resurgence of authentic ramen shops over the past few years has aligned with renewed interest in quality, authentic and healthier foods.
“I think it’s because there are so many different styles to choose from, and everyone has a favorite style or shop,” Shimamoto says. “It’s a comfort food from a different country, but it’s healthy, and many chefs keep it authentic.”
The price point is also on target for younger people. “In New York, it’s still relatively cheap compared to other food, especially if you think of the time and effort that goes into it,” Shimamoto adds.
Popular in Hawaii since the early 1970s, traditional poke (rhymes with “okay”) consists of diced, raw fish (classically tuna or octopus) flavored with a variety of condiments, including seaweed, sea salt and limu (algae), among others. Sort of sushi in a bowl, poke became a craze in Los Angeles’s Venice Beach area about four years ago, and has since spread to nearly every US city.
Although traditional poke is available, many urban poke restaurants have used the dish as a base, adding different elements to complement the flavors and health benefits of fresh fish. “There’s traditional poke, and then the liberties we take,” explains Jon Alexis, owner of Malibu Poke (malibupoke.com), with two locations in Dallas and one in Austin. “We are not in any way pretending to be traditional Hawaiian. We are inspired by poke.”
As the operator of a popular Dallas-based TJ’s Seafood Market & Grill, Alexis had many years of experience in the seafood industry, sourcing the highest-quality fish for his store. And as poke was making its way into the mainstream, he saw the quality dwindling in some cases. “It came stateside and became the hottest food trend,” he says. “But we saw poke developing into fast food, and, who wants raw fish fast food?”
As with many poke restaurants today, Malibu Poke allows customers to customize their own bowls based on a variety of high-quality fish and other protein sources as well as grains, vegetables, seaweed salads, sauces and other flavorings. Alexis has noticed that the customization is part of the dish’s allure, especially among younger generations, as food allergies and vegan needs can be accommodated, all while getting a supremely healthy and affordable meal. “Millennials appreciate where food comes from, they care what they put in their bodies, and they’re willing to pay a fair price for that,” Alexis says.
On top of that, he adds that some people find it intrusive to talk to strangers about dietary needs, so Malibu’s computerized kiosks serve as the ordering stations, and consumers can customize a bowl in 63,000 different ways with face-recognition options to store past orders. “We built a whole other section for vegans and added a chart telling customers if things are OK for the Whole 30, Keto and Atkins diets, and what’s gluten free. People have loved that,” Alexis says.
With other food trends popping up from time to time, these two healthy and affordable options seem to be a good fit among those looking to blend tradition, health and flavor, with the added pinch of affordability. It looks as if they’re here to stay.