Thursday, August 7, 2014

支那そばや (Shinasobaya at the Yokohama Raumen Museum)

支那そばや

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I had the honor of meeting Sano-san at last years Grand Tsukemen Fest.

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Who is Sano-san, you ask?

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Minoru Sano is one of the most important people in ramen's short history. His Kanagawa shop, along with his unique character, are pivotal in the new-ish idea that ramen, a simple Chinese noodle dish, can be taken to a gourmet level with care and consideration. That care and consideration often came in the form of tough love, with Sano-san appearing to outsiders as a mean old man. Shinasobaya was one of the first shops to ban non-ramen activities. If you were seen chatting, taking too long, or generally eating in a way that would distract from the ramen at hand, Sano-san was known to be in your face. Yelling at customers was a common occurrence.

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It should come as no surprise, as the shop was at the peak of popularity in the early 90s, that the Seinfeld soup-nazi character was adopted as a fitting metaphor. The ramen-nazi; so dedicated to his craft that staff, customers, even other ramen shops would face his wrath.

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But the ramen speaks for itself. This is the epitome of shinasoba, an old, rather racist sounding renaming of chukasoba (shina is an outdated word that referred to Chinese; chuka is much more acceptable). Every simple aspect is elevated. Noodles, soup, and some sparse toppings; all amazing.

While Sano-san's image in the general world seems a bit negative, he inspired some of the greatest ramen chefs to really embrace the idea that simple, when done with perfection as the goal, can be a winning way to approach ramen.

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I had the chance to meet him at last years Grand Tsukemen Festival. We sat down for a few minutes, chatted, and slurped. We talked about the global reach of ramen and he encouraged me to keep spreading information.

He was a presence, and the young ramen cooks scurrying around seemed to lower their heads in respect as they passed. But in the end, just a nice guy who took his craft seriously.

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Sano Minoru passed away on April 11th, 2014. He was 63.