By Andy Raskin
Published May 7, 2009
Reviewed June 1, 2009
The odds are better than average that if you have ever been in college, unemployed, lived in a bad apartment or been in any other circumstance that limited your funds, you have eaten at least one bowl of instant ramen in your lifetime. One of the cheapest meals available – costing less than a dollar per serving – instant ramen has inspired hundreds of variant recipes, spread to almost every single country in the world and even inspired its originating country of Japan to rate it as the most important invention of the last century.
For all the billions of instant ramen servings that have been consumed, it’s a safe bet that few people have ever considered where it came from, or even realized that one man created it: Momofuku Ando, the founder of Nissin Food Products. Andy Raskin was curious about this fact, and in the process of learning about Ando realized the creation of ramen may hold the secret to putting his life back together. “The Ramen King and I” is his memoir of that journey – a stunningly personal, occasionally funny and regularly appetizing story proving the adage that the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.
At the time he began learning about Ando, Raskin was in a state of emotional collapse. Unable to maintain a long-term romantic relationship, he had been consistently unfaithful to his girlfriends and suffering in his professional life, compulsively running through Craigslist and AOL personal ads to fill the gaps. After getting into a recovery program, a series of Japanese food-related coincidences led him to use Ando as a sort of guiding figure, eventually taking him all the way to Nissin to attempt to meet the man in person. The journey proves to be not at all what he expected, finding Ando’s life and writings may in fact hold the answer to how he can free himself from a vicious cycle.
The thought of picking a 94-year-old food tycoon as your spiritual guide certainly seems like a strange one, but Raskin – a regular contributor to NPR – cooks the disparate ingredients together well. Rather than explaining the results of his journey immediately and recounting the experience, “Ramen King” goes into the story with much the same spirit he did, a feeling that there was something connected he needed to track down. Readers come to the truth at the same pace he does, presented with all the same cues and ideas he was, and the presented results are as satisfying and stunning as they must have been to Raskin at the time of discovery.
This vagueness makes the book feel somewhat random or rough at the start, but Raskin quickly counters this by letting readers very deeply into his life. The main story is interspersed with his “letters” to Ando (not sent but written as part of his recovery program) along with journal entries during a abstinence “detox” period. The entries are very emotional, showing his flaws with no attempt to hide or justify – a stunning honesty that makes one much more inclined to see if he’s capable of finding redemption.
If his entries on his personal life add feeling to the book, then his discussion of Japanese food and culture adds the flavor. Raskin has lived in Japan several times (a decision almost always based on the women he was seeing), can speak the language and has a keen appreciation for the culture. He discusses the interaction between customer and chef at a sushi restaurant – a relationship as important as the one between the fish and the rice – and locates a legendary ramen restaurant with portions so rich they burst his gallbladder. There is even a bit of literary discussion worked in as he critiques various food-related manga comic books, mixing their storylines with quotes from Ando’s biographies.
And it is all these elements that push Raskin to his final discovery, answering the question that plagues him from San Francisco to Osaka: why did Ando suddenly devote his life to making instant ramen, and why does that matter so much to him? He refuses to answer it until the very last sentence of the book, when he and the reader are ready, and its revelation is as satisfying as slurping the last noodle from the bowl. “The Ramen King and I” is a memoir of rare depth and honesty, a journey embarked on with some misgivings but which makes perfect sense in the end.