As a student, I worked at a Japanese ramen restaurant in Germany. Though I am Korean, I was exotic enough to serve as staff. My lunch shift was from noon to 2 p.m. on the day the horror struck. The day I stood rooted and dumbstruck.
It started innocuously. A gentleman came alone, a guest at our ramen restaurant. He sat down and ordered a Negi Ramen, a noodle soup with lots of spring onions and salty flavour. After two or three mouthfuls he stopped and stared out of the window. Didn’t he like his ramen? I started getting nervous. Then my horror started to mount. The noodles slowly soaked up all the soup. Then he stabbed the chopsticks into his food—one sticking out to the left, the other to the right.
The painful sight of the ill-treated homemade ramen made me feel sick. I knew he couldn’t enjoy the noodle soup anymore. I also knew he would have a dreadful misconception about the actual taste of ramen for the rest of his life. But what could I say? Not a word! I was merely a student server and he was our guest.
The gentleman was not alone. Many times I saw guests create inedible stews out of their ramen. Sometimes I tried to explain how to properly enjoy the Japanese noodle soup and often the guests were offended. Nothing and nobody could stop them from adding sugar to their green tea or pouring extra soy sauce on their salty fried rice.
Ramen without noodles
What really bugged me was when someone ordered ramen without noodles!
Can you imagine a hamburger without a patty or a hot dog without a sausage? Pasta Bolognese without pasta? Most frightening of all: a strawberry frosted sprinkled donut without the strawberry frosting?! Terrifying, right?
It is not that I couldn’t respect personal taste and preferences. Somebody likes weisswurst, somebody else prefers currywurst. But you can eat neither without the wurst. Likewise, nobody would go out for an Italian dinner to have a nice pasta alla carbonara without the pasta. Put simply, custom, manners, general knowledge and common sense surround wurst and pasta.
Despite the internationally growing trend of Asian cuisines, the food culture that surrounds us and is perceived as normal is Western. If I couldn’t eat with a fork and knife, I would be called a savage. My comfort food, a plate of kimchi and a bowl of rice, becomes something very indigenous and intimate within the German culture I am living in. My kimchi and rice and chopsticks and spoon also become very invisible.
It disturbs me to see that the definition of standard food, dining, and etiquette in the culinary world continues to be so wholly dominated by a Western perspective. Think of the Michelin guide and its star rating for restaurants. Their criteria grow from a French notion of fine dining and use this Western standard as the bar by which restaurants worldwide are judged and evaluated. Three Michelin stars indicate that the restaurant has an “exceptional cuisine, worthy of a special trip”.
The Japanese restaurant where I used to work was one of the many trendy places responding to the growing demand for Asian, and especially Japanese, food in Germany a few years ago. Located in one of the most expensive areas in the city, people came to taste the latest trend without knowing what to expect. Japan has a very prestigious image in Germany, so to be able to “enjoy” ramen implied the consumption of that image and the opportunity see oneself as a trendy, open-minded world-citizen.
Asking for ramen without noodles always told me that the guest was here to eat the image of Japan, not the food, to show off themselves, not their respect towards the food’s culture.
The cultural perspective of “You are what you eat”
“You are what you eat” is a phrase many food ads like to use and reuse. Since the rise of conscious and clean eating as the new lifestyle of choice, eating has become more individual and the question of eating includes not only what you eat, but how. How to eat does not necessarily mean the way the ingredients are cooked. Rather, it is also about our attitude towards the cuisine we are enjoying.
Perhaps I should not be so horrorstruck by ramen without noodles and bulgogi without meat, but it should also be quite ok to ask for chopsticks with tagliatelle and to spread some butter on a croissant. We should meet halfway, loosen the rubber jacket of Michelin and experience the joy of learning different ways of eating.