In his new memoir The Ramen King and I, Andy Raskin connects sex, desire, Japanese culture, and instant noodles in an often funny, sometimes poignant, and ultimately redemptive narrative that memoir-enthusiasts (and Japanese food fans) will enjoy. Raskin’s narrative works along several tracks that eventually intertwine. The book begins with Raskin’s obsession over Momofuku Ando, inventor of instant ramen (and gifted inspirational author, to boot), backtracking in time to slowly reveal just how a kid from Long Island got to be so wound up in the writings and philosophy of an ancient Japanese businessman. Raskin balances a straightforward, chronological narrative with intensely personal letters (supposedly) written to Momofuku. These letters often read like diary entries and help to expose the core of Raskin’s dilemma: in short, he’s an emotionally detached womanizer with extreme fears of commitment (in some of the memoir’s skeevier sections, we’re treated to Raskin’s descriptions of making “dates” via Craigslist). Raskin relates his life as a tech and business writer, and his frequent trips to Japan. Eventually, after a chance encounter in a sushi bar, Raskin enters the strange world of ramen, a world that eventually leads him to Momofuku, whose zen writings in turn lead Raskin to a transcendental breakthrough.
Raskin lets his audience get to know Momofuku too, both through the narrative proper and also through short, scattered sections titled “A Very Brief History of Momofuku.” Each part delivers another pithy bit of wisdom from the ramen master (who, strangely enough, invented instant noodles in a wood shack in his back yard). It’s easy to see why Raskin admires Momofuku, especially when we’re treated to a koan like “In a line, you can see the desires of the world” (to clarify, Momofuku is referring to a queue). Raskin’s descriptions actually make readers want to pick up Mr. Ando’s books–who could resist a chapter title like “I Am a Salad Bar Man,” from Momofuku’s collection of food essays Praise the Appetite. Indeed, the best parts of The Ramen King and I center around food and Japanese culture. Raskin is particularly passionate when describing his favorite semi-secret sushi spot (in one of the book’s saddest moments, he’s banned–this only helps to facilitate that redemptive arc, though, folks); the book also shines when Raskin details the rigmarole of the ordering ritual at Ramen Jiro–a Tokyo ramen shop complete with its own shaming ceremonies. Raskin’s evocations of sushi and ramen manga also fascinates. I lived in Tokyo long enough myself to know that the Japanese have comic books about everything, but I must admit I was still surprised by the range of sushi comics Raskin describes. He also takes one of the books major thematic cues from a Japanese game show called Go Forth, where the young hosts blurt out “I wanna _____!” and fill in that blank with a random phrase; they then go attempt to fulfill their task.
On the other hand, the parts of The Ramen King and I which center on Raskin’s relationships with women often drag, or at least blur into each other. Raskin seems to understand his “ex-girl to the next-girl” mentality is detrimental to his mental health, but he’s rarely reflective about it in a meaningful way, and he certainly doesn’t attempt to plumb its roots. However, he often admits as much, pointing out that the details he remembers from relationships–even long term ones–tend to be pretty ephemeral (and, not coincidentally, attached to food). On the whole though, Raskin’s book reads at a quick, easily digestible pace without resorting to the clichés or stock phrasing that often plague memoirs. Sure, the book follows a pretty predictable pattern of fall and redemption, but it does so in a manner that enlightens without being didactic. Memoir fans, foodies, and anyone interested in contemporary Japanese culture will likely enjoy The Ramen King and I. Recommended.
The Ramen King and I is available May 7th, 2009 from Gotham/Penguin.