If English were a more-thoroughgoing language, there would be a term for “nostalgia food.” Comfort food can come to you new. Even if you’ve never had chicken and dumplings or mashed potatoes or congee before, you can understand what they’re telling you. Before the bowl is empty, you feel like you’ve been given a shoulder rub, wrapped in a thick terry-cloth robe, and tucked into bed.
Nostalgia food is so much more complicated. You must have a past together, although it doesn’t have to be a happy one. Eating becomes a séance; it calls up memories and ghosts. Before the bowl is empty, you’re looking through a window at yourself as a child, after school in the kitchen or at your grandparents’ house, or after a bad breakup, or traveling abroad alone for the first time. It’s bittersweet: You are tasting in the present something that is long gone. How lovely and aching to relive the moment.
Anyway: I’m eating ramen at this tiny joint in Brookline called Ganko Ittetsu. It’s inside the Arcade Building, that Old World galleria in Coolidge Corner that in itself makes me nostalgic — something about the neat line of shops, the mix of salons and tailors and watch-repair outfits, the smell of the soap used to clean the floors. It’s like having one foot in Italy and the other in some imaginary apple-cheeked America of yore, except then there’s Ganko Ittetsu, planting its flag for Japan. (Almost literally: In front of the big glass windows hang white noren, the curtains ubiquitous in restaurants, printed with the shop’s name in characters.)
I’m inhaling the crimped, chewy, golden noodles with swallows of soup — there are several choices here, but I’m having the shoyu — and all of a sudden I’m 11 again, in Tokyo for the first time, here to live for the year because my professor father is on sabbatical, doing research and teaching at a local university. I’m not a picky eater (unlike my little sister, who only survives thanks to white rice), but this is the ’80s; kids aren’t nonchalantly mainlining maki the way they do now. The year for me turns into a tour of Japanese noodles: zaru soba, cool and earthy and showered in nori, a perfect summer lunch; kitsune udon, the noodles plump and slippery beside triangles of fried tofu; ramen on the regular. Japan has famous ramen, fancy ramen. This isn’t that. This is everyday stuff, eaten standing up at counters, in train stations, at a place near our apartment, on the fly. The nights are growing chilly, the smell of fish cooking over charcoal lingers in the air, and in the distance I can hear the mournful song of the sweet potato vendor offering his wares.
We have plenty of meritorious ramen around Boston, finally, at places like Little Big Diner and Pagu, where a broth sommelier might wax poetic. I’ll eat it any chance I get. But it doesn’t whisk me back. It feels like fancy ramen. Ganko’s bowls, while full of virtue (high-quality Nishiyama noodles, soy sauce and miso from an old Japanese microbrewery), feel more like an everyday meal.
You eat them wedged into a small table, or at the counter before the open kitchen in the back. It’s often crowded, and there’s often a wait, but it’s never a long one. You’re not here to linger. In Japan, people slurp while eating ramen. It cools things off so the food can be consumed even more quickly. Japanese businessmen dispatching the dish bring to mind one of those nature videos where the snake downs the mouse in a few easy gulps.
If you’ve seen the movie “Tampopo” (and if you haven’t, you know what you’re doing tonight), you’ve learned that ramen is a specialist’s game. At Ganko Ittetsu, chef Ken Iwaoka’s is Sapporo-style, and it’s all he serves, with the exception of a simple cucumber salad. There are several varieties — for instance, tantan, so rich with sesame it’s tahini-esque; shoyu, or soy; and spicy miso — topped with permutations of pork, egg, corn, seaweed, bamboo shoots. A bowl ranges from $11-$14. You can also get beer — think Jack’s Abby rather than Asahi. What more do you need?
Find me at the counter in the back, eating my shoyu ramen with an extra topping of nostalgia.
Ganko Ittetsu Ramen, 318 Harvard St., Brookline, 617-730-8100, www.gankoramen.comDevra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.