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TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Tokyo is full of hungry Japanese queuing outside noodle shops, but the line is usually longer at Ivan Ramen, where diners are greeted by the rare sight of a U.S. chef doling out bowls of a Japanese national obsession.
Ramen, originally a Chinese recipe of broth, noodles and various toppings, is a culinary delight closer to the hearts of most Japanese than sushi or tempura.
At Ivan Ramen, which has only 10 seats and a tiny kitchen, New Yorker Ivan Orkin fills up bowls with a measured amount of oil, fat and flavoring, pours soup over the mix and finishes it off by adding perfectly boiled noodles.
His recipe is a hit with the locals, and since opening in June 2007, the number of customers has increased dramatically, with Orkin and his team now making some 200 bowls a day.
"I've heard so much about Ivan Ramen so I used my holiday to come here," said diner Norikazu Fukai, who drove more than two hours to taste the ramen.
Orkin, a self-confessed ramen addict, said he got hooked on the noodles as a teenager working at a Japanese restaurant in New York. He went on to work as a chef in French restaurants, but then quit to study Japanese in college.
He went on to teach English in Japan and finally settled in this ramen-loving country in 2003 to master the dish.
Unlike many of the franchised ramen shops, Orkin said he approaches the process with an artisan's touch, making his own noodles and broth using local ingredients.
"Why did I chose ramen? Because it was a really interesting challenge," Orkin told Reuters. "I didn't know how to make it, but I really enjoyed it and it's in everybody's food."
Orkin stands in the kitchen six days a week and says he is always amazed at how popular ramen is with all sorts of people.
"I have nights here where I have 14-year-old boys eating, and next to them are an 80-year-old man and woman, and next to them is a girl with big hair and Chanel sunglasses and the boy next to her is wearing some ultra hip outfit," he said.
"Ramen is the uber-comfort food. It's meatloaf and mashed potatoes in a bowl. It's a Jewish chicken noodle soup. It's all those kinds of things that I think make you feel warm and safe."
Ivan Ramen may be one of an estimated 80,000 ramen shops across the country, but one Tokyo food magazine ranked it among the top ten best noodle shops in the city this year.
Kaoru Nakamura, a regular at Ivan Ramen, says its Orkin's skill that makes his shop stand out from the rest.
"Ivan's skill as a former French chef really shines since his ramen is presented in a beautiful way," he said.
"His noodles are almost like pasta and very refined as well. Many Japanese are food connoisseurs and I think Ivan has really advanced the level of ramen."
Editing by Miral Fahmy