The bakeries only have it at set hours of the day, at limited quantities. The race for “authentic ramen” is one for getting everything right, with at least one shop perfectly happy saying it gets it “Wrong.” And then there’s the humble breaded pork chop/canteen kitchen attempts at “Japanese-style cordon bleu,” making waves all over the restaurant scene alongside unlimited cabbage offerings and “shoyu” being the order of the day.
Sociologists and cultural theorists have taken pains to describe these new patterns of consumption. One referred to “McDonaldization” as a reference to an over-rationalized society. Another coined “conspicuous consumption,” debunking the whole idea of “new” and ascribing these patterns to the lifestyles of savages and barbarians. Still another looked at the “affluent society” and sees a private sector basking in the light of wealth, but a public sector that remains dark and dank and stagnated.
(Ritzer, Veblen, Galbraith, in that order.)
I have nothing but contempt for the cronut – if only because I don’t get it and I don’t like sweet stuff in general – but that feeling does not translate to ramen or tonkatsu. Pork bone soup is to die for, and there’s nothing like a feed of panko-breaded pork loin. But I can’t help to feel that affluence is somehow satirized by these three things.
Take the cronut. I’m sure someone has thought of that before, perhaps after taking a bite of kougin-amman (which, in my view, is a superior take on fried cake, especially with salted caramel ice cream). At the end of the day there are more delicious donuts, more buttery croissants, and frying filo and sweetening it up is done quite often in the world of dessert. There’s a certain brilliance to the timing of it, though: bridging the morning croissant and the afternoon sweet donut. It doesn’t make us any more affluent or refined in our tastes, but we do have something to look forward to on that space and time. We crowd the cronut and croughnut and doussant and French Donut hours to get essentially fried bread. There’s no reason to not make cronuts late at night or at any other hour of the day.
Or ramen, for that matter. Instant noodles have long been the bane of the wealthy, and the fuel of the poor. ”Mami” has long been the fodder of the toiling masses in this country, whether it’s in the form of three-minutes-to-cook packs, or sold at P10 a bowl from trolleys alongside fishballs and “tokwa’t baboy.” Never mind the Indonesian imports, but ramen houses in malls are almost always bound to be jampacked. Through the ramen craze, the food of the poor has somewhat become mainstream and vogue, evoking the images of serving suggestions in packs of instant noodles.
And then there’s tonkatsu. Sure, it’s been a staple of the Japanese rice bowls popular in fastfood, but like ramen it’s not the essential that has changed: it is the serving suggestion. Quality of pork and ingredients aside, it is essentially breaded pork: no different from budget meals or “lutong-ulam” stands, differing only in degrees of doneness and crispness. Its brilliance, like ramen, is in its ordinariness: why would people wait long lines outside a tonkatsu shop when it is what it is, it can be done at home, or that it really is no different from what we already get or what we already know to be the fried breaded pork chop/pork slice?
No, I’m not being contrarian. I’ve licked spoons and chopsticks clean of every drop of broth, and I’ve pigged out on Yabu more than once for me to wish they just got rid of that sesame-crushing “ceremony” and just serve me my meat slab with no frills. The idiosyncrasies, though, are worth dwelling on and perhaps even worth celebrating. Maybe with growing incomes – and our society’s penchant for conspicuousness – the serving suggestion takes a bigger seat at the table.
It’s not a value judgment, it’s just that Indomie tasted better than that cheese ramen I had some weeks back.