There surely has not been a brick-and-mortar venue more highly anticipated in Kuwait than that of any gastronomic adventure emanating from the creative and highly skilled mind of chef Maryam “Mimi” Alnusif.
While you may know her from “Shakshooka” the community-oriented market held monthly during the cooler seasons, simply venture only yards away from one of Mimi’s other community projects “The Secret Garden” where you will find Tampopo Ramen Shop. A project that Mimi has been working on for at least the last four years, which is how long it took just to find the right unit for the restaurant.
“Tampopo” coincidentally, translates as the flower “dandelion” in English or “hindbeh” in Arabic, so it seems perfectly predestined that Mimi’s opportunity to establish her first restaurant would arrive at this location, around the corner from the community garden. Tampopo is also the title of the 1985 Juzo Itami directed “Ramen Western” about the search for the ultimate ramen noodle. If you look closely the DVD is on display on the corner shelf alongside cookbooks and food journals.
At the end of the 19th century Japanese soldiers and tradesmen brought back a taste for the ramen noodles they found in China. Served within a hot soup, most popular in the beginning being a tori-gara or chicken broth, this became known as Shoyu Ramen.
Many other types developed around various parts of Japan, with chefs utilizing whatever ingredients were available to them both locally and seasonally thus creating the six distinctly different recipes that we know and love today.
On the menu at Tampopo you can find four dishes of ramen: Organic Chicken Shio, Duck Miso, Vegan Miso Shiitake and the latest addition of Beef Tantanmen all (but the vegan) made from a Dashi chicken and duck broth . Mimi is hardly a proponent of veganism, nor is she a food-populist, so it’s curious to see a vegan option on the menu.
When asked why there is one she smiles broadly, opens her arms out magnanimously and says, “Everyone deserves good food.” Such a good job has been done on this dish that it is wonderfully delicious, and many non-vegans order it. “You have to try harder when you don’t have all the ingredients” confirms Mimi.
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Surprisingly popular has been the miso, unusual for Kuwaitis as they can find duck “gamey” or “fishy” so the duck ramen is a triple success for Mimi: it sells, it teaches people to like duck, and it is the only recipe that she can say is entirely her own creation from scratch. She also tells us that she utilizes French techniques when it comes to the famous duck ramen, and in this case, expect the perfect duck confit swimming in a delectable broth.
We chose to have the miso extra spicy with a marinated egg, and the tantanmen ramen. The latter is super creamy and rich from the use of sesame paste. We added Szechuan oil to the tantanmen to give it additional warmth and wow, you will want this during winter! Spicy! We think we may have just found the perfect ramen right here but you will have to be quick to catch the miso; “The duck is running out in Kuwait,” laughs Mimi, “I’ve used it all.”
“I’ve always been drawn to Asia” she says when asked about Japanese food and basing her first restaurant on the cuisine. “People think I just went to Japan and thought ‘ramen’ and opened up Tampopo but that’s not the case.”
Back in the 1980’s kids in Kuwait grew up on animation dubbed into Arabic such as “Captain Majed” and “Kabamaru”, “…and the characters were always eating noodles and onigiri!” exclaims Mimi. That planted the seed of the idea for a Japanese restaurant, it took decades to deliver Tampopo in the right way.
Having fallen in love with how good Japanese food is Mimi liked the idea of concentrating on only a few dishes and doing them to a supremely high standard. Ramen lends itself well to this exceptionally focussed culinary exploration. It is a fairly modest dish one would think.
But in reality, ramen represents hours and hours of preparation; making the broth, marinating the eggs, chopping the add-ons, soaking the mushrooms, preparing the proteins and making the ramen noodles of course…each part of the process of producing the various ramen as important as the other. We interviewed Mimi for 90mins and on mushrooms and dashi alone she was concentrating for all that time!
Authentic Japanese food can be an acquired taste, especially for the Kuwaiti palate so it is interesting to learn about who are the customers of Tampopo.
Of course there are the supporters of Mimi, a huge group because of all the community work she’s done, plus the Shakshooka and Secret Garden crowds, also the Cool Kuwaitis, well-travelled and well-read, or those people who are open to trying new things. But there too are those who already know the cuisine and love it including a large section of the Asian community from the Philipines to Japan with His Excellency the Japanese Ambassador himself giving Tampopo the thumbs up. You may find a few cosplayers too!
The wonderful thing is that Tampopo customers are bringing their children too, broadening young minds into being more open to different tastes, flavors and textures. It seems like there won’t be an end to the range of customers any time soon as, despite being open since June, there are still queues around the building of people eager to get a taste of well-researched, practised, and presented ramen. Part of the joy of Tampopo Ramen Shop is the wait. It builds anticipation.
Mimi has given herself the optimal working environment by making the kitchen comfortable to work in with lots of space, so the customer areas are on the cozy side. Consequently Tampopo really is all about the food and the customers appreciate and embrace that. “Sometimes it is so crowded that customers are passing to each other their food from the counter, I love that” says Mimi. “It used to fit 15 but now it fits 20 because people were taking chairs from outside and bringing them in.”
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It’s like a small community of its own when you eat at Tampopo and the restaurant is busy, which it always is if you come in the early evening. First you get to meet the other customers in the queue, then you squeeze in and find your seats (we sat in the window so we could torture those in the queue), chat together as you wait for your ramen, listen to the specially curated tunes on Spotify (which took two weeks of diligent hard work to discover out how to provide), and then you experience the first taste of your ramen together.
We actually ran into a friend of bazaar’s and ended up dining together! And we totally loved his verdict: “How worth [is the wait for] Tampopo Ramen shop? 30 minutes of waiting in line, in the scorching heat while being bombarded by blistering winds – that’s how worth it! A weird crossroads of 90s nostalgia meets a Hayao Miazaki movie. Good food and good vibes.”
There is a Tampopo queue hack: Mimi says it gets quieter after 8.30pm so you can get served in a calmer environment then. We think the buzz and banter is all part of the experience though. Of course you can always try booking in for the reservation-only tasting-menu events which happen on Sundays only.
And after these huge bowls of ramen, only one of us managed to completely finish their serving, is there room for dessert? You may be surprised to see French crème brûlée on the menu alongside the more fragrantly refreshing and typically Japanese offering of Yuzu ice cream.
“Japan is obsessed by all things French” explains Mimi, “and I have a French Cordon Bleu background. I even cook the duck I use confit -style.”
Just like the dish of ramen itself which looks simple and rustic but is actually multi-layered and complex, Tampopo Ramen Shop is the amalgamation of a number of things. Hard work, passion, travel, training, luck, community, determination, family, intuition and Mimi’s sheer stubbornness to open up a specialized concept that she completely believes in.
Tampopo Ramen Shop is located in Salmiya, Block 9. The walk-in opening hours are 6pm-10pm, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Follow @tampopo.ramenshop on Instagram and Facebook and Direct Message for details on Sunday menu tastings or email: [email protected].
Featured image by bazaar.