IN JUZO ITAMI's "Tampopo," real men slurp noodles, known as ramen. Japanese families guard their recipes for this staple dish as though they were Dead Sea Scrolls. Grownups get into fistfights over noodles.

Director Itami has produced an engaging cinematic hybrid, brilliantly stir-frying Japanese food -- and other -- obsessions into cowboy themes. He calls "Tampopo" a noodle western.

Two milk-truck drivers (wanderin' cowpokes) stop in at a ramen hop (saloon), where a group of men (varmints) eye them suspiciously. But driver Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), who has the Mt. Rushmore mug of a Palance or Peck and sports a cowboy hat, immediately gets into a brawl when he makes less-than-complimentary remarks about the noodles. After the five-against-one slugfest, restaurant hostess Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) begs the beaten-up Goro to help her build the best noodle place in town. And out of "Shane" goodness of heart, he agrees.

The rest of the film is a delicious, hilarious platter of food-related vignettes, as well as Tampopo's efforts to reach noodle nirvana -- which involves recipe-stealing, countless kitchen maneuvers, confrontations with rival dough boilers and, at one point, a meeting with a group of gourmet hobos expert in the garbage of the best restaurants.

Itami, who also wrote the script, suffuses "Tampopo" with delicate and benevolent satire. He is also aided by a first-class cast, many of whom are veterans of Kurosawa and Ozu films. Nobuku Miyamoto (also Itami's wife) plays Tampopo ("Dandelion") with an earnest grace. And Yamazaki's Goro comes off even cooler than the Clint he parodies.

The vignette standout is a white-suited gangster (Koji Yakusho) who, with a slinky moll on his arm, plays a quasi-narrator. He likes to combine the sensual with the culinary, dousing his gal with lemon and salt like an animated Margarita. The couple also indulges in a comic-erotic transaction involving egg yolk -- giving details would spoil the effect, but you'll never look at soft-boiled eggs quite the same way again.

Just about everything in "Tampopo" bears mentioning, from the husband who temporarily brings his dead wife back to life by ordering her to make dinner, to the pseudo-sage who imparts the Zen of soup-eating: It involves looking lovingly at the pork slices while you slurp noisily on the noodles.

Bring a napkin.

TAMPOPO (not rated) -- In Japanese with subtitles, at the Key.