TOKYO, July 31 — There must be more to life than ramen... but not when you’re a ramen-otaku, someone who obsessively loves ramen in all its different permutations.
But surely even ramen can get boring after a while? How much shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), miso (fermented soybean paste) and tonkotsu (pork bone) broth can you slurp? Noodles are just noodles, right?
In the ramen world, ramen chefs and their fans can nitpick about the minute differences in flours and water used to make the noodles, and let’s not even start about the broth.
There is an entire world beyond tonkotsu where fresh citrus and gamey innards are employed, where the noodles don’t even need to be served with soup to be considered ramen.
Here, then, are four bowls of unusual ramen that will titillate your jaded ramen palate once more.
Fuunji: Smoky sardines will get in your eyes
Fuunji is acclaimed as one of the best tsukemen (dipping ramen) shops, not only in Tokyo, but the whole of Japan. Located close to the south exit of busy Shinjuku Station, the shop always has a line but it’s well worth the wait.
Once you are inside, make your selection at the ticket machine. (Tip: The tsukemen is definitely the way to go though they have a conventional ramen too.)
As you pass your ticket to the staff, you’d be asked for your choice of noodle portion size — sho (small), nami (regular) or omori (large). Regardless of size, the price is the same; choose accordingly so as not to waste.
When it comes to thick, meaty broth, most ramen shops simmer pork bones for hours to release the gelatinous flavours. At Fuunji, their rich soup is made with noko niwatori shiro gyokai, a blend of intense white chicken and fish broth.
The fish in question is niboshi or dried baby sardines. Their flavour is deeply savoury and smoky, rather than being fishy, which lends well to ramen.
The aromatic broth arrives with coarse bits of pork, a sheet of nori (dried seaweed) and a generous spoonful of bonito powder on top.
Stir all that together, then begin dipping the chewy noodles into this liquid ambrosia. Imagine umami coating every strand, with a subtle hint of roasted sardine skin.
When you’ve finished your noodles and there is still some thick dipping broth left, don’t waste it. You may pour some hot water from a pot — left at regular intervals on the counter — to thin the broth so it becomes a milky sipping soup. Good till the last drop.
2-14-3, Yoyogi, Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan. Tel: +81-3-6413-8480. Open Mon-Sat 11am-3pm & 5pm-9pm (Sun & public holidays closed).
Sugari: Guts for the gutsy
Another tsukemen that is considered best-in-town is Sugari, albeit in the heritage city of Kyoto rather than the capital.
Unlike Fuunji, Sugari is much harder to locate as it’s nestled in a tiny back-alley and lacks the customary noren curtain or menu boards showcasing the different types of ramen on offer.
Instead this ramen shop feels more like an exclusive enclave, a reward for dedicated ramen-otakus who have trekked it down.
Inside the machiya (traditional townhouse) the shop resides in, a sleek and modern bar takes centrestage, imbuing the space with a chic, lounge ambience. Classic meets contemporary.
The same could be said for their tsukemen: the dipping broth, which arrives in a cast iron bowl, is a well-crafted tonkotsu gyokai (pork bone and fish); the home-made noodles are firm; the toppings of negi (green onion) come both raw and roasted, sharp and sweet.
However the real star is the meat in the soup. Instead of slices of chashu (braised pork belly) other ramen shops employ, Sugari offers motsu — beef guts, basically.
These are high-grade innards as Japanese wagyu beef is used. Marinated and grilled, these are “gutsy” in flavour (pardon the pun) yet delicate in texture, a respectful nod to the refined cuisine of Kyoto.
471-1 Kannondocho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan. Tel: +81-75-205-1185. Open Mon-Fri 11:30am-3pm & 6pm-10pm; Sat-Sun 11:30am-9pm.
Afuri: Refined and refreshing
Ramen shops attract a certain crowd, or so the cliché goes. Salarymen and students, nightclub hostesses and yakuza types, tourists, and of course, the ever-present ramen-otakus.
This means most ramen shops have a no-nonsense, almost bare-bones approach to offering Japanese-style fast food.
Not so at Afuri. This shop in the trendy neighbourhood of Ebisu offers ramen for those seeking a degree of finesse with their noodles.
Don’t be confused though; this isn’t a fine dining restaurant. Like any other ramen shop, the cooks still work behind the bar; you still have to purchase your tickets from the machine first.
Refinement comes in the tiny tweaks made to their ramen that elevate it to a new level. The light-tasting broth — they have both shio and shoyu as options for the base — and gets its clean flavours by using Tanzawa spring water. (The name of the shop, Afuri, comes from Mt. Afuri, a mountain in the Kanagawa prefecture famed for its sacred spring. The quality of water is taken seriously here.)
The key element at Afuri is the use of Japanese yuzu peels which lifts the broth up with a subtle citrus fragrance.
Attention to detail is immaculate: the thick slices of chashu are grilled à la minute over charcoal; the soft-boiled ajitama egg entrances you with its lava-like, golden yolk; crisp mizuna greens and freshly grated yuzu complete the picture.
Delicate and flawless, it’s no surprise Afuri’s ramen has attracted the loyal following of hipsters and young women; the latter still a minority in crowded, noisy ramen shops.
The portions are on the lighter side so if you’re hungry, get a side order of rice topped with cubes of delectable chashu, yuzu peel and grated daikon.
1-1-7 Ebisu, Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan. Tel: +81-3-5795-0750. Open daily 11am-4am.
GACHI Aburasoba: Fat-tastic noodles
What’s ramen without soup? In Japan, the term ramen is almost synonymous with carefully crafted broths made from bones and meat, seafood and secret spices. Yet some of the best ramen don’t feature any soup at all. Enter the aburasoba or “noodles in fat.”
Soupless noodles mean the textures of the noodles and the flavours of the seasoning must truly punch above their weight. GACHI Aburasoba (its owner has other shops such as GACHI and Menya Shono featuring ramen and tsukemen) handles the first conundrum by making their own noodles fresh every day from 100 per cent durum wheat flour, rather than getting them from noodle factories as many shops do.
The noodles are made at the back of the shop, so there is barely enough time lost from the machine to the vats of boiling water.
The interior of the shop itself is not unlike a wooden cabin, a warm space in which to enjoy the chewy futomen (thick noodles).
Decadent flavours come from rich seabura or pork back fat, a mix of healthy sesame and flax seed oils (instead of the vegetable oil used elsewhere) and a tare (seasoning) made with aged Kakucho soy sauce from Wakayama Prefecture and other secret ingredients.
There are two options. The iberikoyu-soba is garnished with juicy-pink chashu, an ajitama egg, sprouts, negi, menma (fermented bamboo shoots) and a slice of naruto (fish cake).
The kamadamayu-soba is topped with a raw egg, nori strips and bits of crunchy fried ramen noodles.
To begin eating, first have a taste of the noodles, then mix all the ingredients together and taste it again. When you’ve eaten about half of your noodles, add some of the condiments on the counter such as the specially aged vinegar, which helps cut the richness of the oils. Keep mixing and slurping till you’ve polished your bowl clean — the way it should be every time before you leave a ramen shop!
7-10 Sumiyoshicho, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan. Tel: +81-3-6380-4874. Open daily 11am-3pm & 5pm-10pm.