SAPPORO, Aug 9 -- In Japan, everybody loves ramen. While sushi bars and sashimi restaurants may have taken the rest of the world by storm, these aren’t where the average Japanese dines on a daily basis. Salarymen and students head to their favourite ramen-yas (ramen restaurants) for quick sustenance after work and classes.
There’s a ramen for every palate – be it Tokyo’s curly noodles and soup flavoured with shoyu (soy sauce) or the milky tonkotsu (pork bone) broth of Hakata, its straight noodles garnished with crushed garlic and beni shoga (pickled ginger).
Such is the popularity of ramen that major cities like Sapporo and Kyoto have not one but several ramen streets. In these “Ramen Yokochos”, competing restaurants jostle for the attention of diners who get to vote out the ones they don’t like!
Sapporo: Hokkaido butter and summer corn
Ramen arrived in Japan by way of China. Rairai-ken, a Chinese restaurant in Asakusa, Tokyo was the earliest to serve a Guangdong-style noodle dish with vegetables, meat and soup in 1910.
Affordable and nutritious, ramen became popular after World War II when there was a food shortage. Ramen stalls opened up everywhere in what was later the city of Sapporo. Where better to start our ramen journey than here, the true birthplace of modern-day ramen?
As capital of the northern island of Hokkaido, Sapporo is known for its fresh seafood, agricultural produce and dairy products. Little wonder that these ingredients feature greatly in its ramen.
Ginparou Ramen is perhaps the best place to try the famous butter-and-corn (bata-kon ramen) ramen unique to Sapporo. Waiters yell out “Irasshaimase!” in welcome as we enter. We are seated quickly and served small glasses of iced water, which helps to cut the characteristic saltiness of ramen broth.
Traditionally, Sapporo ramen uses miso (fermented soybean paste) in its soup. Here the chef adds marinated pork bones fried over high flames to notch up the richness and aroma of the aged miso.
His assistant then garnishes the noodles with corn, leek, green onions, fried garlic, toasted sesame seeds and chashu (slices of braised pork). The final touch is a generous slab of Hokkaido butter.
The miso, pork bones and butter combine to create an extremely robust broth, perfect for Hokkaido’s often harsh winters. Yet the sweetness of the corn kernels remind us this is a summer dish too, beloved by Sapporo residents.
Another signature dish is the Paiku Ramen which substitutes the savoury and addictive baraniku (marinated pork short ribs) for chashu. Other versions of Sapporo ramen feature the best of Hokkaido seafood such as succulent scallops and large chunks of snow crab meat.
Kyoto: Ramen for carnivores!
Further south in the historic city of Kyoto, ramen fans prefer softer, thinner noodles. Here chicken bones (torikotsu) are incorporated into the broth’s shoyu base, giving Kyoto ramen a highly “kotteri” (rich and heavy) body.
Our favourite Kyoto ramen-ya is hidden next to the Round1 Mall in the Kawaramachi shopping district. Upon entering the shop, you might worry you’ve mistakenly stepped into a university lecture theatre, albeit a scaled-down one, with staggered rows of tables arranged like desks.
Here customers have to order from a vending machine. Don’t worry about not reading Japanese; there are pictures of the different types of ramen and side dishes on every button, listed conveniently with their prices. After paying, pass the ticket to the waitress and grab a seat.
The Mugen’nochikara house specialty is not for light eaters. In addition to its thick broth, the noodles almost disappear under a mound of thinly-sliced grilled pork. There’s supposed to be at least 160g of pure meat with every bowl!
Toppings include sautéed onions, crunchy bean sprouts, the ubiquitous green onions and a freshly-cracked egg yolk in the centre. Use your chopsticks to stir the raw egg into the still-steaming broth and noodles. Pure ramen decadence, this.
To cool down during summer, you may opt for Tsukemen, a dish where the noodles and a dipping sauce is served separately. Dip the chilled noodles into the sauce, a denser and saltier version of the ramen broth, and slurp every strand noisily – enjoy it the way locals do!
Tokyo: Fat’s full of flavour
Finally head to central Japan for a new breed of ramen. Tokyo is such a melting pot of the different regional cultures that it’s no surprise that they’ve come up with their own hybrid take on ramen.
Tonkotsu-shoyu ramen combines full-bodied tonkotsu broth from Hakata with the lighter Tokyo-style shoyu base for an explosion of flavours. This viscous soup coats every strand of the Japanese capital’s signature curly noodles liberally – not one drop goes to waste.
For an authentic experience, track down Tonchin Tokyo Tonkotu Noodles in Ikebukuro, a lively neighbourhood famed for its ramen-ya diversity.
Open till late, you might find yourself sitting next to post-karaoke partygoers or some poor corporate drone working well after office hours. Everyone’s hungry.
Half the fun is watching ramen chefs at their art while you wait. Tonchin’s open kitchen layout allows demonstrations of their distinctive method of noodle swinging. Excess water from the cooked noodles splashes onto the ground; no wonder they need those large plastic galoshes!
Our bowls of ramen arrive without much fanfare. The noodles are chewy and bouncy thanks to its alkaline water (“kansui”) content. Fat rounds of chashu are accompanied by wok-fried spicy menma (fermented bamboo shoots) and a piece of nori (dried seaweed).
Observe the floating globules of white-coloured pork fat on the surface of the soup. These tiny pockets are full of flavour – a light creaminess subtly enhanced by the salty shoyu and a dashi made from katsuobushi (dried bonito) shavings.
There’s even a version (Sakana-buta Ramen) with fish stock added which lends a smoky finish to the broth, but honestly every bowl is superb here.
These days, it’s hard to say which school of ramen is the best. The proliferation of ramen-yas all over Japan and subsequent cross-pollination of cooking styles mean there’s more variety than ever before.
Let your ramen journey be about trying everything along the way rather than finding the perfect ramen. We can’t wait to return to Japan for our next bowl of ramen and saying “Itadakimasu!”
Ginparou Ramen Sapporo
1-23, Gojo 13-chome, Tsukisamu East, Sapporo, Toyohira-ku, Hokkaido, Japan
Open daily 11am-10pm
Prices: Ginparou Sapporo Ramen 930 yen (RM30); Paiku Ramen 930 yen (RM30)
Mugen’nochikara Ramen Kyoto
252-1, Yamasaki-cho, Chukyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan
Open Sun-Thu 11am-1am and Fri & Sat 11am-5am
Prices: Mugen’nochikara Ramen 650 yen (RM21); Tsukemen 680 yen (RM22)
Tonchin Tokyo Tonkotu Noodles
2-26-2, Minami-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Open daily 11am to 4am
Prices: Tonchin Ramen 650 yen (RM21); Sakana-buta Ramen 680 yen (RM22)
This story was first published in the print edition of The Malay Mail, August 8, 2013.