t 2:40 pm a week ago, the sign reading “Sorry, noodles sold out” was put outside Ramen Nagi Universal Noodle in Shanghai’s K11 ArtMall.
It was just the second week after the Tokyo ramen chain opened its first outlet in China: 400 bowls of noodles had been sold in fewer than four hours. People line up when the shop opens at 10amto slurp the rich pork-broth noodles.
“We’ve learned that Shanghainese love noodles, but we didn’t know the love could be as thick as our noodle soup,” says Sonoda Nobuhiro, co-owner and chef of Nagi, with a helpless grin.
Four hundred bowls of noodles— or, more precisely, soup — is the maximum the Shanghai store currently can offer a day. It takes 20 hours to simmer the intensely meaty, opaque pale tonkotsu broth, which, like the white canvas of an oil painting, is the base for all types of noodle offered. There is just one custom-made stove tucked behind the open kitchen of the store, where the broth is simmering away even when the entire mall is closed.
“We sell a similar amount of noodles at our (original) Shinjuku store. It took us around 10 years to achieve that,” says Nobuhiro, who has been working in Shanghai for three months to get the newoutlet up and running.
In Japan, where there are estimated to be more than 80,000 ramen shops, the noodle scene is much more competitive. But Nobuhiro and Ikuta Satoshi, the restaurant’s founder, have managed to survive and stand out.
In 2013, seven years after they started their hole-in-the-wall noodle business, Nagi was voted best ramen and champion for Tokyo Ramen of the Year Award, against some 30,000 competitors.
“The trick never lies in the bowl,” says Nobuhiro.
“WhenIkuta first started the business, the noodles weren’t really good. But Ikuta listens and improves every day,” says Nobuhiro, recalling the days when the two were boiling noodles at a traditional shop in their 20s and “the kitchen was so small that you either befriend your colleagues or go mad”.
During the early years in Tokyo, before business picked up, the founding team challenged themselves to create one new type of ramen every single day for a whole year. Creative, if not crazy, theycame up with variations including the ramen surf and turf — dried baby sardine-infused tonkotsu broth and condensed tonkotsu broth, using three times the amount of pork bones to simmer the broth with onethird of the water of the standard.
“The rich, pork flavor explodes in the mouth like a bomb,” says Nobuhiro of his favorite creation, adding that the regular version is a mere bullet by comparison.
It took about two years for the team to prepare for the first outlet in China, including finding the right breed of pigs for pork, and trying literally about 60 types of noodles popular in Shanghai to learn about local tastes. (His favorite discovery: Chinese soup noodles topped with wokfried bullfrog.) The team has been so fastidious about the soup that a special
We’ve learned that Shanghainese love noodles, but we didn’t know the love could be as thick as our noodle soup.”
co-owner and chef of Nagi