A comprehensive guide to ramen, our favourite Japanese noodles
Hongkongers seem to be willing to queue for hours for a bowl of Japanese noodles, from thick, creamy tonkotsu ramen to rich, filling tsukemen. Crave slurps up the ramen trend.
One Saturday night in Soho, about four years ago, after a few too many G&TS, my friends and I found ourselves not at our go-to kebab joint but in a cab to Causeway Bay. Our friend, Paul, had declared, “We are not leaving until I get my ramen fix – and trust me, it’s really good.” So just after 1.30am, we joined 30 people queuing outside Ichiran. Forty minutes later, we took seats at a partitioned counter that resembled a series of voting booths and filled in order forms for customised bowls of ramen. Even before I had finished admiring the ice-cold water tap in my stall, my first-ever bowl of Ichiran ramen arrived. Staff lowered a bamboo screen so I could enjoy the steaming bowl of viscous, milky-white tonkotsu in private. It was well worth the wait.
Ichiran’s mission to bring pork bone broth-based tonkotsu ramen to the world began in 1960, in Hakata, Fukuoka prefecture, where the dish originated (it’s also known as Hakata ramen). Today, Ichiran has more than 70 stores in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and, most recently, New York. The chain landed in Hong Kong in July 2013, opening its flagship branch in Causeway Bay and then a second store in Tsim Sha Tsui in 2015, together serving at least 2,000 bowls of ramen a day. Manager Chris Tam says, “The [Causeway Bay] store opening, five years ago, was my most memorable moment at Ichiran.
For 24 hours a day, for the first eight days, there was a queue outside.” Even today, the average waiting time at the flagship restaurant is 30 to 60 minutes. At the Tsim Sha Tsui branch, it’s more than 60 minutes.
Ichiran’s Hakata-style noodles are thinner than most, which gives the chef more control over cooking them to the diner’s preferred firmness. While the noodles are machinemade, the recipe is adjusted slightly every day, depending on the weather and humidity levels, to ensure they are top quality. Another essential ingredient is the company’s original spicy red sauce, hiden no tare, which is produced at the Ichiran No Mori factory, in Fukuoka, then flown to Ichiran stores worldwide. Only four people know the recipe, including president and CEO Manabu Yoshitomi.
Yoshitomi is not only a ramen enthusiast but also an entrepreneur. As a student, he worked part-time at a ramen shop, where he noticed people’s enjoyment of their food could be affected by their surroundings. At Ichiran he created flavour-concentration booths. The idea is that eating without the distraction of other people – diners don’t have to see or talk to the staff or other customers – allows diners to focus their full attention on the ramen and its flavours. In Japan, this proved a great hit, especially for women who felt selfconscious visiting ramen joints, which were frequented mainly by men. While this isn’t a problem in Hong Kong, the novelty of this unique dining format attracts locals and tourists, as well as solo diners. Thanks to Ichiran and other ramen joints, such as Butao (opened in 2010), tonkotsu has become Hong Kong’s unofficial favourite broth.
At about 200 years old, ramen is a relatively young dish. According to the Yokohama Ramen Museum, the dish evolved from the noodles served in Chinese restaurants that popped up in Japanese coastal towns after the country opened its ports in 1859. The “nationalisation” of ramen began after the second world war, when the Japanese dependence on imported US flour gave rise to wheat-based food such as ramen and bread. Ramen was a commoners’ dish – substantial, hearty fuel for hard-working labourers. Today, ramen is no longer associated with poverty. Instead, imbued with nostalgia, it has become the national dish of Japan and trendy worldwide.
While some ramen shops keep their recipes traditional, others take a more innovative approach to this working-class staple. Zagin Soba, founded in Osaka by Kenta Juryo in 2014, opened in Happy Valley last year to rave reviews for its signature chicken soup ramen. Priced at a $138 (the average price for a bowl of ramen in Hong Kong is $80 to $90), some are calling it “the best ramen in Hong Kong”. While chickenbased broths are nothing new, Zagin’s white chicken paitan (literally “white soup”) has been simmered and blended to create a “cappuccino” effect for added creaminess. The foam allows the soup to cling to the noodles so each mouthful contains an optimal amount of noodle and soup. Its noodles have a unique thickness – thicker than Hakata-style ramen, thinner than traditional ramen – created specially to match the soup base and toppings. These include seriously addictive burdock crisps, sous-vide chashu (pork) and chicken slices, and mizuna, or Japanese mustard greens, in place of green onions.
“It’s about balancing flavour, texture and aroma, while incorporating Western cooking methods, such as sous-vide and blending, to create something unique,” explains Herbie Ho, director of Zagin Soba. He brought the brand to Hong Kong with three of his ramen-loving friends. Not happy with the city’s ramen options, in 2014 they visited Japan in search of the best ramen and stumbled on Zagin Soba. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could eat this in Hong Kong all the time?’ So we started talking to Juryo-san about the possibility of licensing his restaurant.”
The process took three years. But countless trips to Japan and many late-night meetings later (“Juryo-san is a chef and insisted on only meeting with us after restaurant service”), their determination paid off. To precisely replicate the Osaka Zagin Soba dining experience, the cooking methods and ingredients for all the menu items were quantified in painstaking detail, and all the equipment, tableware and cutlery were sourced in Japan. The bathroom even has a high-tech toilet, and Japanese toiletries such as capsule mouthwash and floss.
“It started as a passion project between friends but I’m glad it’s so well-received in Hong Kong,” says Ho. “It’s not just about bringing delicious, elevated ramen to Hong Kong, but about sharing Japanese culture and its impeccable attention to detail, and acknowledging the artisanal spirit. We also respect Juryo-san’s craftsmanship and his persistence with providing the best quality.”
Next door to Zagin Soba in Central is Michelin-recommended Shugetsu, one of the first restaurants in Hong Kong to serve tsukemen, or dipping ramen. Originating in Tokyo in the 1960s but gaining popularity only in the 2000s, tsukemen is a ramen newcomer. When Shugetsu opened its first Hong Kong branch, in 2012, few people had heard of tsukemen and executive chef Yoshihiro Takashima – a friend of the company’s founder, Shuhei Nakagawa – spent a lot of time educating the diners.
“We got a lot of customer complaints that the tsukemen was too salty, but they weren’t supposed to drink the dipping sauce like soup. The education process took a long time,” says Takashima, displaying illustrated instructions on how to enjoy tsukemen. “You take a few strands of noodles and you dip it in the sauce. When you finish all the noodles, ask our staff for some chicken broth, which has been simmered for at least six hours, to dilute the sauce so you can savour the soup.”
Shugetsu’s tsukemen dipping sauce is a concentrated mix of its secret-recipe soy sauce, rice vinegar, and a touch of chicken broth. The soy sauce is combined with Hokkaido kombu, mirin, spices and dried sardine and mackerel powder for extra umami. Exclusively made for Shugetsu by traditional soy-sauce maker Kazita from Ehime prefecture, this special blend is naturally fermented in century-old wooden barrels for 18 months to bring out its richness and complexity.
As well as the way they are eaten, there’s another major difference between ramen and tsukemen. “For ramen, both the noodles and the soup play an important role,” Takashima explains. “But with tsukemen, the noodles are the star and the dipping sauce and toppings are the supporting cast.”
Shugetsu makes two types of noodles in-store daily: point 12 for tsukemen and point 22 for ramen – the smaller the number, the thicker each strand. While ramen noodles don’t require ageing, tsukemen noodles taste better when aged for 24 hours at 15°C to 20°C. “The wheat aroma becomes more pronounced and the noodles have just the right springiness. But after 72 hours, the noodles’ texture softens, so the optimal time frame for enjoying tsukemen is 24 hours after they’ve been made.
This is why we make the noodles in our stores every day. No transportation required means no time wasted, and no preservatives are needed,” Takashima says.
Many Hong Kong food trends are fads, but ramen isn’t one of them. Not only is this dish here to stay – either as a triedand-tested traditional recipe or a modern interpretation – but even as you’re reading this article, new ramen eateries, both local and Japanese imports, are popping up in Hong Kong. Our only question: why must we queue so long for a decent bowl of ramen?