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.

Crave - - CONTENT - Words Iris Wong Pho­tos Sa­man­tha Sin

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?

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