USING THEIR NOODLES
A Japanese ramen restaurant is an instant hit in Shanghai, Xu Junqian reports.
At 2:40 pm a week ago, the sign reading “Sorry, noodles sold out” was put outside Ramen Nagi Universal Noodle in Shanghai’s K11 Art Mall.
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 10 am to 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 new outlet 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.
“When I ku ta 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, they came 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 water-filter machine has been imported and installed to soften the water, which is considered the blood of a noodle bowl.
At the Shanghai store, the offerings include four types of ramen: classic white pork (Original King), red (Spicy King), squid ink (Dark King) and basil and Parmesan cheese (Green King), plus a “special king” that will change on a regular basis.
For the opening month, the special is a lobster bisquelike soup noodles, as in Japanese culinary culture, shellfish is the language for celebration as champagne is in French culture. It is offered for a limited number of 888 bowls, a lucky number in China.
Whichever dish they favor, diners get to choose the thickness of the noodles, the richness of the soup, the variety of the toppings and the amount of garlic. For clueless firsttimers, there is a chef’s recommendation package.
The classic original aside, the most inviting option is the Dark King. The heavy use of black garlic and a homemade black soy sauce make the noodles guiltily gratifying, especially paired with the thin noodles, which can soak up the flavor of the soup completely. For the choice of char-siu, the tender slices of pork shoulder tastes even better than a thick chunk of pork belly, as the shoulder, slow-cooked at a rather low temperature, boasts a similar texture to Iberian ham.
Most choices — noodles, porkfilled dumplings and minced-pork rice — may appear rather heavy for the summer. But that hasn’t posed a problem for Shanghai’s diners, not even on the hottest days during the first week of opening, when the temperature soared to 40 C.