Ramen is one of Japan’s best known dishes, famed for its comforting qualities and eaten throughout Japan from the very northern tip of Hokkaido to the southern island of Kyushu. There are 34,488 ramen shops in Japan, with 3,957 in Tokyo alone and ramen even has a dedicated museum in Shin-Yokohama. Each region specalises in a particular kind of ramen – broadly, one of four types described below – and each fanatical ramen chef specialises this further, tweaking the recipe to produce their house style, which is always a closely guarded secret. Anyone who has eaten good ramen, made their own or even just seen the cult foodie film Tampopo will know the importance of making a soup stock with perfectly balanced intensity.
The main ingredients are a deeply flavoursome stock made from pork and chicken bones with vegetables and sometimes fish bones or katsuboshi ‘bonito’ (dried, smoked skipjack tuna); alkaline noodles; ‘base’ (a concentrated liquor of soy, miso or salt) and toppings.
The stock is combined with the base to make one of four types of ramen: shoyu, miso, tonkotsu and shio (salt). Toppings vary hugely depending on the kind of ramen and the chef, from sweetcorn and butter to black sesame and garlic paste, but in almost all cases, there’ll be pork and a perfectly marinated gooey-yolked egg.
Fresh noodles are essential for the best ramen experience – bouncy, soft and perfect for slurping up tasty stock. These alkaline noodles are wheat-based with the addition of kansui, an alkaline salt (sodium carbonate or potassium carbonate) and come in different thicknesses depending on the type of ramen – generally speaking, the thinner the stock, the thicker the noodle needs to be to carry that stock into your mouth – and can be served ‘katame’, or slightly hard – al dente.
Our restaurant Tonkotsu is named after the lip-smacking, creamy ramen typical in Kyushu, Japan’s southern-most island, but found all over Japan. Tonkotsu ramen’s smooth, silky consistency is created by cooking pork bones for up to 18 hours, which allows collagen and other porky goodness to be emulsified into the stock.
Surprisingly, perhaps, ramen originated in China and made an appearance in Japan in the early part of the 20th century; a result of the influx of Chinese people post-1895 after the Sino Japanese war. It has since become a core national dish, accounting for a quarter of all meals taken outside the home. Its legendary status was compounded when Momofuku Ando invented dried noodles in 1957, a cheap and filling creation that nourished Japanese people in the austere times after the second world war and is now a staple in most Japanese households and every student cupboard globally!
You’ll find that devouring your bowl of ramen using the traditional Japanese method of slurping will make it highly pleasurable experience. The trick is to lift a pile of noodles into your mouth with your chopsticks and hoover it quickly in, slurping the tasty stock up along with it. We’ll admit it feels a bit weird the first time you try it and in this country, it might even be considered bad manners, but here at Tonkotsu it’s positively encouraged. If you’d like a lesson in slurping, just ask!