Food, Love & Japan: the Ramen Edition
Let me start with a corny haiku I wrote a long time ago for ramen.
I cuddle your warmth
And savour your essence
You flow lovingly
That was the first, and last, haiku I have ever written. I’ve never fancied myself a poet – let’s face it – there is no talent in that department. In fact, I didn’t even get the number of syllables right for a proper haiku. But that’s not what’s important. What is important here is I am about to tell about all the ramen we ate in Japan.
(A lunch deal we couldn’t resist in Asakusa, Tokyo)
Hungry, cold and slightly lost while trying to find Sensoji (Yes, the big huge temple you couldn’t possibly miss. Yes, we did miss it), we stumbled upon a sign that read… well we don’t know what it read. All we saw was a picture of a ramen and a fried rice. Who were we to tempt fate.
Josh had wanted the negi ramen – with shoyu base soup and finely sliced Japanese leek. Delicious.
I opted for the advertised lunch set which consisted of chashu (roast pork) ramen with the usual accompaniment of seafood and menma (bamboo shoot). Imagine if you will – just a random ramen shop* the size of my living room – and already this was the best ramen I ever had at that point. The best, though, was yet to come.
Served with a little bowl of Japanese fried rice. Very simple with a bit of egg and pork. What else do you need?
(More chashu ramen, this time in Hakone)
Up in the hot spring town of Hakone, our thirst for ramen didn’t go away. We visited the local ramen shop, which had a large friendly panda sign out front.
(Corn ramen set with gyoza, rice and a side salad)
I ordered the dinner set (I am a set girl) which consisted of corn ramen, rice (rice!?!), gyoza and a tiny side salad. It did seem that gyoza (pan-fried Japanese pork and chive dumplings) are a traditional accompaniment to ramen wherever we went.
Zooming in on the corn ramen. Whoever came up with the idea to put buttered corn into a ramen – genius. This ramen was slightly disappointing to us. But we were in a tourist town and there just weren’t a lot of choices.
This gorgeous, and unique, ramen, on the other hand, was found up in Odawara. It was different from any other ramen I’ve ever had. Each ramen in Japan has their regional origin and each town seemed to do their ramen a bit differently.
The stock was light shio (salt) broth with chashu, a large slice of grilled fish cake, a tiny boiled quail egg, beansprouts, wood ear mushrooms and mitsuba – Japanese parsley.
A close up of the mitsuba – Japanese parsley. Because it’s so pretty.
Back in Osaka, we were desperate to try the infamous Ippudo Ramen – a Hakata-style ramen with their unique noodles and their porky, fatty broth. But of course, with our luck, they closed down for the Christmas/New Year period. If you were standing outside the Osaka Ippudo on New Year’s Eve in 2008, you would have found two sad honeymooning tourists pining just outside.
(Does someone know where this place is in Osaka? We want to go back!)
So naturally, we ventured out into the dodgy lane ways of the pachinko arcades (don’t look at me like I think sleazy Japanese lane ways full of gambling dens, hustlers and their sex shops are a tourist attraction) – we went past this shop front. My quick eyes (thank you, thank you) spotted a picture of the longed-for white broth and soft boiled eggs. Excited, I dragged Josh in.
(a ramen shop counter in Osaka)
This place, believed it or not, turned out to be very special for three reasons. Firstly, it was the only food shop in Japan in our two-week trip that gave us non-disposable chopsticks. Secondly, it was the only food shop we went back for the second time and thirdly, it was the best damn ramen we have ever had.
(gyoza with generous sprinkling of spring onion)
There I went giving away the ending again. Let’s start over. We blundered through our ordering as usual (‘ramen kudasai!‘ – seriously sometimes I’m amazed we even got fed the right stuff at all). We ordered the gyoza – just because we were extra hungry. They were average. I’m sure they were mass-produced. It was a grubby looking ramen joint in a sleazy-looking pachinko arcade, so we didn’t expect much.
But then THIS arrived. A bowl of rich, creamy, porky broth. One sip and I was totally sold. It was all about the broth. Yes, I drank the whole bowl of broth. Nothing is too rich when it’s this good. The noodles were al dente (or whatever the Japanese equivalent is called), the charshu melted in the mouth, the egg seasoned. Damn.
Did I mention it was so good I actually wrote a poem about it?
While we missed out on the famous Ippudo, we found our beautiful tonkotsu ramen in a grubby little ramen shop in a pachinko arcade. It was so good we went back two days in a row (and would have gone back again had we not left Osaka the day after). I studied the boys making their ramen. It seemed like they actually had a bag of concentrated broth that they made up their soup with. So it was even possible that they used a mass-produced starter or this could be a chain shop. But I didn’t care. We loved it.
So back in Tokyo, we were keen to repeat the experience. Unfortunately, it was a downer. The broth wasn’t flavoursome and the chashu was actually cold. It was one of the worst ramen experience I ever had.
The condiments consisted of garlic puree (didn’t try it), pickled ginger (don’t like it, ruins the dish) and some sort of unknown icky looking pickle (yuck). I suppose it didn’t help that our last ramen was just so splendid.
And thus, there was no happy ending to this post. But we can’t have it all.
Up next on Spatula, Spoon and Saturday, Food, Love & Japan: the Bento Edition.
* I previously wrote about this ramen in Japan Food Review: Our Very First Ramen in Asakusa