How I lost my mind for ramen (Part 1)

This saga starts quite simple actually, as most addictions do I suppose.

I read somewhere about a ramen noodle alley in Kyoto Station and figured it will be a good place to chose how to taste this local favorite. It turned out to not be an alley at all, rather the 10th floor of the Isetan department store, which is located right in the station.

We walked around, tried to peak through the windows and settled into a comfortable looking little shop. After making our choices from the vending machine in the front, we entered and awaited the arrival of our food. One of the numerous things I love about Japan is the free cold drinks that come with every meal – sometimes green tea, others barley tea and even water is not uncommon.

First arrived the “dunking noodles”, which in a novice language means the variety which comes not in the broth already, but separate, and you are meant to dunk them yourself in the soup, which is usually stronger in flavour.

The broth looked…split, wrong, greasy and scary frankly, but the smell was promising.

I clasped some of the noodles with my chopsticks and dipped them generously in the broth and then I slurped…

The warm noodles were slightly al dente, full of vigour and they felt like youth compared to the deep, settled porky flavour of the soup, which suddenly looked like gold to my taste buds. An amazing combination that almost forced me to grab the bowls and run far away to enjoy on my own, instead I had to share, as we bought only two dishes since we were not hungry. Luckily the other ramen order arrived and it proved to be more to their liking, so I took my time to savor my new discovery.

What was the other ramen? It was pleasant…and that is all I remember of it.

It simply faded into comparison to my decadent slow-cooked pig juice and lively noddles.

 

And that is the day when it all started.

Ramen, becoming one of Japan’s food icons during the last 30-40 years, originated in China. Like many of the influences that crossed the ocean, the Japanese managed to make it better. That is of course my own not so humble opinion. It is simple at a first glance – soup and noodles, but that would be deceptive and couldnt do justice to the dish that has now stole my heart. Instant noodles this is not. It is an art form that has attracted connoisseurs and offerings with a different spin come from each end of the country.

The soup takes a long time to extract the flavours of pork or chicken, with bones or not, and depending on the other ingredients it can be divided into four categories – Shōyu (soy sauce based) and most traditional version; Shio (salt), being the oldest, lightest and considered healthiest option with the broth remaining clear;  Tonkotsu (pork bone) produces a milky white soup much revered in the South of the country; and Miso based version being the newcomer to the line up, but uniquely Japanese one – coming from the cold North its rich, nutty and fatty, often hard to appreciate by foreign taste buds.

This is not an all encompassing list though, there are even newer adventures into the field with curry ramen, gelled pork ramen, upside-down fish stock and whatever ramen…And then, there are the carefully crafted variations brewed at individual establishments, which complete the immense world of ramen, where one can get lost for years and years.

Enough of all of this, though. After getting a quick education in the field, I was ready for explorations and having fallen in love with the dipping (tsukemen) noodles, I discovered that there is a well-known restaurant in Ramen Alley and headed there again. To my disappointment, Tetsu Ramen was not there anymore, so I decided on another place.

 

Ramen Todai(ラーメン東大)

from Tokushima

 

I paid my $10 and sat down awaiting my order. I chose this place as the previous time we visited, it was so full, people were lining up in front and none of the other shops had that ‘problem’. Since it was not lunch and definitely not dinner, there were only a few more people around.

I quickly checked what I had to work with – white pepper, spicy sesame , soy and gyoza dipping sauces.  A bowl of raw eggs to the side, as this is one of the features of this type of ramen – instead of soft boiled egg, you are supposed to crack a fresh one on top of the steaming liquid and stir a bit.

Then I tried the salty plums, which were…salty.

I ordered preserved egg on my noodles and the whole set looked quite promising.  The broth was thick , almost pasty not greasy at all. Tokushima ramen are based on tonkotsu and  shoyu and taste very rich with a certain sweetness to them – hence the overly salty small plums.

They were delicious with the spring onions and pork mixed through them. Still, not quite what I was hoping for.

The search continues.

Our time in Kyoto was coming to an end, so I decided to try and find a good place to try the local, Kyoto style ramen. Too much reading other people’s reviews, a lot of salivating and raising expectations led me to Pontocho, amongst the hiding geisha and into:

Takaraya Ramen Pontocho (宝屋ラーメン)

It was close to lunch time and a restaurant nearby was enjoying the long queue of eager diners. Takaraya, to my delight, was quiet and waiting for me.

A warm and smiling woman quickly brought me cold tea and took my order – Sumashi ramen.

This is a small and cosy setup, with the chefs working intensely, but quietly in the kitchen. Sipping on my tea, my anticipation was growing higher than I wanted it to.

A young couple was whispering across from me and a few men in suits were finishing their lunchs, while I was taking it all in. The place didn’t seem to have air-conditioning, so I wondered if it gets too hot in the middle of summer.

 

And then, I saw my bowl, making its short way from the kitchen. It has taken it quite awhile to make its appearance, so it must be good…

The bowl clanks gently in front of me, and I am faced with one of the most beautiful soups I have ever seen.

The soothing scent of chicken broth engulfed me, the bright yellow soft yolk sitting comfortably next to plump meat balls, crispy deep-fried burbock root, small bacon bits sprinkled on top amongst the toasted sesame seeds and my mouth was watering. Seriously.

From the first sip, I knew I had made the right choice. The broth was perfection – deep chicken flavour, while still being fresh and light on the tongue; the meatballs were juicy and willingly melted in my mouth without any resistance, the noddles, oh the noodles, where soft and smooth, al dente, as I like them, and I could taste, ever so slightly, the wheat that was contained within them. And the random crunch and sweetness provided by the toasted bacon and root slivers completed this masterpiece. One of the best $9 I have ever spent.

 

Full of golden juice, I left with a spring in my walk and looked forward to exploring more as we moved South – the home of tonkotsu – rich pork ramen.

 

 

Read more about my adventures with ramen in Japan in part 2.