How I lost my mind for ramen (Part 2)
More ramen, ramen…more! Slurp them, slurp them, here they are…
Daydreaming about ramen, I followed my family to Hiroshima and further, only managing to scramble a few bowls of department store offerings, which although providing a lovely lunch, did not satisfy that internal longing for attention to detail.
After Hiroshima, we made our way in Beppu, the place where we wished we had more time in. An added bonus would have been the numerous ramen shops around every corner and all within a quick walk from the guesthouse we were staying at. Instead, we ended up there on a day when just about every restaurant was not working.
We found a place that looked like it has been there, on the main road, for yonks. The grandma and grandpa running it completed the picture. Even though the shop was somewhat cold and impersonal looking by Japanese standards, the ramen did not disappoint.
We had two types –
I went with the tonkotsu ramen, which despite the run of the mill noodles, was wonderfully flavorful and with generous toppings of seaweed, spring onions and menma (marinated bamboo shoots).
Few days of being off the city grid, meant that before we caught the train to Fukuoka, I just had to, had to, grab a serving of my now second favorite Japanese meal (sushi still has my heart 100%).
We were looking at the pictures, trying to decide who is having what and a helpful woman felt sorry for my squaking and ‘flapping wings” attempt at describing chicken (and lets not even talk about the pig impersonation), and quickly ran through the menu. Horse? Horse, you say? No, I was not surprised, Kumamoto had one unique thing as far as Japan is concerned, it has an appetite for raw horse meat – basashi. So horse meat ramen, did not sound as weird as it might have to you right now.
I ordered it.
Yes, I look googly eyed freaked out, trying to be brave and cool about it, because that is exactly what I was feeling.
It tasted like chicken ;)
No, it tasted like meat. No. Mr.Blab said it had a licorice flavour, but I think that came from the broth, which was not inspiring at all. A bit odd tasting, like the recipe has been thrown together and just brewed in the big pots behind the counter for years without anyone tasting it and adjusting the flavors.
The meat itself was fine – more kangaroo than beef, which in translation means ‘gamey’.
I still finished the bowl. Also gave some horse to the Dod, who ate it with pleasure.
Advice? If you are going to try this, choose the place more wisely instead of at the last moment before boarding your train.
That train took us to the home of the tonkotsu ramen noodles – Fukuoka.
What is the best way to find local favorites? Ask the people that live there. And that is what I did. Chatted up a few people, until I stumbled upon a guy that seem to know a few spots.
– Where is a good udon spot?…Where is a good and cheap ramen? …Tonkotsu?…yeah, I want Hakata ramen…where?
– Mmm, see…here – he carefully marks my map, then writes a few lines in English and then the Japanese names – this one is good. Oh, here too..udon?…there is a shop in on this corner here, good one…sushi train…right here, yes, the 100 Yen one, actually 105 yen. You will like.
With a plan in my hand, I was ready.
Ramen shop at Hakata Deitos 2F (Second Floor) right next to the Station.
Sorry, my notes have disappeared and I cant find the name. If you get there, the place looks like this.
The place was busy and my noodles arrived quite quickly. A delightful amalgamation of flavours served with two soft boiled half eggs staring at me , generous serving of pork slices and spring onions. The soup was oily, but not unpleasantly so, still quite light in consistency.
Hakata noodles come with very thin noodles and the ones hiding in my broth were just that, slim, lively and delicious for slurping.
– Kae Dama! – a men shouts next to me.
– Kae Dama…Kae Dama – echoes through the waitress and the chef behind the curtain. And shortly after he gets what he has ordered – a fresh warm serve of top-up noodles, which he mixes up with the broth in his bowl. Another Hakata tradition, dont try it in other places, because you might be left disappointed.
I was tempted to do the same, as the soup was so enjoyable, but refrained, as I was feeling quite full already. Instead, I slurped the warm juice on its own.
We had one more day in Fukuoka, so armed with my map decorated in hand-written notes, I approached the local guy in the living room and asked for his recommendations. He said that even though he likes the place I went yesterday, he prefers Hide Chan. Hakata noodles have varieties and some are thicker, others oilier and so forth. That was it. The ramen I had yesterday didnt quiiiite make me dizzy with pleasure, so I was going for different.
For their second last meal in Japan, the rest of the family wanted udon noodles, so I dropped them at the character shops on the lower level of Canal City and headed up the escalator to Ramen Stadium level.
Hungry crowds were spilling in front of the various restaurants and I was walking through them trying to match up the names to the one I was after. And there is was, my last attempt to complete my ramen nirvana. Full to the brim, with a promisingly large queue and buzzing kitchen.
Hide Chan Ramen in Canal City’s Ramen Stadium, Fukuoka
See that man sitting on the first table on the left? With the glasses? He kindly assisted me in ordering, when he saw I was taking my time at the vending machine. There were a few options and I was thinking of going for the 750 Yen one, which was kind of middle of the road price.
– Which one do you prefer? – I asked him, hoping he is a regular and will know what is good.
– Oh, me? This one…this one best – he pointed with a big grin to button delivering the cheapest, basic ramen available.
– Ooooh, domo arrigato gozaimas – I bowed back, now with a big excited grin of my own.
With my goofy smile on and grasping my ticket lovingly, I joined the snake of waiting diners and awaited my turn.
You can order the hardness of your Hakata noodles to your liking, that is if you speak Japanese. If its something you would like to do, be prepared with a translation or know your key words. I was not, as my expertise in the field is none, so regular style was fine by me.
One of the bars was free and a group of us were welcomed to our tall seats by the gentle woman in the front and then the loud shouts that seem to come from every which end (love that!), refreshing water appeared in a small glass in front of me and my excitement was peaking. The kitchen was right in front of me and I could see the cooks in action. The aromas were very promising. Mmmm..
A few minutes later…
In a black bowl was sitting my last ramen serving in Japan – smooth milky broth, simple toppings of spring onions, slightly steamed bean sprouts and deliciously looking pork (chāshū).
The loud slurping had began around me, while I was still just trying to take it all in. My expectations on this poor little bowl were so high, that I was taking my time discovering what it had to offer.
I slurped at my soup and all the worries I had melted into its comforting flavor. It was like a warm bear hug – as smooth as it looked, but rich in delicate porky goodness with nothing else fighting for my attention, because everything was there to serve the main character. I could taste a very slight sweetness, not from sugar, but a delight that comes through when you roast meat.
As I purred eating those thin noodles dripping with porky juice, I noticed something. My heart skipped a beat.
A little tub of peeled garlic was awaiting me and then I saw the shiny metal garlic press calling my name.
A few squirts later, I was in heaven. Because ramen may be my new love, but garlic, oh, garlic is as we say in my family running through my veins.
And now the picture was perfect.
And a big smile.
So ends my adventure with ramen in Japan, but this is only the beginning of our relationship.
Finishing bundle of information for other ramen explorers:
Best toppings: garlic, toasted sesame seeds, spicy sesame and the burnt garlic oil