Ramen, A Cult Classic

Just as I was researching Japanese food for our trip to Japan, the NY Times came out with a great story on ramen.  Reading this article, confirmed that we had to try a few different ramen shops while we were in Japan.  Ramen in Japan has a cult following with several blogs dedicated to the quest for the perfect bowl of noodles and broth.

Ramen is a delicate balance of the flavor of the broth, the texture of the noodles, and the various toppings.  There are several varieties of broth typically meat based, chicken, beef, or pork.  Then they can be shoyu, mixed with soy sauce; shio, mixed with salt; or miso, mixed with miso.  In addition, there is a tonkotsu broth which is a rich, milky broth made by boiling pork bones to extract the marrow.  The noodles are wheat based and can range from a thin and delicate to think and chewy.  There is a huge range of toppings offered from slices of pork, hard boiled eggs, scallions, bamboo shoots, wood ear mushrooms, and seaweed.  The combinations while seemingly endless are driven by regional tradition and preferences; which are nicely outlined by Rameniac.

When we were in Japanwe decided that we must try this dish with a cult following.  In Tokyowe went to Nagi (above) in the Shibuya district.  We arrived about 10 minutes before they opened for lunch and spent the time trying to translate the Japanese menu which was posted out front.  Within a couple of minutes the several locals joined the line and we knew we were in the right place.  The space is tiny with a bar and only a couple of small tables.  We were trying to work through the menu when the waitress came and explained our options in English.  We started with pork gyoza and decided to share a bowl of ramen topped with everything.  The gyoza were fantastic!  The pork filling was a delicate combination of pork and scallions.  But, the key was the chewy, crunchy texture of the wrapper.  The ramen too was wonderful!  The broth was a tonkotsu style with a milky, oily appearance.  It had a delicate yet extremely rich flavor.  The noodles came topped with a hard boiled egg, slices of pork, wood ear mushrooms, and scallions.  The noodles were thin and just perfectly chewy to the tooth.  Together the combination was the definition of comfort food.

     

As I have noted before, you can get excellent food in Japanese train stations and ramen is no exception.  The 10th floor of theKyoto train station is known as “Ramen Alley” and is filled with ramen shops specializing in different styles of ramen.  We stopped here one evening on our way back to the inn.  After walking up and down and reviewing the pictures we settled on one which offered a beef based broth.  With a little guidance from one of the staff, we placed our order at the vending machine and took a seat.  The bowl of beefy broth and delicate thin noodles was topped with shredded beef, scallions and bamboo shoots.  It was a very hearty dish compared to the delicate flavors of the ramen we tried in Tokyo, though still quite comforting.

     

When we were in NYC a couple months ago we wanted to try to find the wonderfully delicate tonkotsu ramen we had in Tokyo.  One of the more popular Tokyo chains, Ippudo, opened a branch in NYC so we headed there one afternoon for lunch.  The place was packed and the wait was long.  The space is simple and elegant with wooden tables and counters, modern black and whites seating and bright red accents.  The menu too is simple with several different ramen options.  All the noodles are made in house and you can take a walk downstairs to a viewing window to see the process.  We decided to share the Shiromaru Hakata Classic which is the original tonkotsu noodle soup topped with pork loin chashu, wood ear mushrooms, fermented bamboo shoots, red pickeled ginger, sesame, and scallions.  We chose to do the chashu option adds extra pork since we were sharing.  It was delicious with a nice chew to the noodle though, the broth was not quite as delicate as the broth at Nagi.

It is clear why such a straightforward dish of noodles and broth has developed such a cult following.  It is anything but simple with a variety of options for both broth and noodle preparations.  It truly is a Japanese comfort food!

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