TOKYO, Sept 30 — Walking into a ramen shop can be like entering a brand new world: Figuring out the ticket machine and handing your orders to the staff behind the counter; the aroma of constantly bubbling stock, rich and meaty; the surprising silence other than the sounds of diners slurping away and the splash of noodle water as the strainers are whipped maniacally in the air…
But once you’ve become an old hand at eating ramen, the entire experience becomes more familiar, almost ritualistic.
While ramen itself is an import from China, first introduced to Japan by Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century as lamian, the noodle dish has become its own category over the years.
Springy noodles thanks to the use of kansui (alkaline water); rich broth from boiling meat and bones for hours; toppings including nori seaweed, large slices of chashu (barbecued pork), ajitsuke tamago (seasoned boiled eggs) and more — all contribute to an iconic bowl of ramen.
Yes, reassuringly familiar. No surprises; you know what you’re going to get.
Or do you?
In a country that has over 50,000 ramen shops (more than 20,000 in Tokyo alone), there is great opportunity — and perhaps great need — to stand out from the pack. In Kanda, the original downtown centre of Edo-era Tokyo, one shop returns to China for further inspiration.
At Lashohan, their signature tantanmen takes its cue from the famous Sichuan dandanmian: the latter sauced by a spicy gravy spiked with Sichuan peppers, chilli oil, minced pork and zhacai (preserved mustard greens). The owner, Okada-san, who has lived in Hong Kong and speaks Cantonese, does one better by creating a soupless tantanmen or shirunashi tantanmen.
The ingredients are not unlike those of a typical tantanmen — with some extra heat from shibi (Japanese green pepper) powder — but the noodles are served almost unadorned atop them. Just a fan of fresh green sprouts for some cool sweetness and the barest hint of soup at the base. Using our chopsticks, we mix everything together till each noodle strand is gleaming from a shiny, spicy coating.
Every bite is intense yet complex from all the flavours mingling. Our lips start to feel numb, not unpleasantly so. We are the first customers of the evening but by time we’ve finished our bowls, other customers start coming in. Many of them hungry students, as the shop is next to a university. They will find a fine meal here if they survive the spice.
If soupless tantanmen is relatively new, an old stalwart is miso ramen, synonymous with Sapporo. The northernmost island of Hokkaido is famed for its abundance of fresh produce and bounty from the sea. It’s the latter that provides an inspired take on a tried and tested recipe.
We make our pilgrimage to the Ramen Yokocho (“Ramen Alley”), nestled snug within Susukino, the red light district of Sapporo. There are, naturally, many ramen shops here but the one we are hunting down is Higuma, considered a pioneer in introducing miso ramen to the masses in the 70s.
First opened in 1972, Higuma is a tiny place, almost rundown. Here, unlike Lashohan, it is salarymen who jostle for seats (fewer than a dozen stools available) on weeknights after work. Behind the counter, the owner Takada-san holds court by himself on most nights.
Indeed the shop looks like it is stuck in the 70s and that bodes well for the recipe, which hasn’t changed in almost half a century. The rich broth is boiled for six hours with chicken, pork and pork ribs. The secret, apparently, is the addition of Jinhua ham, a decidedly non-Japanese ingredient.
It makes for an incredible base to the soup; the fermentation of the dry-cured ham from edible moulds deepens the umami flavours. Sweetened further with creamy miso, every drop clings happily to every strand of noodle. There are two choices: aged yellow noodles (jukusei men) made from egg whites and two types of wheat flour, great with the pork ramen; and fresh white noodles (shiro men), pale from its low alkaline content, to go with the beef ramen.
Ah, but for the shop’s special, known only by regulars, ask for the limited hotate (scallop) ramen. Lightly grilled, each jewel-like mollusc is as voluptuous as the fattiest cuts of otoro tuna or kurobuta pork, with the lightest smoky aroma cutting through the richness of the broth (and, if you are wise, the very necessary toppings of Hokkaido butter and corn).
Scallop, smoke, butter, corn: so many layers of sweetness and natural goodness. All the flavours of the harvests of field and sea in a single bowl.
The only way to finish such a magnificent bowl, of course, is to do as the locals do and tip the bowl to your lips when you’re nearly done. Let not a single drop go to waste. Slurping it all down like true believers, we regret that we aren’t able to do the same with the shirunashi tantanmen at Lashohan, but perhaps that is for the best.
Slowly sipping pure scallop essence certainly sounds more fun than a downing a shot of unadulterated shibi pepper!
1-4-8 Kanda Nishikicho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Open Mon-Fri 11am-3pm & 5:30pm-8pm; Sat 11am-2pm; Sun closed
Higuma Yokocho Honten
3 Chome Minami 5 Jonishi, Chuo-ku, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan
Open Mon-Sat 11am-3am; Sun 11am-11pm