Mr. Momofuku Ando, we salute you!
Growing up in Asia, any student will shed tears of nostalgia when walking through the supermarket shelves and spotting instant ramen packets. They were the staple of most of our childhood. Rushing home from school after a packed day of activities knowing that dinner was at least 3-4 hours away, grab a pot, fill it with water, whack it on the stove and open your preferred flavour of noodles and in 3 minutes flat you had a meal fit for a king. Well, nostalgia does colour the truth.
On some occasions when impatience was a virtue, we just crushed the raw bag, opened it, poured in the MSG-heavy tastemaker, shook the bag to spread the taste and gobbled it up like Westerners do with crisps/chips. Everyone had an opinion on which was best: Maggie, Top Ramen, and having narrowed down a brand, then came the furious debates on flavour, how long to cook the noodles, how much/little water, did you stir in egg, cream cheese, extra chilli powder, vegetables. Enemies were made over the course of the year, friends bonded over their love of Top Ramen. Mine was always Top Ramen Masala flavour. Simple, no frills.
This article, however, is not about instant ramen. It’s about the feverish craze rushing over the planet where suddenly everyone is obsessed with Ramen even though most people I talk to don’t really know what it is.
In all its glory:
From the many incarnations of Shoyu, Tonkotsu, Miso, Shio: the “Famous 4” in most eating establishments. To the regional differences and the cities that pride themselves on their delectable manner of constructing what is basically: Broth, noodles, meat or seafood, toppings and some sort of Tare which is placed at the bottom of the bowl and adds a salty, strong essence to the various broth-types.
Then come the options:
Noodles: thick, thin. hard, soft, medium (some places give you sheets to fill out where you can customise your bowl down to the smallest details). Then there’s Tamago: egg or no egg or extra egg, garlic chips or scallions or pork belly/shoulder or wontons or extra green onions, extra noodles (pop your 100 yen in the small box on the counter and the light goes red), cloud ear mushrooms, vinegar, lard, fishcakes, nori, pickled ginger, menma (fermented bamboo shoots), chilli oil, fresh garlic and even sweetcorn (ugh)…the choices are endless.
All I know is that rarely in life am I as content as sitting down to a steaming bowl of Ramen in Tokyo or Naha and slurping away with abandon. It fills you with the same feeling that Congee does when you’ve got a cold, or chicken soup. It’s that motherly-home feeling that warms you up with bursts of Umami.
From my limited forays into the Ramen world I have compiled a list of places that are definitely worthy of your patronage, and a couple to actively avoid:
The first and potentially still the best Ramen we tried was on our first night in Osaka, tired and frail after 1 week of constant boozing in Seoul, Korea. We wrestled onto the streets, found the happiest shop-owner on earth and asked for Ramen and he just pointed down the street and said THERE:
No idea what its called, but here’s the photo of the sign. Deep Tonkotsu broth, really fatty and luxurious with melt-in-your-mouth pork. Set the standard from day 1 and wasn’t beaten until 2 weeks later.
Kiraku Ramen. Not Tonkotsu, but head upstairs and order the pork ramen with wontons and just sit back and wait for a miracle. We ate there every single day.
Possibly the best ramen I ever tasted, period. Ramen Kouryu. The Tonkotsu with pork like butter, shoulder and belly just fatty and tender as a lullaby. Noodles just right. Tamago perfectly soft-boiled. Utterly spectacular. Doesn’t get better than this.
This might come as a surprise, but there are a lot of Japanese ex-pats in Bangkok and they have the joy of eating authentic ramen at a very affordable price all over the city. The best one I tried after sampling many was Ramen Bankara. Spot on tonkotsu, great gyoza, great service, go there every day if you can.
Another ramen bowl that almost toppled Kouryu’s crown but didn’t quite make it. Ramen Nagi. Stupendously good broth with extra chilli kick, great pork and the best thing about them is that they have 2 branches in the Philippines too, so when your stomach is craving for something resembling good food, head there and never leave.
Inevitably, some places don’t live up to the hype, and in my humble opinion the following deserve no accolades at all, despite being honoured with awards:
Ippudo: Just doesn’t cut it. Too square, nothing really pops or stands out. Go here if you have no other options nearby to get a hint of whats real.
Ichiran: Again, same as above. Nothing special, just a very basic bowl of ramen. But the place itself is worth going to for the stall-seating and bizarre way of serving you from behind a small curtain.
Chabuton (Bangkok): Thin, watery broth, semi-decent noodles, only 1 piece of pork in my bowl?? and sprayed with sesame seeds, no thanks!
Hitchhiker (Oslo): The capitals first foray into “ramen” is an utter disaster. Nothing is right, awful sour broth, awful noodles, duck meat and some pickled oddities. A complete and utter waste of your time and if you think this is ramen, think again.
In passing homage back to the man who started the whole revelation, Momofuku Ando, I am enclosing a recipe for “cheat ramen” which you can make for cheap and cures hangovers like a miracle. Its also pretty damn tasty for when you’re in a rush and can’t jump on a plane to Japan.
1 packet (not cup) of Shin Ramyun Korean Noodles (accept no substitute)
condiments: peanut butter (no really!), fish sauce, soy sauce, sesame seed oil, sriracha sauce,
fresh things: 1 egg, bok choi, limes, red chilli, coriander, ginger, garlic, snap peas, bean sprouts, red onion
Fill a ramen bowl with water about 3/4 of the way up.
Dump that water into a pot
Add the tastemakers from the noodle pack, all of them, a few splashes of fish sauce (careful with this shit, its pungent yo!), soy sauce, sesame seed oil, sriracha, 1 teaspoon of peanut butter (yes, really), thinly sliced ginger pieces, crushed garlic (to personal taste), and thin slides of red chilli and as it starts boiling whisk an egg in there furiously. You can whisk the egg in after putting in the noodles if you want them coated in the egg. Whatever.
Cook the noodles until al dente, adding the bok choi, beans sprouts and snap peas right before the end so it cooks a tiny bit but is still essentially raw and crunchy. (You can add whatever veggies you like of course, broccoli, cauliflower, anything)
Pour into a ramen bowl and add thinly sliced red chilli, lots of coriander, and julienne red onion slices. Squeeze a good lug of fresh lime all over it and start attacking.
P.s. For Oslo-ites, you can buy basically every ingredient at A-Market down the road from Cacadou. And once you splash the cash, the sauces and oils last for ever so its cheap to make.