Ramen

The story of one man’s pilgrimage to Tokyo in search of the ultimate hot noodle soup. An international holiday cannot really be considered successful unless it completely ruins something you love forever. For me it was ramen.

I love the rich noodle soup so much that I’ve eaten at every ramen spot in my home town and have ranked them according to soup density, pork intensity and noodle chewiness. I’ve tried each ramen variation on each menu and have even spent the better part of a month perfecting my own tonkotsu broth that’s as thick as a smoothie. So I thought it was time to embark on a ramen pilgrimage.

I booked a flight to Tokyo, even though I’m well aware of ramen’s Chinese origins, and spent two weeks eating nothing but ramen for breakfast, lunch, dinner, brunch, dunch and brinner. I discovered styles of ramen I never knew existed and tasted exquisite versions of the styles I’ve been eating my entire life. I ate bowls in every kind of establishment, from cheap and cheerful to high-end, and then on the final days of my holiday, I increased my ramen intake by three extra meals a day, even smuggling a takeaway bowl onto my return flight.

When I arrived back home, ramen was the last thing on my mind. I ate pizza, burgers, sushi - but then the ramen cravings returned, so I went to my favourite spot, ordered my usual and took a slurp from the familiar bowl. Then it hit me. This ramen is inferior. In fact, every ramen in my home city is subordinate to the countless bowls of porky goodness I devoured in Tokyo. What was once a soup I thought I loved more than my family is now just salted hot water that tastes vaguely like bacon. Tokyo may have shown me ramen perfection, but it has also ruined my chances of enjoying a bowl of it in my own city. The good news for you, however, is that it’s possible to ruin ramen with only five bowls (what a time saver!) by following this hard-earned guide to Tokyo’s best. You can thank me later.

Afuri

Start your ramen exploration at Afuri, where a team in black uniforms and flat caps work quickly among enormous pots of broth laced with chicken fat cooked over raging flames. The use of chicken instead of pork makes this a lighter bowl of ramen, even more so if you order it yuzu shio style - a delicate soup made of chicken, fish and seaweed, with the refreshing tartness of yuzu juice (an Asian citrus fruit) and peel cutting through the fat (the pleasingly golden broth, filled with charred pieces of pork and thin noodles is made even more pleasing by adding extra chicken fat).

Afuri has a number of locations; the original restaurant is in Ebisu, which is just around the corner from the Ebisu Yokocho late-night arcade, a lively alley lined with restaurants and bars ripe for exploring.

Tetsu

Another chain worth visiting is Tetsu, with locations all over Tokyo. Here they have a solution for the slow eater who gets stuck with half a bowl of cold ramen: a hot rock to warm the soup back up. This is well suited to the ramen variation of tsukemen, which is when the broth and noodles are served in separate dishes, allowing you to dip the cold chewy noodles into the hot broth. This process cools down the broth quickly, so order a hot stone midway through your meal to heat it once more. This will allow you to enjoy Tetsu’s piping hot, extra-potent sardines and mackerel-based broth until the very last slurp.

Mugitooribu

Did you know that most of your ramen in Tokyo (most of your meals even) will be purchased using a vending machine? It makes travelling with a complete inability to read or pronounce kanji considerably easier when you can just press a few buttons, feed the slot some money and take a ticket to the server. That’s exactly how you order the ‘triple soba’ at Mugitooribu.

The three main ingredients are chicken, clam and dried sardines, which makes for a sweet, fishy base. Within this are ramen noodles made with buckwheat, slices of chicken chashu (meat barbecued as they do in Cantonese cuisine), a fishcake and a mountain of clams. These aren’t those little clams you might find in a particularly great bowl of miso soup either - these clams are the stars of the show and this unique bowl of ramen is reason alone to head to either branch of Mugitooribu.

Fu-unji

I find the key to enjoying as much ramen as possible is accepting that ramen is a perfectly fine breakfast option. (This also means you can beat the lunch queue at the most popular ramen spots.) Doors open at 11am at Fu-unji, and every minute later equals an extra ten minutes you’ll have to stand in line - but it’s worth waiting: your reward is one of Tokyo’s best tsukemens. Here, fantastically chewy noodles are served al dente next to a bowl of impossibly thick, meaty broth, made mainly from chicken, rich brown in colour and topped with an even richer brown spoonful of smoked fish powder. The customary ramen egg wades in this awesomeness, a bomb of flavour when you finally bite into it. One bowl of tsukemen from Fu-unji is all you’ll need to ensure the inferiority of every other ramen you ever encounter.

Suzuran

Back in Ebisu is one of the more expensive bowls of ramen I ate on this pilgrimage - although it’s still not that expensive. It’s also the most artful. At Suzuran, an elegant pile of handmade noodles sit in a clear broth of golden shoyu (soy sauce), with slices of chashu pork floating above, topped with a delicate pinch of saffron threads. Are the saffron threads actually necessary? Not really, but a return visit will be in order to taste Suzuran’s unbeatable miso-based tsukemen, which you can order with wide ramen noodles that resemble Italian pappardelle pasta - this restaurant is well known for the variety and freshness of its noodles.  

What is ramen?

An addictive bowl of noodles available in many styles across Japan. While some say it originated in China, more patriotic ramen fans swear that it began in Japan in the early 1900s. Whatever history you choose to believe, ramen is delicious.

What’s in it?

Typically a bowl of ramen consists of Chinese wheat noodles swimming in a pool of stock. This soup is generally either one of four styles: shio (salt), miso (Japanese soybean paste), shoyu (soy sauce) or tonkotsu, which is made from pork bones and is the densest stock (some heavier tonkotsus can taste like a slab of bacon). Ramen also features a range of toppings, such as pickled bamboo, dried seaweed, boiled eggs and sliced pork.

What was that about sliced pork?

The most common kind of pork you’ll find atop a bowl of ramen is chashu pork, made by slowly simmering pork belly in sweet soy, spices and rice wine (it’s pretty hard not to just chow down on these tender slices of pork before you even touch the noodles). Sometimes you’ll find pork loin in your ramen, braised pork shoulder or minced pork and, in some cases, very thin slices of pork cooked shabu shabu-style in a hot seasoned broth.

How do you eat it?

Pick up a little bit of everything with your chopsticks - some noodles and pork - and pile it on your spoon. Dip your spoon into the stock and slurp away. Tsukemen ramen comes in two separate bowls - one filled with stock, the other cold noodles. Dip the noodles in the stock and you’re set.

Andrew Levins - Published in Voyeur June 2016
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 12,500,000
Time Zone GMT + 9 hours
Languages Japanese (national)
Currency Japanese yen (JPY)
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