Bowled over by intense flavours

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 September, 2011, 12:00am


What goes around comes around, as they say, and Japanese ramen is a fine example of a dish that has crossed the seas from China to Japan, evolved and come 'back' to Hong Kong to immense popularity. Originating in a simple Chinese wheat noodle soup, ramen was served from pushcart food stalls in 1900s Japan. It has since become something of a national dish, with regional variations and even a museum in Yokohama to celebrate its history.

A steaming bowl of springy, substantial noodles bathed in miso or soy-flavoured pork bone broth, topped with sliced pork, seaweed, and spring onion, ramen is an easy comfort food embraced by Hongkongers looking for something familiar yet different. Speciality shops dedicated to making the perfect bowl have cropped up everywhere. In a cul-de-sac in Kau U Fong, off Gough Street, Yachiyo and The Ramen restaurant pull SoHoites off the beaten track to slurp up this noodley goodness in peace.

Yachiyo gets decent lunch traffic despite its semi-hidden location down the steps on On Wo Lane. We opt for the counter seats to better observe the cooking process, and to chat with chef-owner Ah Man, a local who spent eight years travelling in Japan to learn the art. The menu includes the Tokyo-style tsukemen, where the hot broth is served on the side and cold ramen and toppings are dipped in before eating. We choose a more traditional shio (salt) ramen (HK$63) to sample.

The thick and heavy ceramic bowl arrives holding a beautifully composed meal-in-one. The broth is light brown and almost milky, with tiny beads of fat dotting the top. Ah Man explains that the eight-hour cooking process renders the pork bone so soft he can pulverise some of it into the liquid to further enrich the flavour. The noodles peek out from under the array of toppings, and are very elastic to the bite.

The combination of flavours from the pork slices, slightly crunchy preserved bamboo shoot, half a hard-boiled egg with a soft, reddish-brown centre, and spring onions is married with the intensity of the broth. The seaweed used here isn't the usual nori sheets that line the side of the bowl, but a soft, frilly variety that sinks into the broth; it makes for a slightly slimy texture, but imparts wonderful umami, or savouriness. We found ourselves draining the last bit of broth, and feeling full and glad that we didn't order extra toppings from the restaurant's selection of fresh and pickled vegetables, fish cakes and other seaweed varieties.

We make tracks for The Ramen ahead of the dinner rush, and are greeted pleasantly by chef Jack, also a Hongkonger with a passion for ramen. Small tables for two and four line the long, rectangular space; we opt for a seat closer to the entrance for a view of the small public park across the street. We order the signature pork ramen (HK$58) and enjoy a simple but delicious sliced tomato salad with sesame dressing (HK$38) while we wait.

When the ramen arrives, we notice right away that the noodle is a thinner, straighter variety, more like soba than Chinese wheat noodles and therefore less bouncy and textured. The broth is clear and darker in colour, much thinner than the one at Yachiyo.

We count more - and thicker-cut - pork slices here but, overall, less substantial toppings: there are corn, green onion and, curiously, bits of Chinese cabbage. The large sheet of nori sticking out of the bowl is a nice flourish, but after the taste of Yachiyo's soft seaweed, the papery texture of this garnish is less satisfying. While the slim and more yielding noodle has a nice texture, we found the overall flavour experience rather bland - something we might crave if we felt under the weather and in need of a light and comforting soup.

The verdict: Yachiyo, which packs mega-flavour and textures into its ramen, is the clear winner. The Ramen still has a fighting chance in the neighbourhood, however, especially since Yachiyo will move to Lyndhurst Terrace in November.

Yachiyo Ramen

G/F, 8 On Wo Lane, Kau U Fong, Central

Tel: 2815 5766

Open: Mon-Fri, noon-3pm, 6pm-10pm; Sat, noon-3.30pm, 6pm-10pm

The Ramen

Shop B, G/F, 6-10 Kau U Fong, Central

Tel: 2805 2305

Open: 11.45am-9pm daily