Rockin' ramen

The heat is on for soup samurais in HK's broth-and-noodle battle, writes Vanessa Yung

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 April, 2013, 10:58pm

ALTHOUGH THE RAMEN trend started in Hong Kong a few years ago, local appetite for the noodle soup is heating up again. And if the Oishii Japan Ramen Fiesta held last month in Diamond Hill is anything to go by, vendors will be competing even harder for customers.

Hong Kong was given a taste of the many ramen varieties in Japan, some of them still novel to the city, courtesy of five masters of ramen.

Ichiran – a popular Japanese chain serving Hakata-style tonkotsu (pork bone) broth with thin, straight noodles and topped with a secret red sauce made from more than 30 spices – is set to open its first overseas branch in Causeway Bay this summer.

Ichiran promises an intimate experience between diner and their steaming bowl of soup, especially those who are a bit embarrassed at asking for a refill.

“The Hong Kong shop will be the same as Japan, both in terms of taste and ambience,” says Masakazu Igarashi, who runs Ichiran’s overseas projects. “It features high-privacy, booth-type counters so that the diners can focus on eating their ramen. It also avoids the embarrassment which some may feel eating alone or ordering a noodle refill (kae-dama).”

Another shop that participated in the fiesta was the Toyama prefecture’s Ramen Iroha, a four-time Tokyo Ramen Show champion known for its thick, dark, seafood-infused broth. It recently opened an outlet on Haven Street in Causeway Bay.

Also eagerly looking to enter the local food scene are Tamagawa from Tokyo’s Asakusa district, which is known for its Kitakata ramen (thick noodles in clear broth), and Katsutan from the southern Katsuura-gun region, which serves a famous spicy tan tan men (the Japanese take on the dandan noodles of Sichuan province) topped with sweet onion.

The fifth fiesta participant, Hakodate, already has a restaurant in Quarry Bay.

“Japanese people are very particular about creating their own dishes, so each ramen shop has different soup, noodles and ingredients,” says Masaki Hirata, executive director of the Japan National

Tourism Organisation, who co-organised the ramen fiesta. “As long as Hong Kong people keep developing their taste – we have a lot of varieties that they don’t know yet – ramen is here to stay. It’s not a fad or fashion, it’s a staple that has a strong base.”

Hirata has been vindicated, so far, by the popularity of some of the shops that opened recently.

By now, Hongkongers will have heard of tsukemen, which features a strongly flavoured sauce served in separate bowl in which the diner must dip the noodles.

“When you eat ramen, the focus is the soup. But for tsukemen, the star is the noodle,” says Takashima Yoshihiro, chef of Shugetsu in Sheung Wan, which has attracted long queues since it opened about a year ago. It recently added a branch in Quarry Bay.

“So rather than enjoy the soup – I’d rather call it a sauce – the idea is basically to enjoy the noodle.”

That is why Yoshihiro makes his own noodles in the shop, just as they do at the original restaurant in Ehime, a coastal prefecture in southern Japan.

Two different types of wheat flour – one for making regular ramen, the other usually for making udon – are mixed to make what he describes as “crispy, chewy and puffy” tsukemen noodles.

For the best taste and texture, the noodles – which are twice as thick as regular ramen noodles so the sauce clings better – are left in the fridge for 24 hours prior to cooking.

Careful attention is also paid to the sauce, which is made from soy sauce and rice vinegar from a 150-year-old factory in Ehime. This is stirred with chicken soup, a mixture of slowly cooked scallop powder and soybean oil, as well as a mix of sardine and mackerel fish powder. It also has bamboo shoots, green onion and pork belly strips imported from Japan’s Kagoshima prefecture.

“We don’t need to add any preservatives, nor is there any MSG in our dishes. Different people may have different tastes for soup, but our noodles are the best so I’m confident that we can survive the ramen war, or whatever you call it,” says Yoshihiro.

Perhaps the current “war” is just a sequel to one started by Japanese culture guru Meter Chen Fong-tang whose shop, Butao Ramen in Central, had people queuing for two hours or more when it opened in 2010.

Since then, Chen has expanded his empire with busy branches in Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay. He opened two minimalist tsukemen shops recently, Kakurega Ramen Factory in Sham Shui Po and Ore no Tsukemen in North Point, which both have Japanese chefs. As with Butao, Chen’s strategy is limiting the number of bowls available each day, which guarantees a long queue.

Its rivals have other ways of drawing crowds. Bakudan-ya Hiroshima-men on Lockhart Road, a chain from Hiroshima that has outlets in Thailand and Taiwan, attracts a young crowd and competitive eaters looking to be added to the “spicy endurance chart”.

The shop opened last December and there are three types of tsukemen.

The cold Hiroshima-men is the lightest and comes with char siu, which is made from lean rib meat, and a dipping sauce made with katsuobushi (dried, fermented and smoked bonito) broth, vinegar, lemon, soba sauce and vegetables. The hot option comes with spicy miso, garlic and pepper. The third offering has a thicker sauce with minced tofu and Japanese pepper.

There are different degrees of spiciness, starting from barely a tablespoon of the chilli-and-sesame concoction to 200ml. If diners finish a bowl of the latter, they will be given a wooden plaque and have their name added to the board.

At RaIronMen and sister shop Rasupermen, the main draw is probably the innovative dishes from the award-winning chefs. Well aware of the intense competition, Christabel Tsui – owner of the shops in Causeway Bay – recruited Japanese chef and San Francisco-based culinary consultant Noriyuki Sugie as her secret weapon. Describing his cooking style as “East meets West”, owing to his cooking experience in Japan, the US and Australia, Sugie pushes the envelope.

His fusion dishes at RaIronMen use expensive ingredients, resulting in bowls that can cost close to HK$400.

His beef consommé with Kagoshima wagyu beef ramen uses oxtail and French techniques to make a clear, beefy soup. The lobster bisque with Boston lobster ramen has a creamy base and comes with generous chunks of fresh lobster meat. Another surprising twist is the Caesar salad ramen – a rich, creamy soup made with romaine lettuce purée and broth topped with pork belly slices and crispy chicken skin.

“There are too many shops in town and many of them sell pork-based soup. That’s why we have to do something different to stand out,” says Tsui. “Noriyuki has a similar mindset to us – he thinks ramen has to evolve.”

Rasupermen targets younger crowds with a lower-priced menu featuring rice and more deep-fried food. It recently launched a takeaway service, complete with a do-it-yourself kit of pre-packaged ingredients.

Adding a haute element to the Japanese favourite is Ramen Kureha, a stylish restaurant with vintage Japanese decor, which opened a year ago. Two Japanese chefs fly in and take turns running the Hong Kong kitchen, including Koji Kobayashi, who owns a ramen house of the same name in Tokyo. Saturday, their busiest day, is when the chefs serve a dish that won the Tamashi no Ippai competition.

Kureha co-owner Anthony Leung Ka-kit describes it as having a thick and intense “espresso” broth.

The menu’s theme is inspired by five elements: the original tonkotsu ramen represents gold, ramen infused with white truffle paste represents wood, along with chicken soup base with collagen jelly (water), spicy minced meatball (fire) and three seasonal options (earth).

Kureha’s co-owner, Cliff Fan, wants to open a new shop. “Although the competition is fierce, those with quality can survive and the weak ones will eventually be eliminated, which is even better for consumers.”



Prepare to be bowled over

Although it has Chinese origins, ramen has different styles and varieties in different Japanese prefectures.

Kyushu, in Japan's southwest, is famed for tonkotsu (pork bone) that Hongkongers know and love. Nagahama No1 Ramen (14 Kau U Fong, Central) is a good place to try out the rich soup.

The northern island of Hokkaido, meanwhile, is famous for miso (soy bean paste) and shio (salt) ramen. The varieties available at Hakodate Japanese Restaurant (G/F, 11 Hoi Kwung Street, Quarry Bay) and Baikoken (Jasons Food & Living, B2/F, Hysan Place, 500 Hennessy Road, Causeway Bay) are well worth their salt.

Tokyo is known for its shoyu (soy sauce) ramen, although it is a hub for all tastes. Tokyo Agura (G/F, Block B, Austin Mansion, 15 Austin Avenue, TST) serves a broth made with a mix of pork bone and dried fish, a variation that has recently gained popularity in Tokyo.

Okinawa makes ramen with a clear broth and thicker buckwheat noodles that resemble udon.

Singapore's popular concept Ramen Champion (3/B Prudential Centre, 216-228 Nathan Road, Jordan) brings together six ramen shops in one food court. There's also some competition thrown into the mix, as diners can vote for the quarterly champion. Among the contenders are Bishamon Sapporo Ramen , which sells Hokkaido specialities such as miso and shoyu ramen, while Jyoshoken from Chiba is a must-try as the chef is the apprentice of Kazuo Yamagishi, who was said to be the creator of tsukemen (dipping noodles). The others are Tokyo Ninja, Bario, Ikkousha and Muso.

"Ramen Champion brings a competing element to the food court-type restaurant … After one year, the one with the least votes will be kicked out," says general manager Tadaharu Matsubayashi.

The heated battle ensures that each ramen shop dishes out only the best.

Nevertheless, given each ramen style's unique flavours, when it comes to deciding which bowl is best, there's something that will suit all tastes.