Tonkotsu Ramen

From a whole block away you can tell that you’re approaching a good tonkotsu restaurant, your sense of smell assaulted by the pungent, almost barnyard funk of intensely meaty broth.  Dense gouts of pork bone infused steam issue from the oversized industrial fans extracting the damp air from the kitchens and ushering it down the street to entice ravenous passers by into the premises.  As you duck under the colourful noren curtains that mask the entry and slide open the wooden doors you step into another world, a world of pure, unadulterated porcine pleasure.  This is a world that lures you in from nearly all of the backstreets of the Hakata district of Fukuoka, where the dish was developed as a quick and easy meal for labourers in the local markets; something that could be ordered, served up and eaten in five or six minutes before getting back to work.  Don’t let this quick service fool you though: the amount of hard work and preparation that goes into making this king of ramen might be eye-watering, but it’s worth every steamy second of it.

Sticky on the lips, smooth and rich across the tongue and soothingly creamy to swallow, an opaque, collagen rich bone broth lies at the heart of every tonkotsu ramen.  It’s the sort of soup that restaurateurs keep a secret, passing it down to their successor only when the timing is just right and they have earned the responsibility and understanding required to do the recipe justice.  Complex layers of flavour build carefully within the liquid: the savoury bone essence, onion vegetable sweetness, bitter smoky dried fish, fragrant mirin and sake, the rounding saline presence of soy sauce and a mild background spiciness from garlic.  Such a characterful broth shouldn’t be overpowered by elaborate toppings, all that’s required are some succulent slices of simmered chashu pork, lightly singed with a blowtorch before serving, a mound of shredded leeks and a freshly crushed clove of fat juicy garlic for its intense headiness.   Noodles are of course essential to any ramen and when cooked for use in tonkotsu, they’re traditionally served barikata, or still a little hard and chalky in the middle.  The noodles continue to soften slightly as you devour the meal providing an evolving sensation the more you eat, combined with adding more garlic and leeks as you go so no two slurped-up mouthfuls are exactly the same.

 

 

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Tonkotsu Ramen- the porkiest of all ramen.

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Dorayaki

Musashibō Benkei- a key hero in Japanese folklore and a warrior monk of great prowess- is rumoured to be instrumental in the creation of one of the country’s most popular street foods, the dorayaki.  Hiding from one of his many foes in a farmer’s house while he recovered from wounds inflicted upon him, he accidentally left his ceremonial gong behind upon leaving the dwelling.  The farmer searched for the hero near and far, but to no avail, and not knowing what the object was used for, he placed the gong in a fire and fried little round pancakes on the metal surface.  Wrapping the sweet, hot discs around a ball of mashed red beans the treat was born, albeit in a far more fanciful way than the reality of them being based on a Portuguese sponge cake recipe.  However you choose to believe they came about, these little gong cakes have become an icon of Japanese cuisine, thanks in part to them being the favoured food of a futuristic robotic cat called Doraemon from the manga of the same name.

Fluffy sponge discs, warmly fragrant with honey and faintly scented with sweet mirin wine, sandwiched around a smooth filling of pureed azuki beans, dorayaki were our first encounter with street food in Japan and helped spark our obsession with recreating the flavours of the country.  The ubiquitous little cakes can be bought in nearly every convenience store or bakery, from vendors on street corners and festival markets, even from kiosks on railway station platforms, and now hopefully you’ll try making them at home too.  After you’ve perfected cooking your own dorayaki, try experimenting with other traditional fillings such as custard, mashed chestnuts, sweetened whipped cream or the strangely comforting margarine and maple syrup- the last one greatly inspired by the American breakfast staple.

 

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Dorayaki- a robot cat’s favourite treat!

 

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