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.
- 2.5kg pork bones (use a mix of neck and leg bones if you can)
- 2 pigs trotters
- 1kg raw chicken bones
- 500g pork back fat
- 1 large onion
- 1 leek
- 1 bulb garlic
- 12 x 12cm piece dried kombu
- 30g niboshi (dried anchovies)
- 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
- 10g katsuobushi flakes
- 200ml shiro shoyu (or regular soy sauce)
- 45ml mirin
- 45ml sake
- Place the pork bones and trotters in a large container and cover with cold water. Leave to soak for at least eight hours to draw out any impurities then drain the soaking water away. Place the bones in a large saucepan and cover with more cold water, bring the pan to the boil slowly, skimming any froth that forms on the surface as you go. Boil the bones for ten minutes, then pour the water out and rinse the bones in cold water, making sure to clean any residue off each piece- this blanching stage will help keep your finished broth pale in colour.
- Clean out the saucepan, chop the trotters and any large bones that you are using in half, then put them back in the pan and cover with fresh water. Add the chicken bones and pork fat, then place over a medium heat and bring the water to the boil again. Once the water has reached a rolling boil place a lid on the pan and leave to cook for an hour. Stir to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pot, and continue to boil the bones like this for a further eight to ten hours (removing and discarding the back fat after four hours), stirring occasionally and topping up with extra water as needed. Over this time you will see the water start to change from a liquid stock to a creamy pale broth, and the meat and bones will begin to disintegrate.
- Cover the piece of kombu with 180ml cold water and allow it to infuse for two hours.
- When the broth has boiled for at least eight hours, peel and halve the onion and add it to the pan along with the leek and garlic and cook for a further hour. After this, strain the soup into a clean pan through a fine sieve to remove all debris, then simmer the stock uncovered until it reduces down to two litres in volume.
- Heat the vegetable oil in a small saucepan and fry the dried niboshi for thirty seconds until they start to give off their aroma, then add the kombu soaking liquid- removing the seaweed- and the katsuobushi flakes, and simmer at a low heat for ten minutes. Strain the liquid and set to one side. Heat the mirin, sake and soy sauce in a small pan until it starts to bubble and has lost its alcoholic smell, reduce slightly, then pour in the niboshi stock. Add this fishy soy mixture to the pan of tonkotsu soup, stir well and keep warm until you’re ready to serve.
Tonkotsu ramen ingredients.
- 1 quantity broth from the above recipe
- 400g fresh ramen noodles
- Four portions of chashu pork from our recipe here at room temperature
- 1 leek
- 4 cloves garlic
- Slice the green part of the leek into fine shreds and crush the garlic. Boil the noodles according to the instructions on the packaging leaving them slightly more al dente than normal and divide them between four deep bowls. Ladle the thick tonkotsu broth over the noodles and top with slices of chashu pork, a tangle of the shredded leek and a little mound of garlic. For an authentic extra touch, pass the flame of a blow torch over the pork slices before serving to singe them slightly and get the fat glistening.
Serves four people.