Though not particularly prevalent in northern Japan and around Honshu, the south western island of Kyushu embraces the nose to tail ethos of consuming animals and has restaurants dedicated to beef and pork offal, or horumon, which you would be remiss not to visit if an opportunity arises. To most westerners, the term offal conjures up thoughts of tough, gamey, questionable tubes hidden amongst favourable cuts of meat, perhaps encased within a pastry crust, or smothered in so much gravy that you can’t distinguish what you’re eating. This is not the case with Japanese offal however- nearly always coming from prime wagyu cows, the organs have a rich beefy flavour, a tender bite and a slight underlying sweetness, and are generally served up in one of two popular ways: horumon-yaki, where delicate cuts of heart, diaphragm, stomach and cheek are grilled quickly over a charcoal brazier before being plunged into a dipping sauce and eaten scaldingly hot, or as the Fukuokan speciality, motsunabe.
Motsunabe is the soul food of the Hakata district- diners huddle around a hotpot perched on a portable gas stove, the pan containing a mound of peppery white cabbage, a lightly sweetened soy based stock, short lengths of pungent garlic chives and the star of the show, beef small intestines. The offal itself has a meltingly soft consistency, a pleasingly fatty bite and a rich, almost buttery flavour which pairs wonderfully with the vegetables and the ubiquitous cubes of tofu that you couldn’t have a nabe without. After the chunks of vegetable, meat and tofu have been greedily picked from the pot and eaten, the heat is turned up beneath the broth and fresh ramen noodles are added to the boiling liquid, cooking in a matter of minutes, soaking up the meaty flavours of the motsunabe and thickening the sauce. For me, this shime or ‘finishing course’ is the most anticipated part of the meal, an extra chance to savour the essence of the nabe and a final slurp of starchy noodles cooked in the fortified broth.
For the most authentic motsunabe at home, cooking the dish on a camping stove at the dining table is preferable, allowing diners to pluck morsels from the trembling liquid at various stages of tenderness and to breath in the wafts of steam that make hotpot dining so much fun.
When one thinks of ramen, deep steaming bowls of unctuous porky broth often spring to mind, accompanied by slices of meltingly fatty meat, perhaps a haphazard pile of spicy spring onions and some savoury marinated menma. By no means is this the only way the Japanese crave their soup noodle fix though, with areas of the country creating their own specialities reflecting their own tastes and regional produce. One version of the dish we were recently introduced to and have reproduced here is the poetically named Kitano Megumi Ramen, or the Blessing of the North Ramen; a creamy, soothing concoction that rejoices in using everything good from the most northerly island- Hokkaido.
Thanks to its cooler climate and the massive expanses of pasture land that cover Hokkaido- the least developed of the main islands- it is able to support a thriving dairy industry. Smooth milk and rich, creamy butter from the island command a high price because of their superior quality- they proudly display their heritage and nearly always have the iconic outline of Hokkaido prominent on their packaging. Similarly, prime examples of sweetcorn grow in abundance on the rich, volcanic soil and the kernels are often found bobbing around playfully in the salty, miso based ramen broths favoured in Sapporo, surprising your palate with a pop of freshness. Particularly juicy cooked hams crafted from Sangen pigs complete this cornucopia of produce from the rugged north, creating a uniquely Hokkaidoan interpretation of the classic ramen.
To compliment the savoury, milky soup we’ve created a dashi flavoured compound butter to crown the ramen, but don’t feel limited to using it on just this dish- a pat or two of the smoky, seaweed infusion makes a fantastic oozy topping for a rib-eye steak or pork chop, and when tossed into steamed greens it lifts a relatively basic vegetable and turns it into something very special.
Our first encounter with tantanmen- the Japanese version of the chilli laced, sesame sauced Sichuan noodle dish dandanmian- came in a cramped ramenya down a nondescript backstreet in the Tokyo district of Shibuya. Sat at a dimly lit wooden counter where the thick varnish had been worn away by decades of jostling elbows from hungry diners, the chef placed before us two deep bowls of noodles sunken beneath blush ivory coloured broth, swirled with a bright red slick of rāyu and a scattering of fried pork. After the initial shock of the vibrant colours against the dark bowls we were struck by the rich, earthy sesame aroma followed by the sweet smell of long-simmered chicken stock. One messy, clumsily slurped mouthful was all it took for us to fall head over heels for this red-faced cousin of the classic pork ramen; the tingly chilli-kissed lips only helped our feelings grow stronger.
Little known outside of Japan, tantanmen has become a staple in many noodle restaurants and as a quick to prepare dinner for rushed parents to whip up for their ever-hungry children after school. Much like most other styles of ramen, a powerfully flavoured broth assisted by a couple of well cast supporting characters is the key to a memorable meal. Homemade chicken stock is enhanced with creamy, nutty sesame paste to give an incredibly rounded flavour, then poured over deliciously toothsome chukamen noodles before being topped with intense, salty pork mince seasoned with miso and sake. The whole dish is then drenched (or perhaps merely drizzled, depending on your feelings towards spiciness) in chilli infused rāyu oil to not only increase the heat levels, but also to boost the savoury flavours and add the fat needed to smooth out the consistency and texture of your noodles.
Incidentally, the miso seasoned pork mince is a fantastic meaty component to a bento, or it works incredibly well alongside some scrambled eggs as a topping for a bowl of rice to make an easy version of the classic soboro-don.
The last thing many people can imagine wanting to do on a hot, humid day in late Summer is to huddle over a deep bowl of ramen, with clouds of meaty steam billowing up and enveloping your face while you slurp on mouthful after mouthful of scalding hot noodles slick with unctuous pork fat. This of course would be a huge problem for the tens of thousands of ramen-ya owners all across the country, if not for the wonderfully refreshing and reviving noodle dish Hiyashi Chūka which dominates their menus in the more oppressive months. Sitting comfortably on the halfway-line between a crisp salad and the familiar bowl of soup noodles, hiyashi chūka keeps many of the most popular ramen toppings but adds plenty of crunchy fresh vegetables and replaces the savoury broth with a chilled vinegary dressing, making this the perfect dish for a lunchtime spent hiding from the midday heat. Like most dishes in Japanese cuisine, the colour and temperature of the food is just as important as the flavour and texture, and in this most summery of noodle dishes they all come together harmoniously to cleanse, stimulate and revitalise the senses.
In our version of hiyashi chūka, we’ve incorporated two of the most popular toppings- crab sticks and cucumber- directly into the chūkamen themselves to create an even lighter noodle base. We’ve crowned this tangle of enhanced noodles with a crunchy slaw made from spicy radishes and turnips, earthy carrots and crisp nashi pear to add even more freshness, and a springy, knobbly chikuwa fishcake for an extra hit of sweet ocean flavour. All of that is doused liberally with the bracing vinegar, soy sauce and sesame dressing at the table with extra on the side for those who want a more intense, soupy mouthful.
Grain milling technology is said to have entered Japan during the thirteenth century when a Buddhist monk, Enni Ben’en, returned with it after studying meditation in China. Along with that mechanical knowledge, he brought with him the idea that would eventually lead to the thick, white, toothsome, wheat flour noodle that we know today as udon. Easily our favourite type of noodle, udon has enough character to be the main focal point of a dish, whether it’s a meal of chilled noodles with dipping sauce in the heat of the Summer, a plate of fried yaki-udon bought from a yatai at a festival or sunken deep in a bowl of smoky pork broth, topped with slow braised meat and a boiled egg. There are some fantastic udon available to buy from supermarkets, even here in the UK, and they’re the ones we use day-to-day, but when we want something that little bit special, when you want the noodle to break free from its supporting role and be the star of the dish, nothing beats making them yourself.
Making noodles at home is a simple affair, requiring very few ingredients and not taking much time at all; kneading the dough is perhaps the only labour-intensive part of the process and that is made a lot easier by letting your feet do the work rather than wearing out your arm muscles. The beauty of making udon yourself rather than buying them really lies in the ability to make them whatever size and shape you like- from the almost paper thin Himokawa noodles of Gunma Prefecture, to the finger-thick “Two Noodle” udon of Kyoto’s Tawaraya restaurant and everything inbetween. Our preference lies somewhere towards the Ise udon end of the spectrum- larger and thicker than commercially available noodles, but not so fat that they take a whole hour to boil them.
In the past few years tonkotsu has become the coolest style of noodles to be seen eating or making here in the UK; a thick, unrefined, intensely meaty broth, served with the regular gang of ramen toppings, chashu pork, boiled eggs and bamboo shoots. Restaurants vie to see who has the longest simmered stock with the most opaque suspension of fat and collagen, while critics search for the ramenya with the softest pork and the most unctuous fat. Worthy of equal praise and attention though, is the lesser known, neglected relative of tonkotsu, and one of the unsung heroes of the noodle world- Tori Paitan Ramen. A richly satisfying, creamy broth of chicken bones, skin and cartilage, milky in appearance and sticky on the lips from the copious amounts of fat and gelatin present and the long periods of fierce boiling. To accentuate the deep chickeny flavour of the broth, we’ve added lots of garlic in the form of fried garlic chips and a spoon of powerful, garlic infused duck fat which lends an intense muskiness and a brilliantly rich mouth feel to the finished soup.
A bowl of ramen wouldn’t be complete without some slow-cooked meat to top your mound of noodles, but rather than use the traditional pork, we’ve kept our paitan a purely poultry dish and created a torchon of chicken by wrapping together thigh and breast meat in a layer of skin. When sliced thinly, this sausage of chicken makes the perfect topping for ramen and falls apart at the slightest pressure from your chopsticks.
We’ve been visiting noodle restaurants for almost as long as I can remember, and have passed over a basic sounding dish on the menu many times, dismissing its simplicity in favour of the more showy, topping laden bowls. That is at least, until a couple of years ago whilst on a lunchtime visit to a market in Kyoto, we stopped by an udonya and tried the curiously named Kitsune Udon (fox noodles) for the first time and became instant converts. A deep bowl of perfectly cooked, thick white udon, a slightly smokey, fish based soup, and a single piece of inari-age, simmered in a sweet soy and mirin liquor until the sponge-like tofu had absorbed a massive amount of flavour. The clean soup paired with the rich, sweetness of the tofu was an incredibly soothing combination, and one that we’ve tried to eat as often as possible since our first taste.
Many people like to add narutomaki or kamoboko to their kitsune udon -and feel free to if you want, they’re both delicious additions- but we like to keep ours uncomplicated and the way we’ve always eaten it in Japan; just the noodles, the broth, a sweet slab of toothsome inari-age and a mound of spicy, fresh spring onions. Perfect comfort food if you’re feeling a little under the weather and great fuel for foxes on a night-time prowl.