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.
Yaki Udon is a Fukuoka variation on one of Japan’s most beloved street foods- yakisoba, or fried noodles. A colourful mixture of lightly wilted but still crunchy vegetables, a mound of chewy noodles and a scattering of meat or seafood, all fried together and coated in a sweet, fruity and slightly spicy sauce. At festivals and in parks up and down Japan you’ll find yatai food carts serving yakisoba, the smell of the sōsu caramelizing on the huge iron hot-plates enticing you over and tempting you into having a bowlful. Despite the name suggesting it should be made from buckwheat soba noodles, most of the country makes yakisoba with long, thin wheat noodles similar to ramen, while the people of Fukuoka have elevated the dish to an even more substantial place by making it with our personal favourite noodle, the thick and toothsome udon.
A seafood yaki udon was perhaps the first Japanese meal we ever ate, back in 2001, and it has remained a firm favourite since then. Not many weeks pass by without us making a panful at least once, loaded with vegetables for a quick after-work evening meal. It’s an almost infinitely flexible dish, add whatever vegetables or meat you like to it, just make sure that they’re bright, colourful and full of varied flavours and textures.
The wonderfully rich, slightly gamey flesh of duck and the intense earthy, woodland flavour of mushrooms are one of the most natural and instinctive combinations in cookery. It’s a pairing you might expect to see in Italy, Russia, Sweden or France; countries that used to be blanketed with dense forests and vast lakes, countries that have a deep folklore and long history of woodsmen, making their living from what nature provides. All of these features are equally true of Japan, and unsurprisingly the Japanese made the same discovery early on, that marrying wild duck with foraged mushrooms was a union worth remembering. The other classic Japanese accompaniment to duck are the buckwheat noodles known as soba. Deliciously nutty in flavour and with a slightly toothsome texture, soba are one of the oldest known types of noodle in Japanese cuisine, dating back over 2500 years to the Jōmon period and even further in Chinese cookery where they probably originated.
We’ve combined all three of these ingredients in a classic Kamo Nanban Soba- a dish that smells and tastes like a stroll through an ancient forest; with rich, life giving soil and a wealth of fungus sprouting from the crumbling trunks of fallen trees. It wouldn’t be a kamo nanban without some sweet, charred spring onions, and to lift the earthy flavours slightly we’ve added a tiny hint of orange zest, perfect for cutting through the richness of the duck fat.