As tonkotsu is to Fukuoka in the North, champon is to Nagasaki on the Western coast of Kyūshū- the local variant on ramen, inspired greatly by the tastes of the many Chinese students who flocked to the city in the late 1800s. The soft but flavourful cuisine of China’s Fujian province can be clearly seen through this enticingly colourful seafood dish; succulent squid and prawns combined with tender noodles, stir-fried carrots, beansprouts and cabbage, woodland mushrooms and a silent but knowing nod of agreement to the region’s saying bù tāng bù xíng, or ‘no soup, no meal’. As Nagasaki has a tendency to, the industrious and diverse city took these outside influences and blended them with the Kyūshūan love of pork and fishcakes to create champon- it has remained a favourite ever since and has more recently spread to other parts of the country and overseas courtesy of restaurant chains such as Ringer Hut.
Thanks to the collagen-rich stock and the high proportion of vegetables in the dish people like to think of champon as the healthiest of ramen and- unlike other ramen recipes- is unique in that the noodles and toppings are all cooked together in the broth, providing a slightly thicker soup than you would expect to find. Counter-intuitive as it might seem, Nagasakians eat a steaming bowl of champon to cool down in the oppressively humid Summer months- following the school of thought that sweating helps regulate your body temperature- its just as effective however as a Winter warmer to get you through the coldest, snowy day that Britain can offer with a smile on your face and a satisfied belly.
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.
Theatre and diner interaction play a huge part in Japanese dining, the artistry of the tea ceremony, the DIY grilling over a hibachi when you eat yakiniku, the almost exclusively Northern dish of wanko soba where attendants deftly fling mouthfuls of noodles into your bowl as you eat, and our favourite- shabu shabu. Named after the onomatopoeic sound of people doing laundry, flapping sheets and clothing around in a pot of bubbling water, a shabu shabu meal sees diners sat around a steaming pot of stock, individually dipping in wafer thin slices of raw meat and vegetables until cooked, then quickly anointing them with a sour ponzu dipping sauce and greedily gobbling them down before repeating the act with the next morsel. It is one of the most entertaining, communal and theatrical of Japanese meals, but- because of the huge amounts of steam generated by the hotpot (or more correctly, hotpots, since you’re likely to be eating shabu shabu in a restaurant specialising in the dish)- only really suited to winter dining.
What happens then in the warmer, more humid months if people crave the flavours of shabu shabu but not the hour or two huddled around a pot of steaming pork and beef broth which would be so welcome later in the year? Reishabu is the answer- a selection of Japanese leaves topped with the poached pork that would be the feature of the hotpot, along with daikon, grapes, and a citrussy dipping sauce to refresh and revitalise you on even the hottest of days. You get all the flavours of shabu shabu, just in a lighter, cooler, balanced salad, and if you don’t dress the leaves with the ponzu until you’re ready to eat it, this makes a fantastic picnic lunch.
Of all the little rituals and practices involved in Japanese dining, my favourite is associated with preparing the sauce that accompanies crispy, deep fried pork at nearly all good tonkatsu restaurants. The sound of a wooden surikogi grinding against the coarse, ribbed ceramic suribachi evokes images of craftsmen and traditions long lost to history; the nutty aroma of the sesame seeds pulverised between stick and bowl rise to meet your nose and do just as much to ready your appetite as the smell of the meat itself. You dampen the crumbly powdered seeds with a ladle or two of tangy sōsu from a dark glazed pot, swirl it briefly with a stroke of your surikogi, then plunge a scalding hot nugget of pork into the marbled sauce on its way towards your mouth. The simple but delicate act of adjusting the flavour of the sauce you’re about to eat creates an emotional connection to the food that makes you far more appreciative of it; it no longer feels like a quick bite to eat, it’s a feast that you’ve helped to make in some small way. Each mouthful feels more satisfying and precious than it would have if you’d been served the seeds ready ground- and the flavour, far greater still.
Of course, this act of grinding your own seeds isn’t the only element that makes a tonkatsu meal so enticing; the incredibly hot, crisply crumbed, juicy fried pork steaks; the mountain of crunchy, cooling shredded cabbage (which normally comes with unlimited refills); the sticky, perfectly cooked blend of rice and barley mounded up in your bowl; and the ability to choose between the fattier more flavourful rosu and the tender and cleaner tasting hire cuts of pork all help make it one of our favourite meals to eat in Japan.
You can follow the same technique described below with a flattened out chicken breast to make torikatsu, a variation of tonkatsu which has become even more popular in the UK than the original, and frequently served with karē sauce.
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 most popular meat in modern Japan- with yearly sales surpassing both chicken and beef combined- is without a doubt, pork. Ever since the wild boar was domesticated during the iron age, it has made up a large part of the country’s diet; even during the Warring States years of samurai rule and national adherence to Buddhism, when the eating of four-legged beasts was particularly frowned upon, the descriptive euphemisms “mountain whale” and “walking vegetable” were used to tiptoe around the rules denying the people their favourite meat. Much like prohibition pharmacists in the US selling whisky to patients with enough money, unscrupulous Edo period doctors would prescribe pork as a health food for its stamina building properties and a black market trade developed up until the 1900s. The twentieth century saw the government’s opinion of meat change dramatically- advisors decided that it was the vast amounts of meat consumed by Europeans that made them grow large and powerful; so for them to not be left behind in the changing world, it became of great national importance that the Japanese took up eating pork again.
The Kagoshima region on the south-western tip of Kyūshū is home to the most acclaimed pork in all of Japan; bred from Okinawan Berkshire pigs, Kurobuta pork has particularly fine muscle fibres, a rich delicate flavour and above all, light, non-sticky and incredibly tasty fat. Besides the regular pork dishes found across the country, Kagoshima has a number of delicacies that are almost impossible to find anywhere else, our favourite of these is a sticky variation on niku miso, packed with the savoury black pork that the region prides itself on. Darkly sweet from unrefined brown sugar, salty and umami-rich from the mugimiso and deeply satisfying and savoury from slowly simmered pork, kurobuta miso is Japan’s answer to bacon jam. It can be enjoyed smeared across an onigiri, packed into a sandwich, spooned over hot steamed rice, dropped into a bowl of ramen like a savoury depth charge or used as a simple sauce for a vegetable stir fry. Perhaps the best way to eat it though is with crudités, scooped up greedily on a stick of raw cucumber or carrot, the cooling crunch of the vegetables offsetting the rich, intensity of the miso perfectly.
Not to be confused with hambāgā- the French fry accompanied, grilled beef burger served in a bun the world over- hambāgu is a much lighter, juicier confection; a blend of pork and beef mince, caramelised onions and spices, shaped into an oval patty before being fried and simmered in one of a variety of different sauces. It could be described as Japan’s take on the Salisbury steak and depending on which type of hambāgu you order in a restaurant, your patty could be smothered in a rich, thick Worcestershire style sauce, a French-inspired red wine reduction, a beef and mushroom ‘loco moco’ gravy (nearly always partnered with a runny fried egg) or dressed in the wafu oroshi style with a zesty, tangy ponzu sauce and a heap of spicy grated daikon. This final version is about as refreshing and light a burger as you’ll ever find; juicy from the addition of fatty pork mince, tender from the milk-soaked panko breadcrumbs and packed with bright summery flavours courtesy of the citrus dressing and the herbal notes that the shiso leaves bring. Serve the hambāgu with a steaming bowl of rice and some light vegetable side dishes to make the perfect home-style dish for a late dinner on a sunny evening, or use cooled cooked patties with the sauce and daikon oroshi on the side as the feature components in an obento lunch.
Owing its heritage to char siu- the bright red, five-spice seasoned barbecued pork served in Cantonese restaurants, chāshū has become perhaps the world’s favourite ramen topping. This is of course for good reason, meltingly tender succulent meat, braised at a low temperature for hours until the tough connective tissues and collagen have turned into silky soft gelatin, yielding to the slightest pressure from a chopstick. The sweet, juicy layers of fat and moist, savoury meat are enhanced further by leaving them in a soy and sake seasoned broth overnight before being thinly sliced and seared in a hot pan to reawaken the glistening fats and juices hiding within the pork.
Chāshū isn’t only enjoyed with soup and noodles however, and one of our favourite ways to eat it is on top of a big bowl of rice as a chāshūdon. Combined with other noodle toppings such as boiled eggs, pink pickled ginger and spicy Korean radish kimchi, you have a dish that gives you the same satisfaction as a deep bowl of brothy noodles but with a lot less effort.
Steaming hot crescent moons, an aromatic mixture of juicy pork, cabbage and garlic chives encased within a chewy skin, fried on one side until shatteringly crisp and served with a slightly sour dipping sauce. Gyoza have become an integral and hugely popular part of nearly every ramenya’s menu, finding their place as an almost essential accompaniment to the deep, nourishing bowls of noodles. When cooked poorly they can drag down a memorable dish of ramen, but if cooked well, with consideration and care, they have the power to raise a lacklustre meal to giddy heights, providing a contrasting texture to the silky noodles and soothing broth. High quality frozen gyoza wrappers are available in most oriental supermarkets these days, meaning that home-made dumplings are more achievable than ever before, and while the filling and pleating of the little parcels can take a while to get used to, there’s a huge amount of satisfaction to be had when you gaze upon a tray of your handiwork.
Hanetsuki gyoza are a recent variation of these classic pot-stickers, where a number of plump, steamed dumplings are fused together in a hot pan with a thin mixture of flour and water. This batter crisps and darkens to form lacey skirts or wings (hane) around the edges of each dumpling, creating more surface area for crunchy, brittle bubbles to form and when placed in the middle of the table, it makes a fantastic tear-and-share style dish, perfect for relaxed dining with friends.
During the twentieth century a large number of Sichuan immigrants made their way to Japan, taking with them their own cuisine and eventually opening up restaurants catering to their fellow countrymen. As time went on, the prickly, spicy dishes that the Sichuan province is famous for changed to suit the local tastes, gone were the copious amounts of dried chillies, pungent garlic and mouth-numbing peppercorns, instead replacing them with savoury miso, aromatic sake and sweet mirin. One popular dish which received this transformation was mapo doufu or pock-marked beancurd; originally a sweat-inducingly hot, oil based sauce with pork and soothing pieces of beancurd to take the edge off the spiciness. The Japanese version of the dish is a much more mellow affair, sweet and salty with a slight hint of chilli-heat, and a thicker, unctuous sauce. This version of mabo tofu has found its place in Japanese cuisine as the nation’s favourite Chinese dish; in a similar way to Britain’s much-loved adaptation of Indian tandoori food, chicken tikka masala, it has evolved from its original form and become a fantastic dish in its own right.
A relatively modern etymological trend in Japan is the use of portmanteau in describing foods, such as anmitsu being a contraction of the words anko and kuromitsu, and in this case mabo tofu donburi- a bowl of rice with a topping- becoming simply mabodon.