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.
Once places of legend and mystery- boiling sulphurous waters forced from deep within the earth, gouts of fiercesome steam and perhaps even home to ghosts and monsters- the onsen or spa towns that are dotted along Japan’s mountain ranges are now prime destinations for people to bathe and absorb the health giving properties of the mineral rich waters. Tourists flock to towns such as Beppu in Kyushu to take in the eight different ‘Hells’, buy concentrated mineral salts to infuse their own baths at home and to sample local foods cooked in the steam that issues from the hillside. These geothermally cooked foods are not just a recent invention for tourists however, locals have been utilising the naturally stable and constant temperature of the springs to prepare their food for centuries, the most popular use being for soft poached eggs, or onsen tamago. After dropping a basket of eggs into the pool of a hot spring, they could be left unattended for an hour or two while the owner went about their other duties (or simply had a relaxing bath) before returning to collect their cooked eggs- rich, soft, custardy yolks, suspended within the silkiest of egg whites, the type of slow cooked eggs that modern restaurant reviewers rave about.
These most delicate of eggs can be made just as well at home and with no need for a volcanic hot spring, slow cooking them for three quarters of an hour at a low temperature is all that’s needed to coax the eggs to lightly set perfection. Unlike boiled eggs which are forced into springy submission by the fierce heat of the water, onsen tamago are gently persuaded to gel into a mass that can barely hold itself together, collapsing lazily at the slightest touch of a chopstick into a creamy unctuous puddle. They’re a staple part of a Japanese breakfast, served on top of steaming hot rice or plunged in a pool of broth, but they also make an incredible topping for a bowl of ramen, cracked open over a plate of spicy karē-raisu or dipped into batter and fried as one of the most delectable tempura imaginable.
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.
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.