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.
When you mention Japanese soup, the dish that springs to mind instantly is the timeless, classic miso soup with tofu and wakame seaweed; in the colder months of the year however, and particularly on the pork-loving island of Kyushu, another soup reigns as king- Tonjiru. Sometimes called Butajiru, both names literally meaning pork soup, it is a much heartier affair than the standard bowl of miso; enhanced with strips of braised pork belly, a selection of root vegetables, blocks of springy jelly-like konnyaku and deeply savoury shreds of mushroom, a bowl of this wintery, sustaining soup quickly starts to feel like a meal in itself. Possibly not a soup suited to breakfast time due to its more stew-like consistency, it makes a fantastic accompaniment to both meaty dishes and also beer, and as such it finds its way onto the menus of many izakaya, tonkatsu restaurants and gyudon joints. Outside of restaurants, we’ve found it for sale at religious festivals, farmers’ markets, sporting events and anywhere that large numbers of people gather together and need feeding; a homely classic full of earthy flavours that brings diners together and ignites childhood memories of mothers’ cooking.
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.
If you ever have the pleasure of eating in one of Japan’s more formal kaiseki ryōri restaurants, you’ll probably be served a futamono- “lidded course” between your sashimi and your grilled yakimono course. Your futamono could be a small stew of seasonal ingredients, a soup such as a suimono, or our favourite, chawanmushi- a silky smooth treasure hunt of a dish. Named after the lidded tea-cup or chawan that it is cooked in, chawanmushi is a wonderfully light, delicate egg custard, seasoned with dashi and mirin, and steamed until just set enough to encase and obscure the morsels trapped within its depths. Each spoonful of custard is an edible lucky dip where you might bring up a firm ginkgo nut, a tender prawn, a juicy chunk of shiitake or a sour, palate cleansing bubble of yuzu pulp.
A popular, and to my mind almost compulsory addition to chawanmushi is a spoon or two of ankake sauce added moments before serving. This mildly fishy, faintly smoky sauce adds an extra savoury oomph to each mouthful and helps you appreciate the sweetness of the steamed eggs.
For me, spring only truly starts when the first foods of the season are ready to harvest or forage, and one of the plants that I most eagerly look out for each year is wild garlic or ramsons. Ten minutes walk from our house is a small brook, its banks lined with a stretch of woodland that provides a welcome glimpse of nature among the noise and rush of the city. Within the dappled light of these woods lies a patch of ramson plants, carpeting the edges of pathways and giving off their distinctive pungent aroma whenever they’re lightly brushed by a passing bird or walker. The leaves of this shamefully overlooked and short-lived plant provide a powerful garlic hit along with a spring onion-like flavour that makes it perfect for mixing into dipping sauces and dumpling fillings, and if you’re lucky enough to find some plants with open flowers they offer up an edible garnish of such intense flavour you won’t believe it came from such a delicate looking thing.
Seasonality and the use of local produce are two of the main cornerstones of Japanese cuisine so these wild ramsons are the perfect ingredient to use in the kaiseki style dish of suimono or clear soup. A delicate, lightly seasoned broth that allows you to focus on the flavours of the individual elements that it contains, in this case a pile of carefully crimped duck and wild garlic gyoza and a scattering of flowers and leaves from both the foraged ramsons and some young chives.