Since debuting in New York in August, the ramen burger has become the new cronut, a buzzed-about edible meme or frankenfood that combines disparate food groups into a well-known form. In this case a burger patty with fillings sandwiched between a "bun" made of fried ramen noodles.
It sounds weird. It tastes great. And it's now available in Sydney at the annual Night Noodle Markets.
Like many successes that appear to come out of nowhere, this is not an entirely original idea. It's a variation on a Japanese pork dish adapted by 35-year-old New Yorker Keizo Shimamoto, a Japanese-American former computer programmer who dropped out of the financial sector in 2009 to follow his love of ramen, researching all its variations in Japan and starting a blog called Go Ramen!
"I consider [my] ramen burger to be Japanese-American, just like me," he recently told The Japan Times. "It's a food born in America that happens to combine two different cultures and makes them exist as one. The perfect symbol of America."
His version is a chuck beef patty with rocket, chopped spring onions and a secret soy-based sauce, housed between the cooked ramen noodles. The whole thing is wrapped origami-style in a paper sleeve.
A mere two months since the first one was served at Smorgasburg, a popular outdoor food market in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the ramen burger has gone viral and jumped hemispheres. The local version, brought to you by On Ramen, a tiny ramen shop in Haymarket, is a slightly different beast to the New York burger. The ramen "buns" are thinner and crispier, there are five varieties including beef, pork, chicken and marinated tofu, and the fillings include iceberg lettuce, tomato and corn. The whole process takes around 14 hours and involves freezing the ramen noodles to achieve a harder texture that won't immediately break apart. And Sydney being Sydney, the local version is more expensive – $12.50 compared to New York's $US8.
"The hardest thing about making a ramen burger is holding the noodles together and getting the right shape for the buns," says David Yip, 38, the owner of On Ramen, "When we started, I used too many noodles and it was too thick for people to comfortably hold and eat. We've perfected it since then."
Yip did a soft launch of his burger four weeks ago at On Ramen in Haymarket and sold 20 to 30 a day. After a week, he contacted the Night Noodle Markets about setting up a stall.
Why does he think the concept has become so popular so quickly?
"In Japan they've done this before with different fillings, but Shimamoto used a beef patty so it became Americanised," he says. "When America jumps on something it gets all the publicity and becomes significantly more popular. I also think people are looking for fusions to get different food tastes. Earlier this year in New York, for example, they had the cronut. People are always looking for something new."
Last night, about a dozen people started lining up at the On Ramen stall in Hyde Park before they opened for business at 5.30pm to see – and taste – what all the fuss was about.
There were early teething problems, but when the food finally started to arrive, first impressions varied.
"I only tried it as an experiment, but I'm not sure I'd have it again," says Wilson Uljevic of Surry Hills. "There was a nice spiciness to the burger but the ramen tended to fall apart. I'd give it a six out of 10."
Chung Ho of Kingsford also had mixed feelings.
"I liked the noodles, but I thought the meat was overcooked," he says. "It's a good idea but they need to make all the ingredients better."
Matthew Lee of Kingsgrove and Maison Pinyalack of Fairfield read about the ramen burger online and were keen to try it. They waited for more than 20 minutes for their order and were then told the stall was temporarily closing to sort out some issues. Determined to try the burger, they turned down a refund and waited. Pinyalack texted through her verdict later in the night: "It's the most interesting burger I have ever had and I would travel from Fairfield all the way to Hyde Park again just to have another one, despite the wait."
Yip estimates he sold around 200 burgers on the first night, mostly the beef variety.
"After I stepped in and stopped my kitchen to re-organise the group, things became a lot smoother," Yip said on Thursday morning. "I'm reshaping the set-up for tonight and I'm hoping for a big improvement."
The Night Noodle Markets are held in Hyde Park on October 9-12, 14-19, 21-26. Details: goodfoodmonth.com.au