If you ever thought ramen was just noodles in soup, think again.
The battle for the title of Sydney's best has intensified with the opening of popular Japanese ramen chain Ippudo. To the uninitiated, the fervour over what is effectively the evolutionary relative to instant noodles may seem a little baffling. But to ramen-lovers, the fuss is not just hot air – or hot water.
“There are more than 20,000 ramen restaurants in Japan – that's double the number of sushi restaurants,” Masterchef 2010 winner Adam Liaw told attendees at Ippudo's official launch. Liaw lived in Tokyo for seven years and is himself a dedicated ramen devotee.
“Since its birth . . . the holy bowl of ramen has become the soul food of Japan,” he said.
There are thousands of regional variations of ramen. For the most part they are based on four basic kinds of broth: shio (salt-based), tonkotsu (pork bone), shoyu (soy-based chicken) and miso (soybean paste).
Hiro Koretsune, a chef and manager at Menya Noodle Bar in the CBD, says the different taste, fragrance and consistency of the various regional broths appeal to different cross-sections of Sydney's multi-ethnic community.
The holy bowl of ramen has become the soul food of Japan.
One of Sydney's most popular ramen haunts – the 40-seat restaurant serves around 500 customers per day and is often distinguishable by the queue out the front – Menya serves all four kinds of broth, which would be highly unusual in Japan, where most ramen houses specialise in just one kind of ramen.
"For Australian people, the miso ramen is really popular. It is the most popular ramen in our restaurant. Tonkotsu ramen . . . is more popular among Chinese and Korean people," he says.
Mori Hogashida, the founder of ramen cult favourite Gumshara in Chinatown, specialises in tonkotsu. His ramen is characterised by a very thick, pungent broth with a high concentration of collagen and involves maintaining a "master" soup, to which water and bones are continually added. As much as Sydney-siders love his recipe, Hogashida acknowledges his method has fallen out of favour with other tonkotsu restaurants.
“It is very hard work. You have to stir it all the time otherwise it gets burned on the bottom. You have to keep adding bones all the time,” he says.
“Normally, a ramen shop uses 20-30 kilograms of bones a day. We use 150 kilograms of bones. It's expensive but it tastes better I think.”
The story of how Gumshara came to join Sydney's food bowl only adds to its cult status. A ramen fanatic himself, Hogashida gave up his job as the managing director of a jewellery company to pursue his dream of becoming a ramen chef. At the age of 45, he wrote to renowned Kyoto ramen house Muteppou, which replied saying he was too old to become an apprentice - but he could be a cleaner.
“And after six months, he came to me and said, ‘You’re cleaning is very good. I will teach you to make ramen.’”
According to historian Katarzyna Joanna Cwiertka, the first ramen can be traced to the Chinese-style noodles known as shina-soba ('China noodles'), which flourished in early 20th-century Japan. By the 1960s however, the dish had come to be known as ramen thanks to the explosion in popularity of the instant noodles version by that same name.
Over the years, the recipe has been tweaked, amended and adjusted to suit local preferences, produce and palates.
“There are many regional types of ramen – regional meaning using local ingredients,” says Ippudo operations manager Tomo Yamane.
“Up in the north where the climate is cold, people prefer something warming so they make . . . miso ramen, which is really a kind of ramen created for winter. In Tokyo, where there used to be a lot of agriculture, they combine soy and chicken stock. In Sendai, the typical dish is beef, so they have a beef ramen and in the south, around Fukuoka where there's lot of pork, that's where they started using pork bones to create tonkotsu soup.”
Ippudo, which has restaurants in New York, Singapore, Seoul, Hong Kong, Taipei and Shanghai, stands in this tradition of appropriation and transformation, Yamane says.
“Ramen is very open and free in terms of innovation. The original ramen used whatever was locally available and we do the same with our restaurants,” says Yamane.
“In New York, for example, our chef came up with clam chowder ramen. We have also previously incorporated truffle oil into a ramen dish.”
As for a Sydney-centric ramen, Yamane was tight lipped, revealing only that the chefs are working with concepts involving “fish and fruit, and in terms of texture, a mixture of crunchiness and softness”.
What's your favourite kind of ramen? Any recommendations for where to get it in Sydney? Tell us in the comments below.