'Ramen touches people in a way few dishes do' - This Japanese staple is having a moment here in Ireland
It can take 40 hours to make, using 20 or more ingredients - and it's effectively just noodles in a bowl of soup. But ramen done right is a dish worth the wait, and it's not just big in Japan. Alex Meehan looks at how the Japanese staple is having a moment here in Ireland
It's a food that seems to be having a 'moment' right now, but if you've never tried it you'd be forgiven for asking why so much fuss is being made over a food as simple as ramen. After all, it's just noodles sitting in a bowl of soup, isn't it?
Well, not quite. Once you dig below the surface of this staple of Japanese cooking, it becomes apparent that ramen is a very big deal indeed. In Japan there are multiple consumer magazines dedicated to it, as well as TV shows focused solely on it. There are also underground ramen trails for people looking for the best spots in New York, London, Tokyo and, increasingly, in Ireland too.
There are around 200 regional variations acknowledged in Japan, the most famous and popular of which is tonkotsu pork ramen, which comes from Fukuoka in northern Japan and has a characteristic cloudy broth as a result of the pork bones used in is preparation. A good bowl takes around 10 hours to make and can have 20 or more ingredients.
This particular type of ramen has a special place in the heart of Ireland's best-known Japanese chef, Takashi Miyazaki. Now based in Cork, not only was he born in Fukuoka, he grew up close to the original birthplace of tonkotsu ramen. "I lived near Hakata train station, where the first ramen restaurant to serve tonkotsu ramen is located. We ate there a lot as kids, and as adults we went for lunch and dinner, and even for a hangover cure if we'd had a few drinks the night before," he says.
Hakata tonkotsu ramen is so famous that there are manga novels written about it, while a crime series on Japanese TV was based around the area and had ramen as its theme. "There is a massive fish market in Hakata and the original shop is open 24 hours a day to serve the workers in the market. They make their soup stock constantly. It's always cooking and we used to eat it every opportunity we got," says Miyazaki.
He runs the Michelin-starred Ichigo Ichie restaurant on Cork's Sheares Street, which doesn't serve ramen, but his other restaurant and take away in the city, Miyazaki on Evergreen Street, does. However, he doesn't serve tonkotsu ramen: he prefers to serve a lighter lemon ramen, which he says is hugely popular with Cork diners.
"The problem is that making a good authentic tonkotsu stock takes between three and five days, and you don't end up with much volume at the end. We used to do it, but it's an enormous amount of work and then it's sold out in a couple of hours," he says. "In Japan, it's generally only made by specialist restaurants that don't serve anything else, so they can concentrate on making the best stock."
The Ramen Bar on South William Street in Dublin started out as a labour of love for owner Iain Conway, a ramen fan who wanted to capitalise on the fact that Japanese restaurants in Ireland tend to offer lots of different kinds of food on the same menu. In Japan, he had learned, restaurants mostly do one thing and try to do it as well as they can. "I decided to open a ramen restaurant and do my best to make it as authentic as possible," he says.
He ended up importing a specialist ramen noodle machine, as well doing extensive analysis on Japanese ramen wheat flour to try to find a local variety that was close to the original. Importing wheat from Japan wasn't viable, but after lots of trial and error, he discovered a variety from Italy that was chemically close to that used in Japan. Next came the soup base. "We imported samples of water from Japan for use in our noodles and in our stocks, and then went about matching it. The soups were really difficult. We've settled on a recipe for our tonkotsu ramen that takes 18 hours to make, and a lot of research went into that. We had to experiment with lots of different pork bones and methods to get it right," says Conway. "In France or Germany, and in Europe in general, chefs try to make dark stocks but we were looking for a long, slow-cooked and creamy light stock."
The restaurant's popularity has far exceeded Conway's expectations, and it can serve as many as 800 bowls of ramen on a busy weekend day. He plans to open two more outlets soon.
In Belfast, ex-fine dining chef Brian Donnelly has made waves with the small ramen restaurant that he runs with his partner Jenny Holland on the Ormeau Road. Bia Rebel won the 'best cheap eats' category at the Observer Food Monthly awards, beating competition from all over Britain. "Even though we're making a Japanese dish, we want to make an Irish version. The thing that attracted me most to ramen was the fact that it's a comfort dish and it has a familiarity to it, despite being quite foreign. So we decided to make it from scratch and see how it would translate to Belfast," says Donnelly.
Donnelly began his cooking career in Ballymaloe House in Cork before working in Gordon Ramsay's Aubergine and Michel Roux Jr's Le Gavroche. He was also head chef at Thornton's in Dublin when the restaurant held two Michelin stars. He may be very much focused on casual dining these days, but is finding plenty to excite him in the world of ramen. "We use local products, dial up the seasoning and try to build an Irish ramen for Irish palettes. It looks like an original Japanese ramen, but it's unique to here and that's important," he says.
The result is a signature bowl of noodles that takes 40 hours to make from start to finish and has 26 ingredients. Donnelly has had groups of Japanese tourists turn up on his doorstep clutching ramen magazines to see if what he's doing is authentic. So far, nobody has been displeased. "We make our noodles by hand from scratch, we slow cook our soup and we sous vide cook our roast pork to top it. So a lot of time and effort goes into it. As I said, ramen touches people in a way few dishes do."