Ramen was the first food I ate in Japan, a couple hours after we landed and took the train from Narita and on up to Shinjuku, home to many of the tallest buildings in Tokyo and many, many businesses. It was later in the evening, and while Katie rested I walked off towards one of my Google map points, to a small ramen shop I saw David Chang and Peter Meehan sampled in Mind of a Chef. I don’t think the shop is particularly famous, I think those guys were just wandering around near their hotel too and it doesn’t take long to stumble upon good looking ramen in Japan.
Many ramen shops use a vending machine such as the above for ordering. You put in your money, press the button for which ramen and add-ons you may want, then it gives you a ticket which you hand to the chef behind the counter. Many machines have buttons with pictures on them. This one did not. I watched the three guys below all press the same button, so I figured, what the hell?
As I handed the ticket to the young chef (whom I recognized from the TV show) he looked at me and in broken English and asked, “you…know this is?” I hopefully replied, “su-kemen?” He smiled and repeated it back correctly to me, it turns out it’s more like “skehmen”. The actual English transcription is tsukemen, but you don’t pronounce the ‘t’ and the ‘u’ is basically silent as well. I mention this because if you eat sushi out enough, you are probably familiar with the word Tsukiji, the famous fish market in Tokyo. The same pronunciation rules apply here. Tsukiji is pronounced “skee-ji”. Now you can feel extra smug when correcting other patrons at Tomo.
Anyways, this is tsukemen, which is ramen where the noodles and broth have been separated, and the broth is usually extraordinarily intense. You dip the noodles (often cold to room temperature) in the hot broth and slurp.
I learned very quickly that this shop, Nagi ramen, specializes in a certain type of ramen called niboshi which is a dried sardine broth, this one featuring thick chunks of pork belly. The aromas were intense, to say the least – extremely heady and pungent. I wasn’t crazy hungry, and it took me some time to adjust to the new flavor. Meanwhile, my broth is cooling and I’m not eating fast enough. I watched the three young lads absolutely slam their noodles, slurping them loud and fast. I couldn’t keep up the pace and I end up with half a bowl of thick, cold noodles, with chilly fish broth for dipping. I’ll be honest, my stomach was turning. But the chef was greatly interested in how I was handling this, and twenty minutes later I’d downed the whole serving. I gingerly walked back to my hotel, praying I wouldn’t get to experience the subtleties of how the fish broth would taste on the way back up. It was as awkward and interesting as I hoped my first meal in Japan would be.
That’s a long story, so I will move on, but suffice it to say I ate plenty of ramen, including a couple more attempts at tsukemen. Eating quickly is key. This late night restaurant below is near the Shinjuku station, amongst hundreds of other restaurants and bars where salary men tie one on before heading home late in the evening.
I also learned I could simply order fewer noodles, as I swear the Japanese have a second stomach for them. Numerous times I would watch a 140# guy take down half a kilo of noodles, then re-up and ask them to add more noodles to his bowl (usually a buck or two). It was amazing. I also appreciate that the 200gram, 300g, and 400g are the same price. It’s all about ordering what you will actually eat. I saw many scenarios such as this where I understood it to be disrespectful to be wasteful.
This order of tsukemen featured a trend I saw numerous times – one of the garnishes was a little pile of powdered katsuobushi, the cured and smoked tuna which is a major part of Japanese cuisine. This added a slight fishiness, but much more tolerable to my palate.
I had another tsukemen down in Tokyo Station, in an area they call Ramen Street.
This place, rokurinsha, is the only ramen shop I visited where I had to wait in line for twenty minutes to get a seat.
Pork and eggs and broth and noodles. Damn.
Typical counter service.
Best tsukemen of the trip.
Most of my other ramen eating was in Osaka, in the Dōtonbori area, a neighborhood which may quite literally have a hundred ramen shops. I knew nothing of any of the shops. I looked for places which looked more quaint than commercial, or which were relatively full with patrons. Some were better than others, but all good enough to piss me off at the breadth of quality.
Check out the egg!
These 24 hour ramen shops with the dragon icons are all over Dōtonbori – they are nothing special, but are packed with late night revelers.
This was one of my favorite ramens of the trip, which I had for breakfast. The pork was leaner, a welcome change from fatty belly to start the day, and the broth much lighter, with yuzu shavings making it fragrant and tasting of citrus. I could eat this daily.
This was the fattiest tonkotsu of the the trip. There was basically a three inch chunk of pork belly fat that felt slightly disgusting going down.
This was the last, and weakest ramen of the trip, but still completely acceptable, considering it was a stall near our gate inside the airport.
Great. Now I am hungry for ramen.