|No 1 Special Ramen @ Kudan Ikaruga, Tokyo|
Like so many great things ramen has its roots in China, and it was immigrants from that country which introduced this soup noodle dish to Japan in the 19th century. In its simplest form, ramen dishes consist of noodles served in broth with toppings. The toppings vary depending on the style of ramen, but pork, egg, menma (fermented bamboo shoots), spring onions and different types of seaweed are most common. However, there's a fair bit of experimentation, and toppings such as sweetcorn and butter sometimes make an appearance. Ramen noodles are wheat-based, and although they vary in shape and size, have a common characteristic of being springy (from the alkali water used in the noodle dough) in contrast to udon, a thicker chewier noodle. But for all that, the most important aspect of ramen is, undoubtedly, the broth.
What are the different broths?
The broths served with ramen are based on a stock made from either pork, chicken, seafood, veggies or a blend of some or all of the aforementioned. The style of broth can be characterised by its tare or flavour base. For example, shio (literally, salt) is based on a tare made from a reduction of dried seafood and seaweed that imparts salty and umami flavours. Other tare include shoyu (soy sauce) and miso. These categories are quite broad, and there's no set way of preparing the different styles, as chefs like to put their own signature on their creations. There is, however, one style of broth I have yet to mention: the legendary tonkotsu (not to be confused with tonkatsu, a breaded pork chop), and it is this milky-white porky broth that is at the forefront of the ramen renaissance in London.
|Tonkotsu stock @ Bone Daddies, London|
Tonkotsu (originally from Hakata in southern Japan) differs from other types of broth in that the flavour comes mainly from the stock itself rather than from the tare. To make tonkotsu broth, pork bones are boiled for ages so that they break down and release collagen into the stock. The end-product can be a bit too thick and porky, though, and therefore it's usually blended and thinned out by mixing with a lighter chicken, fish or veggie stock. Such is the richness of tonkotsu broth, the noodles served with it should be thinner and straighter than those served with lighter soups.
Where's best to go in London?
Ramen isn't all that new to London. After all, Wagamama (and a whole host of noodle bars inspired by this chain) first popularised ramen way back in the 1990s. However, like the London burger explosion, a number of restaurants are attempting to take things to the next level. In the past year, Ittenbari, Tonkotsu Bar & Ramen, and most recently, Shoryu and Bone Daddies have all set up shop in the capital. The latter two are my current favourites.
However, let's not discount the likes of more traditional Japanese restaurants such as Nagomi and Cocoro, which have been quietly serving ramen (including the prized tonkotsu) for a number of years. I've also noticed that sushi chains such as YO! Sushi and Feng Sushi have recently jumped on the ramen bandwagon. Although I've not tried the offerings at these places, it's unlikely that they’re much cop (yes I know, I'm such a noodle snob).
The London ramen scene is exciting but there isn't, in my opinion, a killer ramen shop just yet. Having said that, the recent spate of openings can only be a good thing for the capital's noodle fans. I have only really skimmed the surface when it comes to ramen, and for further reading I can point you to Kavey who identifies some of the different regional styles in this post. And for those of you that really want to geek-up on the subject then check out Rameniac whose interactive map is a work of art.