More than just a bowl of noodles… famous Sapporo ramen with butter and sweetcorn
I have been slacking a bit during the festive season… and for the last blog entry of 2012, I will write about my beloved comfort food, ramen!
In the past few years, Hong Kong has been experiencing some kind of ramen mania. Long queues outside of the latest Japanese ramen joints are almost guaranteed these days. Hong Kong is a very trend-driven city, when a subtrend becomes mainstream, it would spread very quickly but at the time, it would also diminish as quickly especially when a new trend takes over. However, the ramen trend seems to be still going strong, so it would be interesting to see when it will cease and what trend will take over next.
Ramen mania in Hong Kong
Interestingly, this ramen invasion is taking place in London as well, with new ramen places ( Ittenbari, Tonkotsu, Shoryu and Bone Daddies etc) opening within the last year. To the Japanese ( as well as many Asians), ramen is considered a comfort food, there is nothing better than a hot bowl of ramen ( after drinking) on a cold winter’s night. When I was still a student many years ago, I used to go regularly to Ryo in Piccadilly, not only because it is convenient and opens until midnight but it also reminds me very much of Japan. The decor is minimal and slightly outdated (with a TV at the back), and you have to pay cash at the til before seated. Their clientele is mostly Asian students and Japanese businessmen, and the atmosphere is low-key and subdue. In terms of ramen, it is not particularly outstanding, yet I would return again and again for nostalgic and ‘comfort’ reasons. ( I just found out that the place is closed for refurbishment at the moment, I just hope that it will not be turned into trendy-looking joint!)
I was reading Monocle’s article on ‘soft power’ one day and it suddenly occurred to me that ramen is probably the ‘unexpeceted’ Japanese soft power after sushi and manga. For the decades, Japanese popular culture has been influential globally, but with the spread of Korean pop culture and the rise of China in recent years, the Japanese influence seems to have been overshadowed by its neighbouring countries. With boom years over, Japan has entered a different phase in terms of social and cultural development especially with the economical downturn, aftermath of the tsunami disaster, on-going land disputes and unstable political climate. Thus, soft power such as ramen cannot be under-estimated because it can be a powerful tool to enhance its image and profile globally.
Ramen at Bone Daddies
In London, I was slightly disappointed with the two new ramen places I tried recently: Shoryu and Bone Daddies. Although the first one is more authentic and portions are generous but the noodles are not the bouncy type I normally prefer. The service is also quite rushed, and I just didn’t feel much for the place. Bone Daddies in Soho is a more ‘hip’ noodle bar that I stumbled upon a week after its opening. There is definitely more buzz here and the service is friendly and casual, and it offers more unusual side dishes than most ramen places. Both the ingredients and broth is not bad but I can’t say it is particularly memorable either.
Shoryu in Piccadilly
Am I being fussy? Maybe so but I am not even comparing it to the ramen I tasted in Japan! Outside of Japan, New York and even Paris ( all concentrated around Rue Saint-Anne) have some authentic and atmospheric ramen places that I really miss. Sometimes it is not all about the texture of the noodles or the intense flavour of the broth, the atmosphere is equally important… To me, ‘glossy’ or ‘trendy’ ramen places just don’t seem right somehow because ramen joints are more like fast-food places than restaurants in Japan. In most Japanese ramen joints, you choose and pay for your ramen from a ticket vending machine, and it will be brought to you when it is ready. Instead of lingering after the meal, you leave almost immediately to give your seat to the person waiting in the queue outside ( most ‘popular’ ramen places have queues outside).
Ramen in Tokyo
One of the most memorable ramen experiences happened years ago when my friend and I had to rush to get a bowl of shoyu ramen at Chuka Soba Inoue outside of Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market ( popular with fishermen working in the market) before the stall closed at 1.30pm. I can’t remember how the noodles tasted now but I cannot forget the joy when we found the stall and us sitting on the wooden bench with two hot bowls of ramen right in front of us on a cold winter’s afternoon. To us at the time, the two bowls of ramen were bliss… and this memory has stayed with me ever since.