For my second installment in the Kodawari Stories of Japan, I’m covering Ramen in Japan. More specifically Ramen in Sapporo, my hometown, and other nearby cities in Hokkaido, the northern island prefecture of Japan which is also an area famous for Ramen.
Why am I writing about Ramen if my passion is Yakitori? To start, Tori Ramen made with broth from simmered chicken carcass is often served as a Shime (closer) dish at Yakitori shops.
Second, like sushi, Ramen is one of the most influential Kodawari food from Japan that people passionately love to eat and cook worldwide. Ramen was born from the Kodawari of Care to provide sustenance for the everyday people by being a cheap and quick hot meal. In addition, when you eat at the best Ramen shop, you get to experience the Kodawari of Simplicity and the awe-inspiring craftsmanship towards making the most perfect bowl of Ramen.
But the more personal reason why I’m sharing this story on Ramen is because for the first time in years my father joined me for a trip to Japan and we ate 7 bowls of Ramen in 5 days. I’m obsessed with Yakitori but my father and I enjoy eating Ramen in Japan because it’s quick, cheap, and really delicious compared to what you can get here in the states.
Kodawari of Care: Feeding People Through Hot Ramen
Whether in the form of a fresh bowl of Ramen at food stands or in the form of packaged instant noodles, Japan experienced a Ramen boom in the 1950s after the war. Similar to using pork and whole onion to keep prices low with Muroran Yakitori (Kodawari Stories Part 1) for the working class, Ramen grew in popularity in Japan to meet the demands for a quick and cheap hot meal. Noodle dishes were ideal because imported wheat flour was more abundant and cheaper than rice due to Japan’s lack of resources right after the war.
Aji no Sanpei -味の三平-
During this time in Hokkaido, Miso Ramen was invented at 味の三平 Aji no Sanpei. By incorporating miso paste that’s thick and deep in umami as the main flavor instead of a shio or shoyu tare, extra sustenance and calories could be added to Ramen while maintaining its status as an affordable quick meal. This led to a Miso Ramen boom in Sapporo, and the birth of the famous Sumire/Junren Ramen shops in the 60s, which influences Sapporo Ramen even now the disciples from Sumire/Junren chains continue to open up highly ranked Ramen shops for their own.
It is at a Sumire 暖簾分け “Noren Wake” shop (meaning started by disciples and approved by the parent shop. See below for further explanation) called 八乃木 Hachinoki where I was slapped in the face (mouth) with a unique Kodawari feature of piping hot soup. Hachinoki is a highly ranked Ramen shop in the 2019 Hokkaido Ramen Walker guide (a catalog of nearly every highly ranked Ramen shop in Hokkaido) and everything was delightful.
The Miso Ramen bowl I ordered is topped with evenly cut crunchy onions, tender chashu, warm sweet bean sprouts, crisp menma bamboo, and bits of flavorful ground pork. However, it was the hot soup that remained hot even until the last sip that took me by surprise and left a lasting impression.
Junren - 純蓮-
Later that evening I visited Junren, one of the the historical big names in Sapporo Ramen. At Junren, I changed it up from the house special Miso Ramen and ordered the Shoyu Ramen, but there too, the soup was piping hot until the last sip. It’s not my first time having Ramen in Japan but I only experienced this hot soup at Junren and Hachinoki (which is from the same Junren/Sumire lineage). How did they do that? Why is Ramen from Junren/Sumire so hot?
I found out the big Kodawari factor from my Sapporo native friend Ryo who was eating at Junren with me. Hokkaido is the northern Island of Japan and is cold in the fall and winter months. To help the working class folks enjoy a hot meal that stays warm, there is a layer of hot “abura” (oil) on top of the soup to prevent the dish from cooling down. Later I checked in with Mike Satinover, The Ramen Lord (@Ramenover), my go-to expert for all things Ramen, and he explained that the abura is from lard (not oil) that’s cooked together with the veggies like bean sprouts and mixed with the soup directly in a hot iron wok.
You may have observed Ramen being plated together in the kitchen where it’s usually just strained hot noodles placed in a bowl, poured over with hot soup from a pot, and then the toppings are added. Cooking the vegetables with the lard along with the soup and pouring this hot mix into the bowl to keep the whole dish enjoyable and hot until the last sip is the extra Kodawari aspect of Sapporo Ramen from Junren/Sumire.
While Aji no Sanpei may claim to have invented Miso Ramen, Sumire/Junren refined it with extra Kodawari steps that make the dish special. The Sumire/Junren brand name and their offshoots are really popular in Japan and companies have packaged their flavors for instant Ramen that’s sold nationwide. This is a true example that demonstrates cooking honest solid food out of care and Kodawari will lead to a loyal following.
To read more about the interesting and maybe confusing history of Sumire/Junren naming of the shops see Ramen Lord’s post as he is definitely an expert on the history of Sapporo ramen.
Kodawari of Care in other Hokkaido Ramen
In the same time the Sapporo Miso Ramen boomed for its purpose to provide a flavorful sustenance in a quick meal, another Ramen shop in Hokkaido added original spices of their own and invented the Curry Ramen.
Aji no Daiou - 味の大王-
During the mid 60’s, Ramen Shop Aji no Daiou developed this Curry Ramen in the city of Tomakomai about an hour south of Sapporo. Similar to the new hot and hearty Miso Ramen, the Kodawari point in this Ramen was to have spicy (by Japanese standards, so it’s pretty mild) flavors of curry help warm the body during the cold winters of Hokkaido. Bean sprouts, chashu, and Hokkaido wakame seaweed top their classic Curry Ramen which I definitely would love to see executed in the states.
Kodawari of Simplicity: Restraint and Refinement
The beauty of Japanese food is in the Kodawari for achieving refinement even in the simplest of dishes. While Western cooking focusses on adding more ingredients and complexity to create something grand, Japanese cooking is focussed on doing more with less and letting the ingredients shine on their own (素材を活かすSozai Wo Ikasu).
The best example of Sozai Wo Ikasu is sushi in Japan compared with sushi in America. Think of the Maguro Tuna Nigiri in the Jiro Dreams of Sushi documentary. The best tuna fillet from Tsukiji market (now Toyosu market) is precisely sliced in a single stroke with a special single bevelled knife that is masterfully crafted like a Katana sword. This bite-sized Maguro slice is quickly placed on top of perfectly cooked and vinegar seasoned rice cultivated from the best rice farm. Squeezed into nigiri at just the right pressure and speed to not compress the rice or raise the temperature of the fish, Jiro’s body movements are perfected from years of repetition. Just fresh Maguro, seasoned rice, maybe a brush of soy sauce, plus solid refined technique.
On the opposite spectrum visualize some Rainbow Rolls or the Caterpillar Rolls with an explosion of ingredients, flavors, and colors from the abundant garnish and toppings. So much happening on one plate, yet in terms of complexity as a dish a Rainbow Roll is easily approachable enough that it is often taught in a single sushi making class session. In this form of execution, the freshness of the fish or how precisely you slice it is not as important as the pure Maguro Nigiri. Roughly cut, previously frozen fish can be uplifted with extra toppings such as tempura crisps, tobiko, and spicy mayo sauce. This is “Sushi” that’s popular in American Japanese restaurants. You might argue that it’s an unfair comparison, but compare the Instagram food photos between diners in Japan and diners and what’s trending on #foodporn or search for Sushi on Yelp and you start seeing what Western restaurant trends and the Western palate is like.
However palates are evolving and films like Jiro Dreams of Sushi or global food documenting celebrity chefs like David Chang and the late Anthony Bourdain have been contributing to more exposure and awareness. This is why I’m excited to continue to push Kodawari Yakitori in America. People just need these Kodawari differences between Japanese and Western cooking pointed out to them so they can pursue something different than the current status quo.
Itadakimasu - The Culture of Purity on the Dining Table
The Kodawari for purity and refining simplicity has its deep roots in the Japanese culture that focuses on appreciating, respecting, and worshipping the spiritual life that goes into everything. All over Japan there are temples, shrines, and festivals dedicated to the Kami or gods that represent everything; animals, trees, rivers, lightning (More Spirited Away gods than sexy Thor).
This Japanese tradition of appreciating everything in life is apparent at the dining table too. Before every meal, the custom is to put your hands in prayer and say “Itadakimasu” いただきます. Meaning “I’m about to partake in this meal” but really is more about saying “thank you for those who cooked it, to those animals or plants who gave up its life, and I’m grateful I’m about to have this meal.” Go to any restaurant in Japan, and you will most likely see a group put their hands together and say Itadakimasu, right after a quick photo of their food. Got to do it for the Gram!
Refinement and Purity Kodawari in Ramen
Japanese Ramen Noodle Lab Q
When simplicity is refined you get sophistication, and that’s what you can experience at Ramen Noodle Lab Q located in Odori Sapporo. I seeked this shop known for their refined modern Kodawari Shoyu Ramen. Because heavy pork based Ramen is popular in the American Ramen scene, Shoyu Ramen is an afterthought on the menu in the states. Shoyu Ramen in America is just one dimension; salty from the soy sauce but bland with no additional layers of taste. I was looking forward to this highly rated execution at Noodle Lab Q to blow me away and believe in the potential of great Shoyu Ramen. And it definitely did!
I ordered their famous Shoyu Ramen with the extra chashu. I also ordered the binchotan chicken on the side as this restaurant switches into a Yakitori restaurant at night. First off, just juicy chicken + salt + binchotan = wow. What a start to set the tone of the Japanese refined simplicity Kodawari.
On to the Ramen. Starting with the presentation of this bowl, you can just experience refinement through restraint. Topped with gradients of pink in the Chashu, bright green Mitsuba leaf, with a peek of the noodles and the dark but clear soup through a gap between the Chashu slices.
This Chashu set blew my mind too. The server carefully describes the 3 different Chashu of shoulder, loin, and leg each with slightly different tenderness. Below the pork Chashu was the 4th Chashu made with Kombu dashi simmered chicken breast which was extra soft and packed with earthy spices; Sansho maybe.
The noodles are easy to pick up and slurp because the chef makes sure to pull it up and neatly folds it over, not just dumped in the middle of the bowl from the strainer. And the soup, made with Tare using 8 different soy sauces and Kombu is balanced with the chicken broth using 4 different types of chicken. All of this effort resulted in a soup with simplicity and complexity you’d expect from fine French Consomme. Perfect, just perfect.
The beautiful presentation along with the complex flavors and textures from the toppings, noodles, and soup, is sophistication that has developed with the Kodawari soul and evolution of Ramen. As of now, you can’t find a bowl of Ramen like this in the states especially for 1300 Yen (around $12) tips tax included. The owner has dreams of opening a Ramen shop in America. Yes, we need you now!
Other Kodawari in Ramen:
Hakodate Noodle Ajisai -函館麺厨房あじさい-
The Shio Ramen at Ajisai, a small chain based out of Hakodate has been around since 1930. Being that Hakodate is a port city in Hokkaido, the ultra clear and clean broth made with sea salt, Hokkaido Kombu, pork, and chicken represents the old school Kodawari that still holds well with age even nearly a century later. For those who’re familiar with the House of Prime Rib in San Francisco, or Katz Deli in New York, this experience is similar, the taste and experience just takes you back in time but doesn’t feel dated. And because black pepper goes with salt, you need to try their special pepper oil to help compliment the dish to preference.
Mendokoro Maruha Rise - 麺処まるは RISE-
At Mendokoro Maruha Rise, their speciality is a scallop based Ramen with Kodawari Chashu. At shops that are proud of their Kodawari chashu, you can always order more, often served on the side. For the Scallop Ramen, the fragrant aroma of shellfish hits you hard with each sip of the soup. However, because it’s a lighter broth, the Kodawari point is in their use of earthy noodles which incorporates soba (buckwheat) flour.
Shirakaba Sansou - 白樺山荘 -
At Shirakaba Sansou, every table at every one of it’s chain shops comes with a basket of hard boiled eggs. Like bread, these eggs are free to consume so you have something to eat while you wait for your Ramen. It’s this kind of small touch of hospitality that’s the care point of Kodawari. Just don’t eat too much egg, you still need to leave room for their hearty Miso Ramen.
And just like you start the meal by gratefully saying “Itadakimasu”, you end the meal with your hands together and say “Gochisousama” ごちそうさま or “Gochisousama deshita!” ごちそうさまでした Meaning Thank you, I am grateful, and satisfied with your great meal. The ramen bowls at some shops had messages printed at the bottom for those who finished the entire dish. This is another Kodawari experience of eating ramen.
The Kodawari I experienced eating Ramen in Hokkaido has definitely influenced my Yakitori cooking style upon my return from my trip to Japan. My biggest takeaway is to focus more on refinement and simplicity which defines the Japanese culinary way. Although I always incorporated Kodawari in my dishes already, my standards toward the attention to detail and being disciplined about doing more with less have further increased after eating the Ramen and Yakitori in Japan.
However I still grew up in America so my Yakitori does include my own Western (or global) influences on top of my Japanese identity. I believe there’s a new point of culmination where both Japanese Kodawari and the melting pot of Western culinary flavors (South American, Southeast Asian, Mediterranean etc.) can merge together in harmony.
Ramen evolved in Japan through the thoughtful use of local ingredients and necessary tweaks to meet the needs of customers and circumstances in that generation. Just like Miso Ramen and Curry Ramen developed as new ideas to THOUGHTFULLY serve the needs of the customers, I believe I can do that with Kodawari California Yakitori utilizing local ingredients and refining my technique to let the local and carefully selected ingredients shine by elevating it’s distinct strengths (“sozoi wo ikasu”). I use Chicken from Central California, and incorporate a variety of California grown citrus, Avocados, and Gilroy Garlic because it just tastes better when it’s local and I want to graciously support the local growers that provide for these ingredients.
Food is a medium for a conversation between the chef and the customers. It’s a non-verbal emotional dialogue of flavors, smells, sounds of cooking reciprocated back by body language like smiles, giggles, nods, wide open eyes, and even joyful hands in the air dancing.
You appreciate amazing food, and as the chef we enjoy seeing you taking in every bite of you food with a smile. Even if you don’t remember the word “Gochisousama”, I want to make sure you feel the spirit of that phrase and you’re grinning inside-out as you complete the meal. And just for that, I’ll continue to work hard in the kitchen.
If you have any questions, or feedback about the Ramen in this post always feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Addendum: What is Noren Wake 暖簾分け?
Noren 暖簾 is the curtain type signage that's in front of shops in Japan. It also serves as the open/closed signs you see in businesses in the states. A wooden bar holding the Noren is put up when the shop is open, and taken down and stored inside to signify that the business is done for the day.
The term 暖簾分け Norenwake (Wah-Kay) refers to when disciples of a shop decides to go independent with the lessons he/she learned with approval from the master. The influences of techniques, operations, or menu items from the original shop can clearly be seen in the new shop. The resemblance in the Ramen between Hachinoki and Junren or Sumire and Saimi is because they are all from the similar lineage. Some shops may go as far as leaving the name of the master shop on the side of their own Noren to signify its roots.