There seems to be as many versions of ramen as there are regions in Japan. In Fukuoka, Hakata style ramen is king. This ramen is characterised by its tonkotsu broth -- a rich, milky soup made from hours and hours of cooking pork bones and breaking down all its sinews and collagen to achieve a very deep and layered flavour.
Globally famous Ippudo with branches in Manila and other Asian cities is also found in New York, in Sydney and even London. It is a proud child of Hakata and while we missed trying it the first time we were here, I was not about to pass up a visit this time around.
Lines are usually long in all its branches but on this late Sunday evening, the store at Hakata Station had lots of available space.
For our hungry group of five, we were seated right at the counter, facing the kitchen.
To maximise the compact space at this store, there are no tables, just counters where you dine side by side and facing each other. A divider that runs across each counter keeps you from staring at the person in front of you as he slurps his ramen.
You may find it strange that I had never tried Ippudo Ramen before. It's such a popular brand
that you can find all over Japan but tonkotsu ramen does not appeal to me. I prefer a light, clear broth to an almost creamy soup.
For foreigners, the store has an english menu -- no need to try and decipher the photos. Since there were five of us, we could try all the different ramen on offer.
Since we are seated on the counter facing the kitchen, the appetising smells wafted all over
us. I just knew that my clothes and my hair would smell of pork broth after this meal.
Ippudo has three basic types of ramen that you can order. This is their Akamaru Modern, where a dollop of miso paste and some dark fragrant oil (I'm guessing it's garlic and chili oil) add another layer of taste to the basic tonkotsu soup. Thin nori sheets, crunchy slivers of wood ear mushroom (tengang daga as we know it), not to mention chashu slices and a boiled egg complete the bowl.
We also ordered Ippudo's original classic Shiromaru Motoaji ramen. Putting my (very) limited Nihongo skills to practice -- I surmise that it sort of trans-literates to "white correct basis of taste". Once you taste it, you can understand my translation. The complex and heavy flavours of the broth must certainly be the basis for the global success of Ippudo Ramen.
Since tonkotsu ramen is not really my preference I decided to take a different path. I had the
Karaka ramen, a bowl of tonkotsu broth turned vivid orange by highly spiced, heat seeking chili and miso paste and generously topped with minced pork. One can choose from 5 levels of spiciness - from the safe level 1 to the perhaps abunai (dangerous) level 5 where you would probably be spewing fire after every spoonful.
I was not so brave -- I settled for level 2. Any unwanted heat would be quickly doused by a gulp
of ice cold nama beer.
Gyoza, pork and chive dumplings, is the traditional partner of ramen. Ippudo's gyoza are kawaii and bite sized. An order of ten just about teases your tastebuds.
Ramen sets sometimes include a small chashu donburi -- grilled pork slices over rice.
Ippudo's version is called Chikara Meshi and because this is Fukuoka -- where mentaiko is
a local specialty, there is a coral pink lump of mentaiko on top. The seasoned pollack roe
makes the rice a bit salty, which balances the sweetish sauce of the grilled pork.
Mentaiko is a favourite of mine, so I just had to order Mentaiko Gohan. The rice came with some grated preserved daikon and nori sheets. Take a scoop of rice, a smudge of mentaiko
and some grated daikon, wrap it all in nori and presto -- instant onigiri!
We ordered nearly everything on Ippudo's menu. Were our eyes bigger than our stomachs? Definitely not, as my nearly empty bowl of Karaka ramen will tell you. We finished it all.
We must have been particularly hungry or the food must have been specially good.
Or perhaps both.
Dinner was a slurpi-ly satisfying introduction to the culinary pleasures of Fukuoka --
through its famous hakata style ramen.
Umai desu yo!
NB. Thanks to Jay and my son Gani who took some of the photos used in this post.