In ‘Ramen Alley’ in Kyoto, top noodle restaurants compete for diners. Here's a recipe to try at home.
I’ve been eating ramen since well before the current boom, and not the prepackaged dried stuff you can purchase for pocket change. During a visit to London nearly 15 years ago, faced with an oversized bowl of chicken chili ramen, I went ahead and emulated the boy in the restaurant’s place-mat photo, tipping the dish up to my mouth to gulp down every last drop of the spicy broth.
I felt a little gauche, but it was perfectly in line with Japanese ramen etiquette. Diners are expected to slurp their soup with gusto, express their pleasure to the chef, and experience the soup’s flavors to their full umami (the savory “fifth taste” identified by the Japanese) effect. On a recent trip to Japan, ramen’s epicenter, I sat beside suited businessmen and well-coifed teens, all practicing the art of the slurp.
Upon arriving at our hotel in Japan’s imperial capital of Kyoto, a staff member offered my husband and me recommendations for budget eats in the area. One stood out: “On the 10th floor of the train station building, the best ramen restaurants from around the country come to compete,” he said.
It’s called Ramen Koji, or Ramen Alley: eight restaurants in the gleaming train station featuring their own regional ramen recipes.
We dined at half of them during our time in Kyoto; the lines looked imposingly long, but we never waited more than 15 minutes. And that time was well spent poring over vending machines with photos of ramen options displayed on the buttons, which we pressed to purchase our meal tickets.
Then we’d sidle up to the counter to watch the chefs methodically assemble our meals, while concurrently observing our seatmates’ seemingly scientific approach to consuming ramen, their chopsticks and soup spoons flashing with finesse.
My favorite bowl from Ramen Koji featured a steaming spicy-sesame broth, vermilion in color, layered with fresh springy noodles, chopped garlic, aromatic ginger, melt-in-your-mouth pork belly, roasted nori (seaweed), a slick of chili oil, and a shower of scallions. The closest equivalent I can find to replicate this harmonious blend at home is this tantanmen ramen, a sinus-clearing bowl. You can prepare this recipe quickly on a weeknight using ground pork and chicken stock.
So let your American sensibilities go: Inhale those noodles and lift the bowl to your lips to savor the last of the broth. Sluuuuuuuuurp!
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon chopped ginger
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
3 teaspoons chopped scallions
8 oz. ground pork (or pork belly)
6 cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon spicy bean paste
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons sesame paste
16 oz. fresh ramen noodles
Sliced scallions and nori, for garnish
Chili oil, to taste
Heat sesame oil, ginger, garlic, and scallions in a large saucepan over high heat for 1 to 2 minutes. Add pork and cook for an additional 2 to 3 minutes, breaking up the meat with a spoon so that it cooks thoroughly. Add chicken stock, spicy bean paste, soy sauce, sugar, salt, and sesame paste, stirring constantly to separate any clumps of paste. (Note: Spicy bean paste, fresh ramen noodles, sesame paste, and nori are available at Asian markets.)
Bring the broth to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, place fresh noodles in boiling water and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until noodles take on a springy texture. Drain noodles and divide into four bowls. Return broth to full boil and ladle over the noodles. Garnish with sliced scallions, nori, and, if more heat is desired, a drizzle of chili oil.