I’ve always had a soft spot for noodle soups. Mum’s pho is the perfect remedy for an aching cold and there’s nothing quite like a steaming bowl of Dad’s bo kho with rice noodles on a freezing night. One of my best memories of living at home is waking up to the fragrance of pork broth simmering. The sweetness of daikon was sometimes added, and a depth of umami flavour was achieved through the simple addition of dried squid. This basic broth was the versatile base for a multitude of noodle soups my parents would craft.
It feels inevitable that I’m a little obsessed with ramen – the soul food of Japan!
I was recently invited by Ippudo to a bloggers dinner where I had my very own ramen moment, much like this scene from Tampopo:
Ramen in Japan
Like many traditional dishes that have survived the test of time, ramen varies in Japan from region to region. Originally adapted from China’s stretched noodles (lamian), ramen became distinctively Japanese over generations. In Tokyo, ramen is often soy-based, up north in Hokkaido, they prefer miso-based ramen, and in the south in Hakata, an old name for Fukuoka city, they love their tonkotsu-based ramen.
Hakata, frequently referred to as the ramen capital of Japan, is where the original Ippudo was founded!
The making of Tonkotsu
Going back to World War II, I’m told this tonkotsu broth was the happy accident of a ramen shop owner who mistakenly left his broth brewing for too long. The intensity of pork bones and the breakdown of pork fat after 15 hours on the burner resulted in a milky pork broth that was both deep in flavour and creamy in texture. For ramen connoisseurs, it’s usually all about the tonkotsu.
So what makes a good tonkotsu? According to Ippudo, a crucial step in producing a clean and light tasting broth, is to pre-boil the pork bones and throw away this first batch of water. Guided by the very knowledgeable Operations Manager, Sho Yoshimura, I learn that this first batch can stink like a wet dog from 3 blocks away!!
However, some older ramen purists will today, still boast that they never turn off the broth. As the flavour deepens, more water and bones are added. Ippudo on the other hand believes that there is a peak when making tonkotsu broth, that is generally achieved at around the 15 hour mark. Beyond the peak, and it deteriorates. It is up to the chef’s expertise to know the exact point at which it is best to extract the broth.
Ramen consists of just 4 ingredients. Wheat, water, salt and ‘kan sui’, alkaline mineral water. The magic of ramen occurs when kan sui interferes with the enzymes in the flour to inhibit the development of gluten, giving the dough the glutinous and springy texture and yellow hue that is synonymous with ramen noodles.
The classic Hakata-style ramen distinctively features thin straight noodles. The noodles are thin so they would cook faster to meet the demands of local fishermen in Hakata who turned to ramen as a quick feed.
When you dine at Ippudo, you get a choice of how well you want the noodles done. Here’s the scale:
- Yawa means well-done and soft
- Futsu is the standard and means normal
- Bari kata is the Hakata preference which takes 5 seconds to cook
- Hari gane means steel-wire and involves a cooking time of just 2 seconds
- Kona otoshi merely washes the flour off the noodles and is boiled for less than 1 second – hardcore!
What’s all the fuss at Ippudo about?
What makes Ippudo special is the company’s commitment and dedication to delivering a high quality ramen experience.
When they expand overseas, they bring the factory with them! All the broth and ramen served in the Sydney branch, are made from scratch, offsite at their Marrickville factory! Local products such as Australian flour are fused with Japanese elements.
While staying true to authentic ramen cooking techniques, Ippudo’s recipes and production processes are constantly evolving to adapt to changes. For example, the noodles are climate controlled and adjusted to variables such as humidity to achieve optimum balance. There are no shortcut compromises and there seems to be a really strong company culture that acknowledges the importance of change and demands perfection.
Ippudo’s first store was opened in 1985 and the bar counter still exists today. The first international outlet was opened in New York in 2008 and they’ve since expanded to Singapore (2009), Seoul (2011), Hong Kong (2011) and Taipei (2012). Sydney received our very own Ippudo in Westfield in late 2012 and the queues have been non-stop since! In fact, Sydneysiders were so enamoured by Ippudo’s opening that during their launch, they served a record 1300 bowls of ramen in just one day! It’s nowadays common to serve 600 bowls on a weekday and 1000 on a weekend.
Ippudo’s pork bun ($4)
Initially introduced at the New York branch, Ippudo’s pork buns are sometimes even more popular than their ramen! Featuring a thick slab of the same char siu as in the ramen, the pork belly is braised in Ippudo’s original sauce and served with a pillowy steamed bun and iceberg lettuce. The buns really do both look and taste the part. The problem is learning to stop at one.
Ippudo Shiromaru ($15)
The first ramen we try is the classic Shiromaru, which directly translates to ‘white ring’. This dish has been on Ippudo’s menu since 1985 and showcases the basic structure of ramen. Designed to enable you to immerse yourself in the depth of the bowl, the toppings are minimal so that the focus is on the flavour and texture of the tonkotsu broth and noodles. Lean slices of pork loin, instead of pork belly are served in the shiromaru – I’m told this blends with the ramen better. Make use of the sesame grinder for a gorgeous nutty fragrance, but taste the tonkotsu broth first. Always savour the slow-cooked broth first.
Ippudo Akamaru ($16)
Introduced at Ippudo’s 10th year ball, akamaru is a modernised version of the shiromaru. This is by far, my favourite Ippudo ramen. The akamaru features koyu, a black oil fragrant with fried onion and garlic, and a Korean-inspired miso and mince ball. We’re instructed to first taste the tonkotsu, then to gradually mix in the miso ball so that a different height of flavour could be enjoyed throughout the bowl. I love the extra depth and savouriness that the miso adds. I find that the pork belly also better complements the dish in terms of volume and that silky melt-in-your-mouth texture.
Ippudo Karaka ($17)
Also a signature Ippudo ramen, although most different from the earlier two, karaka features a spicy miso ball which consists of several blends of miso and pork. It is also topped with crushed cashew nuts to offer a fresh accent and some crunch. The noodles are medium width and are wavy for the miso to tangle into, and pickled ginger helps to break up the intensity of each slurp.
Having tasted three consecutive full-sized bowls of tonkotsu, I have to say, there’s more to it than a collagen-rich broth. I love what Ippudo have done. They’ve really achieved the perfect emulsion of fat and liquid in the broth and the bonus of consistency, beautiful springy noodles, well-balanced toppings, lovely service and a sleek decor explains why so many people around the world are forking out a bit more for Ippudo’s ramen.
Sho Yoshimura (Operations Manager) and Gen Yamashita (Production Kitchen Manager)
Kohei Yano (General Manager) and Sho
Level 5, Westfield Sydney
188 Pitt Street, Sydney NSW
Phone: (02) 8078 7020