"Do you have Ramen?" I kept asking that question in every diner at a corner of Hakata Station in the city of Fukuoka. Rows of food joints litter the space and I wanted a taste of the world famous Tonkotsu Ramen that Fukuoka is known for. But everyone I asked shrugged their heads. I was baffled. Ramen is supposedly everywhere, particularly by the roadside as makeshift stalls called "yatai" (street cart). There are about 150 yatais all over Fukuoka but most of them don't have menus owing to its mobile character. I decided to check out the restaurants at the station. So there I was.
After half a dozen shops, I just looked at the photo displays and thought, hmmmm, these are the ramens that I know about. Is it possible that the people of Fukuoka don't call them ramen? Was my accent wrong? How else do you say ramen?
I went inside a noodles bar. The order took 10 minutes. The minute the waiter placed my bowl in front, I could smell the pungent odor. It was overpowering, like something rotten was steaming. This is the character of Tonkotsu Ramen aka Hakata Ramen, the rich pork broth that gives the dish its savory taste. Hakata Ramen's noodles are made from wheat dough; they are long thin noodles, topped with pork slices (chashu), green onions and dried sea weeds. A soft boiled egg is thrown into the cloudy white concoction.
These days, Japanese Ramen is world renowned. Not too bad for a dish that originated from China and found its way to the Japanese shores in 1859. In fact, until the 1950s, ramen was called "shina soba" in the country, translating to "Chinese soba". The secret of Tonkotsu (pork bone) - not tonkatsu (fried breaded pork) - is in its preparation. Most broths are prepared overnight and served the next day.
Tips on Eating Ramen
With my ramen sitting in front of me, I stared at it. I thought of how the pungent smell gets to my brain. I remember reading an Australian ramen aficionado giving a tip on how to find a good ramen meal. He said, "Usually the worse the smell, the better it is. There’s no real way to tell. If the shop smells really, really bad like old tennis shoes, the ramen is usually good." Goodness.
He further suggested, "Ignore the smell, first up. Don't let the smell deter you from going into a shop. Ah, that's the hardest obstacle to overcome." If he asked other foreigners why they don't eat ramen, their answer was usually “because it smells so bad”. And I was reminded of Durian. Also, you have to eat it with a slurping noise, a practice scoffed at in many "civilized" societies.
As for my experience in Fukuoka, my ramen smelled like a rotten meal, but tasted like heaven. I needed to get used to eating good ramen.
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