Hakata Ramen: Local Roots, Global Appeal
Fukuoka is famous for its tonkotsu ramen, which is made using a pork bone soup base. Perfect as a quick and energizing meal or a finisher after a night of drinking, this dish has become popular around the world, and in recent years major local Fukuoka chains such as Ippudo and Ichiran have expanded not only throughout Japan, but to other countries as well. Fukuoka locals take pride in their ramen, and many go so far as to claim that the other major ramen types such as shoyu (soy sauce base), shio (salt) and miso are not real ramen at all.
Yet Fukuoka is not the only place in Kyushu that claims to have the best tonkotsu. Other locations, particularly Kumamoto and Kagoshima, are just as proud of their tonkotsu variations. Furthermore, Fukuoka is not the birthplace of tonkotsu ramen. This ramen actually comes from Kurume, a suburb located a short train ride south of the city and well-known ramen mecca among Kyushu-based culinary enthusiasts.
Kurume, the birthplace of tonkotsu ramen. Photo by Alessandro Traini on Flickr.
Tonkotsu ramen was invented in 1937 by the owner of Nankin Senryo, a food stall (yatai) whose owner experimented one day by combining thick champon noodles with a pork-bone-based soup (because pork was cheaper than the chicken used in standard Chinese-influenced dishes). The dish evolved and was eventually popularized through consumption by port laborers and businesspeople in Hakata, an area of Fukuoka that was once an independent merchant town. That is why it is known today as both Hakata ramen and Nagahama ramen (from the Nagahama port district of Fukuoka).
Although a wide variety of ramen types exist throughout Japan, Hakata ramen is predominant both domestically and abroad. In contrast to other regions' offerings, Hakata ramen is actually quite minimal in character, using very basic ingredients and toppings to avoid interference with the main ingredients' flavors. The use of excessive toppings is, in fact, viewed with suspicion, as this technique is sometimes employed by subpar ramen chefs to hide the low quality of their broth and noodles.
A ramen chef adds the finishing touches. Photo by City Foodsters on Flickr.
The most important element of tonkotsu ramen is, obviously, the soup. In simple terms, the pork bones are boiled until they break down, creating an oily, savory, cloudy-white soup. However, most shops are very secretive about the specific steps taken and seasonings used in their soups, as these are the factors that make for the truly staggering diversity of tonkotsu broth styles available. These secret recipes also enable shops to be competitive in an oversaturated local market.
The noodles are nearly as important as the broth in Fukuoka. Most locals will refuse to eat at a shop that uses factory-produced noodles, as handmade is considered the standard (and you can truly taste the difference). Fukuoka chefs use straight, not wavy noodles, that are thinner than those seen in most other regions. The noodles are also cooked for a short time to keep them firm. When asked how hard you want your noodles in Fukuoka, the best answer is futsu (normal), hard (kata) or very hard (bari-kata); asking for soft noodles (yawarakame) will most likely earn you a dirty look from the owner, as this is a breach of local ramen etiquette. If you have finished your noodles but still have soup left, you have the option of ordering kaedama–another serving of noodles–which is a concept invented by Fukuokans that is now popular throughout the country.
Inside a typical ramen shop. Photo by Motohiro Takayama.
As for toppings, usually fatty chashu pork and maybe some diced green onions or shinachiku seasoned bamboo shoots is all you'll encounter. Bean sprouts or beni-shoga (red, pickled ginger strips) might appear on occasion, but the general rule of thumb with Hakata ramen is the fewer ingredients, the better.
If you have a chance to visit northern Kyushu, sampling local ramen should be on your to-do list. Try popping down to Kurume, the birthplace of tonkotsu ramen, and experience for yourself the taste that started it all.