Ramen is an ever-changing delicacy. Existing styles continue to evolve and improve, and ideas for brand new styles are always being tested. In my previous articles, I have introduced Taiwan Ramen and tsukemen, which were invented in the 60s and 70s, as well as the more recent boom of the Toripaitan (chicken soup). Today, let’s take a look at another ramen that has been enjoying a rise in popularity recently: the Yokohama Iekei ramen (横浜家系ラーメン).
Yokohama Iekei is the fastest growing ramen style in Japan right now, but its history traces back to 1974 when the former-truck-driver Mr. Yoshimura opened his own ramen shop, Yoshimura-ya (吉村家). His inspiration came when he tried mixing the Kyushu tonkotsu (pork bones) soup with the Tokyo shoyu (soy sauce) soup. That became the signature flavor of his shop, and the name iekei 家系, translated as home-style, comes from the "ya" of his shop’s name of 吉村家. However, the fame of the style remained within Yokohama until it was later re-introduced in the Yokohama Ramen Museum by the shop Rokkakuya, owned by a former disciple of Yoshimura. Its second and much bigger boom came around 2013, when several Yokohama iekei style chains started popping up in Kanagawa and Kanto. Its popularity continues to expand as new shops open up beyond the Kanto area.
As aforementioned, the soup is a mixture of tonkotsu and shoyu soup. The dashi used is extracted from pork bones and chicken bones and mixed with soy sauce. It is definitely categorized as a thick soup type, but ramen-goers can set their preferences upon ordering as you decide on the strength of the flavor, amount of grease, and firmness of the noodles.
All Yohokama iekei ramen come with cha-siu pork, chopped leek, spinach, and seaweed. I was caught off-guard by the spinach during my first encounter, as it is a pricier vegetable compared to cabbage or bean sprout, but it goes amazingly well with the soup. The noodles themselves are of the thick straight type, giving you a good batch to chew through with each slurp.
Besides the standard toppings, we must also discuss the optional toppings and condiments that you can use for free. On the counter of every iekei shop, you will find tonkotsu’s best friend, the minced garlic. Most shops will also have sesame and some type of picked vegetable as well. Black pepper is of course available for the extra punch, but many shops provide toubanjan, the Chinese chili paste, which personally I avoid because it overtakes the original flavor.
Some genius figured out that chopped onions matches iekei soup amazingly well as it brings out a certain sweetness, so I have a load of those every time, given that I am not meeting anyone afterwards. Iekei shops often serve rice for cheap as well, such as 100 yen for all-you-can-eat rice, so toss them into the left-over soup, and you will always leave satisfied.
As Yokohama iekei increases in popularity, new shops are also starting to go beyond the standard. One newer experiment that is becoming more common is shio iekei using salt dashi rather than soy sauce. Another idea some shops are testing with is miso iekei, and for those who enjoy spiciness with their noodles, tantan iekei is slowly becoming a thing as well. While the original flavor is still my favorite at the moment, I am more than glad to be witnessing new and innovative ideas from different ramen shops, because at the end, we will end up with more and more delicious ramen to enjoy.