Tonchin Tokyo: The real ramen experience
KUALA LUMPUR, May 16 — Does one need to have ramen in Japan to enjoy it? With the number of ramen shops sprouting all over the Klang Valley, the answer seems to be an obvious “No”. However, from attempting to decipher menu choices in Japanese to slurping noodles noisily (even as your fellow diners are busily slurping theirs), there’s nothing quite like having a bowl of ramen in its country of origin.
While a number of other establishments such as pub-style izakayas and karaoke bars offer ramen, these places operate more as drinking or entertainment spots. For the best ramen, there’s nothing quite like heading to a proper ramen-ya restaurant or ramen shop, where they make up for the lack of variety in the menu with a laser-like focus on their main offering.
My favourite ramen shop, Tonchin Tokyo Tonkotu Noodles, lies hidden in a maze of manic side-streets — welcome to Ikebukuro, where the city never sleeps. Home to a sizeable Chinese immigrant population, Ikebukuro is also a nightlife hub as well as an infamous yakuza haunt, which makes ramen shops like Tonchin a natural hit with its hungry denizens at all hours.
For a shorter wait (as the queues can get quite long), drop by during off-peak hours if possible. If you do come during the busier periods, don’t worry as your fellow diners will wait patiently with you while the ramen shop assistant arranges everyone in orderly lines around the bar.
It’s a good opportunity to watch a typical Japanese scene unfold before your eyes as hungry salarymen and teenage schoolgirls slurp their ramen in unison. For more colourful characters, you may want to hit the ramen shop after midnight (it opens till 4am) when the local nightlife are out in full — from messenger boys to escorts in high heels (with their pimps in tow). Whether one is a yakuza henchman or a cash-heavy tourist from Shanghai, good ramen is good ramen. And Tonchin’s is regarded as one of the best.
One of the reasons for this reputation in a land where there’s a ramen shop around every corner is its successful balance of the elements that make up a good bowl of ramen. Tonchin pairs its slightly thin and curly noodles typical of Tokyo ramen with a tonkotsu (pork bone) broth more commonly affiliated with the Hakata region.
While Tonchin’s version retains much of the richness and milky feel of a traditional tonkotsu broth, it avoids the cloying heaviness and overly-strong “porky” flavour with the addition of chicken and vegetable stock to its recipe. Tying all these different flavours together into a balanced whole is a base of shoyu (soy sauce), which gives the final soup a salty kick.
The generous drops of floating abura (flavourful fat from slowly boiling the pork bones into stock for over 12 hours) are a testament to the effort put into every bowl. Some ramen shops opt for straining out the fat for a cleaner-looking result but I’m glad Tonchin’s not one of them — what a waste of carefully-crafted flavour!
Ordering your bowl of ramen doesn’t have to be a struggle despite not knowing the language. Like most ramen shops, Tonchin has a ticket vending machine at the entrance. While the options come only in Japanese, it’s easy to make out what you want via the pictures on each button — be it different types of ramen or topping.
After passing your ticket to the ramen shop assistant, you’ll either be directed to a seat if it’s available or asked to join other customers standing behind those who are already tucking in. In Malaysia, if someone was standing behind your table as you are having your meal, chances are you won’t enjoy it; in Japan, this is perfectly acceptable in a small eatery like this.
Now comes the best part of the ramen experience (besides the actual eating, that is): watching the ramen chefs prepare your ramen in front of you. The open kitchen design allows customers to observe every step of the process. This includes a full view of the ramen chefs, from the trademark bandanas covering their hair to the large white galoshes everyone wears (there’s a reason for this, which I’ll explain).
The entire kitchen runs like clockwork — from the moment the order is taken, it will be added to a queue of tickets waiting to be filled. Once a fresh seat becomes available, the ramen chef throws the order of noodles into the boiling water even as the shop assistant cleans the countertop space and fills a small glass with iced water (absolutely necessary to cut through the saltiness of the soup).
When the noodles are done to the required hardness, they are scooped up from the pot and any excess water shaken off onto the kitchen floor (hence the need for giant galoshes), added to the waiting bowl with some broth and served piping hot.
Tonchin’s noodles are made in-house, what is known as jika seimen. Theirs have more of a bite and a fresher flavour than factory-made noodles. Besides the standard topping of nori (dried seaweed), hanjyuku tamago (seasoned soft-boiled egg) and chashu (slices of roast pork), extra kick is provided by a generous sprinkling of green scallions and spicy menma (fermented bamboo shoots).
Additional condiments of garlic and chilli oil (not one, but two types) are available. You don’t really need them though; what’s served before you is really perfect as it is. All that is left to do now is to dig into your bowl of ramen. Shut out the rest of the world and all its troubles, leaving only the sound of noodles being slurped and enjoyed.
And once you’re done, down to the last drop of delicious broth, it’s time to head out and let others have your seat. Before doing so though, consider showing your appreciation to the ramen chefs by saying “Gochisosama deshita” (the traditional Japanese offering of thanks for a good meal). You might not pronounce it correctly but the smiles on the faces of the chefs will tell you that they got it.
1st Floor, 2-26-2, Minami-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo. Open daily 11am to 4am. (+81 3 3987 8556) Directions: A three-minute walk from Ikebukuro Station, Seibu east exit.
* Kenny is addicted to ramen. His dream is to visit every ramen shop in Japan. Read more of his musings on food, travel and life at Life for Beginners.