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Kobi’s Top Picks for Singapore Local Food and Where to Eat Them


(I’ve just updated this old post from 2012)
I‘ve been asked so many times by people about the best local food to try on their upcoming visit to Singapore that I’ve decided to make a post about it, so I don’t have to keep repeating myself. I’m even going to go the extra mile and say specifically where you should eat the top 10 Singapore foods, taking into account how hard it is for a tourist to find certain places. This is not the kind of thing I intended for Kobi’s Kitchen, but since I’m writing it all down, I might as well let everyone see it. It’s a long post, don’t read it for entertainment, save it for when you are going to Singapore.

As an introduction let me say that Singapore is a great destination for travelers who are into discovering exciting new foreign flavours and foods. Originally a small fishing village, modern Singapore was created through a steady influx of immigrants over a century or so under British rule. Unlike most other countries which have a cuisine culture defined by the surrounding local ingredients, Singapore had no preexisting  predominant cooking style. Immigrants from the Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese and Hainanese speaking parts of China, the Southern parts of India, the Middle East and other parts of Malaya brought recipes from their homeland with them and these were adapted to make best use of the wide selection of ingredients brought in by trading ships from far and wide. Besides being modified, recipes were also hybridized. Singapore was a cultural melting pot and new dishes were created by combining the cuisines from its various sub-populations. This explosive culinary evolution of new foods left the small city-state with a disproportionately large cornucopia of uniquely Singaporean dishes.

In no particular order…

1. Pepper Crabcrab-900
Pepper Crab something unique to Singapore. It is made from giant Sri Lankan crabs which aren’t all that common outside the sub-continent. The crab is chopped up and then has its shell cracked before it is wok fried to let flavour penetrate right into the meat, which stays nice and firm. When the Pepper Crab arrives at the table, you will enjoy piping hot chunks of crab thoroughly infused with butter and pepper.

The dish was invented at the Long Beach restaurant and that’s where you should go to eat it. The original restaurant is along the east coast where all the seafood restaurants in Singapore used to congregate but today I think the best outlet to go to is Long Beach@Dempsey. It is a newer branch in Dempsy Hill, a former military base (that I worked in once upon a time ) now converted into a lifestyle district full of restaurants, bars and fine grocery stores. Other dishes to try at Long Beach include the Chili Crab and Australian Lobster in Butter and Crispy Cereal.

2. Bak Chor Mee Noodle Stall
While Asians traditionally serve noodles stir-fried or in soup, Singaporeans have a unique style of eating their noodles tossed in sauce. This is the closest thing in Chinese cuisine to Italian pasta. Bak Chor Mee was originally specific to the Teochew Chinese but has since become a national favourite. Egg noodles are boiled and then tossed with oil, vinegar, mushrooms and minced pork, meat balls and other ingredients. The soup that the noodles originally came in is served separately and you are supposed to drink it by itself. After you order some Bak Chor Mee the whole dish will be cooked on the spot right before your eyes.  You’ll be asked what kind of noodles you like and I recommend the type called mee pok, its like fettuccine. You’ll also be asked if want chili and you have to say yes or it won’t come out nice. If you don’t like spicy food, ask for ‘less chili’. bcm-440‘No chili’ will land you with a yucky children’s version using ketchup.

You can find Bak Chor Mee at the hundreds of locations around Singapore but the place I’d recommend to try it is the food court in the basement of Terminal 3 of Changi Airport. It’s the stall that sells Fishball Noodles. They offer a few different variety of tossed noodles and its the item numbered as 1 (note: for some strange reason it is not the leftmost item on the masthead menu). If it is at all possible, schedule eating this delicacy into your itinerary ahead of time; plan to have it either when you arrive in or when you leave Singapore. If your flight is at a different terminal, just take the free sky train linking all the terminals.

3. Seafood Hor Fun hor-fun-1100
I have to eat this every time I go to Singapore. It is basically flat rice noodles fried under high heat to impart texture and a caramelized flavour and then stir-fried with slices of fish, egg white, pork lard and miscellaneous sauces. It doesn’t sound all that fantastic, but believe me when I say it is. Many cooked food stalls and hotel coffee shops will serve this dish but undisputedly, the best place to try this is Ka-Soh Fish Head Noodle. ‘Ka-Soh’ is Cantonese for what the family matriarch calls her daughter-in-law so everything here is cooked in the traditional way passed down from generation to generation. You would think that best Cantonese food should only be found in Hong Kong, but this is clearly a case of an exception to the rule.

The Ka-Soh restaurant is in the Alumni Medical Centre on the fringes of Singapore General Hospital at 2 College Road, not easy to find or get to if you are a tourist. This is the outlet that was recognized by the 2016 Michelin Guide as a quality restaurant that doesn’t charge an arm and a leg. However I suggest you go to their sister restaurant downtown at 96 Amoy Street, called Swee Kee(Ka-soh). This is actually the older restaurant of the two. You’ll find the walls plastered with the pictures of movie stars and celebrities who have come over from HK to eat there over the years. The other thing to try while you are there is of course is the restaurant’s eponym, the fish head noodle, a milky fish-head broth served with thick vermicelli. I also recommend their fried chicken marinated in prawn paste.

4. Char Kway Teow gkfkt-1000
This is a very, very delicious fried noodle dish that is synonymous with Singapore. Char Kway Teow is also made from Hor Fun but because this dish hails from to a different dialect group (Hokkien), the noodles are called by a different name, Kway Teow. Anyway that is where the similarities end. Char Kway Teow is served dry (i.e. oily), not in a sauce. A combination of flat rice noodles and round egg noodles are fried with soya sauce, egg, cockles, Chinese sausage and bean sprouts to give you a semi-sweet noodle dish to die for.

Char Kway Teow is notoriously hard to fry well and a hundred things can go wrong with it. The quality varies from place to place depending on the cook and ingredients. There are of course many famous Char Kway Teow stalls tucked away deep in suburban housing estates which are difficult to find for non-locals. The place I’d suggest to try is Guan Kee Fried Kway Teow (Char means Fried). Their stall is located in the Ghim Mo Market a few minutes walk from the Buona Vista MRT station. It also happens to be 4 stalls away from the Chicken Rice stall highlighted below in No.8 so you can kill 2 birds with one stone. I would suggest not going at lunch time unless you are prepared to queue for a long time.

5. Islamic Curry
There are many types of curry in cosmopolitan Singapore and one more special type is made by Indian Muslims. One of the oldest, if not the oldest shops serving this type of curry is the Islamic Restaurant at 745 North Bridge Road. This was my dad’s favourite and he used to tell me stories of how the restaurant gave free food to starving Chinese during the Japanese occupation. The restaurant has down-sized somewhat in recent times and sadly, many of the more traditional curries and drinks are no longer served. However, you can still pick your curry visually at the counter instead of ordering from a menu just like in the old days. You should still be able to order a drink called Bandung, which is rose hip syrup in milk. It’s perfect for cancelling the burning effect of chili effect if you are not used to spicy curry. Make sure to order the in-bone mutton leg and also the chili eggs. Forget about Nann, eat your curry with Briyani Rice.

If the restaurant is full, you can also try the equally famous Zam Zam and Victory, both of which are just a few shops down the road.

6. Kaya Toast 
This is a breakfast item, which is eaten also during morning tea break or afternoon tea. Kaya is a Hainanese egg custard made into a jam, a speciality of Singapore. You normally spread it on toast, typically with a slab of butter. Kaya toast is the Singapore equivalent of waffles with maple syrup, so people eat it any time of the day they like.

For the best Kaya Toast I recommend a place called the Killiney Kopitiam. In case you were wondering, it’s not an Irish pub; the shop is named thus because it is located on Killiney Road and has been there since before World War II. If you can’t make the trip to the original shop, Killiney has one kopitiam at each of all three terminals of Changi Airport. Another thing to try at Killiney is the kopi, which is a bitter shop-roasted Robusta Sumatran blend served with sweet condensed milk at the bottom of a glass mug. You stir the cup just enough to attain the sweetness you like. Leave the last mouthful of the coffee and remaining condensed milk at the bottom. A larger rival kaya toast chain to Killiney is Ya Kun. Their are famous for their pandan flavoured Kaya, which is green instead of brown. There’s no need to provide an address as they have over 40 outlets all over town. To find out more about Kaya, you can refer to my post about Kaya.

7. Laksa
Laksa is another of those hybrid Chinese dishes with its roots in a subgroup of Chinese intermarried with Malays, called the Nonya. The Chinese part of Laksa is the noodles and slices of fish cake, and the Malay part of it is the rich coconut curry broth the noodles are cooked in. Laksa has a unique flavour to it because of the addition of Laksa leaves and cockles in the broth. The noodles used in Laksa are very slippery and hard to eat with chopsticks and so an innovation called the Katong Laksa in an area of Singapore called… you guessed it, Katong, came about. It is different from normal Laksa only in that the noodles are chopped up so you can eat it easily with a spoon.

Nowadays there is no need to go all the way to Katong to try this. There is a Katong Laksa stall in the trendy Holland Village and that’s the one I usually go to. Its not in the Holland Village Market Food Centre at Lorong Mambong but in a row of shop houses at 31 Lorong Liput. Look for a sign that says 363 Katong Laksa. If you really want to try the original shop (and again this one will be plastered with the photos of movie stars eating their laksa) its at the corner of Ceylon Road and East Coast Road. In either case, don’t forget to ask to add ‘otak’ to your laksa. It is a special kind of fish cake BBQed in banana leaves.

8. Hainan Chicken Rice  tff-1000
This is a dish that is also universally associated with Singapore, in spite of the fact that it is called Hainan Chicken Rice. In the old days, one group of migrants from China came from the island of Hainan and they were known for their cooking (and laundry) skills. One of the dishes they invented or modified from their hometown recipes, I’m not too sure which it is, was the Chicken Rice. I won’t go into the details of cooking it but the chicken is simmered briefly in stock and then cooled immediately in cold water. Some of the stock together with garlic, pandan leaves is used to cook the rice component. The entire dish is eaten with a fixed set of sauces and condiments without which it is still not Hainan Chicken Rice.

Tourists are often directed to the Mandarin Hotel for chicken rice but it is mega expensive and its Chicken Rice is pretty average. The best chicken rice is made by Tong Fong Fatt. Besides having the most tender and succulent chicken, it differentiates itself by selling its chicken deboned and drenched in a special tasty marinade. Their stall is at the Ghim Mo Market a few minutes walk from the Buona Vista MRT station, the same food centre where you can find the Char Kway Teow stall mentioned in No.4 above. If you want to have Chicken Rice comfortably in a proper restaurant, then may I suggest Boon Tong Kee at 399 Balestier Road. This restaurant is open late into the night. If you have enough people, you can order a whole chicken. There are several other outlets besides this original shop, including one in River Valley Road.

9. Dai Pau 
Dai’ means big in Cantonese and a ‘Pau’ is a Chinese steamed bun filled. The Dai Pau can be made with savoury chicken or pork filling and will contain a chunk of a boiled egg as well. Dai Pau is dying out in Hong Kong although it is still served in a few banquet restaurants. The Singapore version on the other hand is sold everywhere (even convenience stores and gas stations). Reason: Hong Kong Dai Pau are 70% bun and 30% filling, Singapore Dai Pau are the opposite, 70% filling and 30% bun. Its thinner skin has given the Singapore Dai Pau enduring appeal to young and old alike. You will find the meat filling delightfully juicy, tender and flavoured with various herbs and spices, and slightly sweet. As the name implies, it is large compared to other types of steamed buns like the more common charsiew pau.

For the best Dai Pau, I recommend Teck Kee Tanglin Pau, a trusted name that has been in business since 1948. They make the variety of dai pau associated with the Tanglin district, which is the agglomeration of all the residential areas that rich people have their homes past and present. At Teck Kee, you can also find many near extinct dim sum like the Coconut Tart. You can also try the Fan Choy (ask for 2 Siew Mai to go with it). They have a shop at 83 Killiney Road (pictured) near where the original Koek Road shop used to be and a second one at 180 Bukit Timah Road if you happen to be going to the Newton Food Centre.

A famous rival to the Tanglin Dai Pau is the Tiong Bharu Dai Pau. The Tanglin Pau uses a light colour filling but the Tiong Bharu versions are made with a dark filling (i.e. dark soya sauce marinated). That’s how you can most easily tell the two apart. These can be found in, you guessed it, the Tiong Bharu area. I usually patronize the Tiong Bahru Pau & Snacks at 237 Outram Road (pictured) but I understand there is also a popular store selling the Dai Pau at the nearby Tiong Bharu Market Food Centre on Seng Poh Road.

10. Bak Chang
This is a rice dumpling normally eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival by Chinese across the globe but in Singapore they are available all year round. An assortment of goodies (depending on which part of China the original recipe is from) are packed into a pyramid of glutinous rice, wrapped in bamboo leaves and then steamed.

The store I’d like to recommend is called Hoo Kee Rice Dumpling and it can be found at the Amoy Street Food Centre #01-18, within walking distance from the Seafood Hor Fun shop mention in No.3. Choose the variety of dumplings that are stuffed with pork, chestnuts and salted egg yolk, they are simply the best. Get there before lunch time for they are often sold out before the lunch hour is over. Another famous place for Bak Chang is Eastern Rice Dumpling at 300 Balestier Road. This is reasonably near the Boon Tong Kee Chicken Rice mentioned in No.8. They have a variety of nice dumplings but one I’d like to highlight is the Nonya Bak Chang. The Nonya are early Chinese settlers of the Malay British Straits Settlements who studied in English schools and adopted many of the local Malay cooking practices. Nonya Bak Chang is therefore quite unique, nothing like any traditional Chinese varieties; as its filling expect a mixture of pork belly, mushroom and candied winter melon flavoured with five spice and pepper. They are traditionally wrapped in pandan instead of bamboo leaves.

Three Bonus Snacks (I know that makes it 13 actually)

A. Old Chang Kee Chicken WingsWings
Old Chang Kee was a famous stall selling curry puffs next to Rex Cinema in the 1950s which has grown to become a large chain of fast food outlets selling curry puffs. The Old Chang Kee Wings are HUGE and more importantly they are the best fried chicken wings in the world, something to do with the secret marinade they use on the chicken and/or the batter. There are outlets are in many shopping malls so there’s no point singling out one for you. As a local I patronize the outlet at the Barker Road Caltex petrol station next to ACS (where I went to school) and when the lady asks how many wings do you want? The reply is usually “all of them”. OK, while you buying the wings don’t forget to try the curry puffs as well. They are quite nice or Old Chang Kee would not have thrived all these years, plus it is somewhat unique to Singapore. The original puff is called the Curry-O and you should try that first and then if your stomach still has any space left you can think about the other flavours.

B. Cold Ching Teng
Its pronounced Ching Terng and it means clear soup which is a misnomer because it is not a soup, and neither is it clear. Ching Teng was originally a hot long-an(a fruit) soup back in the old days in China but in Singapore it had evolved into a cold dessert served with shaved ice. There are bits and pieces of all kinds of things in it like pearl barley, dried persimmon, ginko nuts, lotus seeds and of course rehydrated dried long-an. It’s perfect for quenching the thirst on a hot day (basically every other day in Singapore) or as a dessert after eating curry or food with chili. One famous place serving this is Shan Ren Cold and Hot Dessert at the Newton Food Center, its stall no. 88. There’ll be dozens of other desserts pictured on the store front so you can try a few other desserts while you are there. If you like something with more shaved ice, try Ice Kachang, another Singaporean specialty.

C. Bak Kwa
Bak Kwa is the local name for barbecued pork jerky. Unlike western beef jerky, Bak Kwa is not tough. The meat is vacuum treated to tenderize it and then it is barbecued with sugar and spices and all things nice. The leading brand Bee Cheng Hiang has shops everywhere so you no longer have to go to Chinatown to buy it. Check their website for a convenient location. I recommend the Golden Coin or Minced Pork type Bak Kwa if you like a really tender piece of jerky. They also sell pork floss if you are into something drier.

Other Contenders for the Top 10
Many of these are just as good but I didn’t want my list to expand to a top 20 list, its already long enough. Try them, especially if you are on an extended visit.

    1. Fried Carrot Cake
    2. Hokkien Prawn Noodles
    3. Chinese Pork Satay
    4. Oyster Omelette
    5. London Duck (Four Seasons Restaurant at Capitol)
    6. Ngoh Hiang
    7. Poh Piah
    8. Roti Prata
    9. Kweh Lapis
    10. Pineapple Tarts
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What is Kaiseki Ryori?


KaisekiKaiseki Ryori is the Japanese version of Haute Cuisine, the ultimate in Japanese fine dining. If I were to summarize this type of cuisine in a few words, it would be: many courses, seasonal ingredients, no replication. Everyone who tries a Kaiseki Dinner for the first time will invariably find it to be an exquisite dining experience.

Where is it served?
You can order a Kaiseki set-meal in many up-market Japanese restaurants but these generally pale in comparison to those served in restaurants that specialize in Kaiseki Ryori specifically. It’s easy to tell if a restaurant is serving true Kaiseki Ryori, they won’t be open for business during lunch as they’ll be preparing dinner the whole day long.
Kaiseki Ryori is also served in Ryokan, old-style inns dotted around hot spring areas in Japan. This rural variety of Kaiseki will typically use only traditional cooking techniques and focus on produce from nearby farm areas. For the purposes of this post, I will be referring more to the urban variety of Kaiseki Ryori, the type which can be found in major cities outside of Japan.

Meaning of Kaiseki Ryori
The meaning of Ryori is ‘cuisine, so its quite a straightforward translation, but Kaiseki is a term bit harder to explain. Loosely translated it means ‘stone in bosom’, a figurative reference to monks putting warm stones in the portion of their robes next to the stomach to ward off hunger. Why anyone would want to associate a sumptuous meal with starvation is rather perplexing, but then again many Japanese concepts are like that.

Dining Atmosphere
A quiet tranquil environment is a tradition for Kaiseki dining and in fact I have been to many restaurants where each table has its own room. Furniture and decorations are typically solemn and spares, but tasteful. I think its to do with the fact that Kaiseki Ryori at one time was associated with the formal tea ceremony. Probably for the same reason, patrons are normally served an expresso-like cup of thick green tea at the end of the meal. The restaurant may sometimes have its own Japanese garden which guests are welcome to explore.

Set Menu
A top-notch Kaiseki meal comes in many courses, usually about 8-10. You do not get to choose anything although if you tell the waiter what foods you are allergic to, some emergency alternative ingredients will be rustled up for you. Seafood is favoured and sometimes the whole meal will not contain any chicken or pork at all, as they are ‘lesser’ meats. Each of the courses is small, so it is quite like the tasting menu in fine French restaurants, except you won’t be able to order the ‘full’ portion of anything. This is a good idea. The cooks won’t be distracted by haphazard a la carte orders. Having the entire kitchen staff focused exclusively on the same few dishes for the night goes a long way to ensuring a quality meal for eveyone.

Culinary Art
Each course will typically comprise a few distinct components. For example if one of the courses is charcoal grilled beef, the meat will only be like a third of the dish. You won’t get a slab of steak with some sauce. Visual appearance is important and in each course the multiple components will be of contrasting shapes and colours. Unlike at high end Western restaurants which use a fixed set of signature tableware, for Kaiseki Ryori the plates, cups and bowls for each course will be in different colours and designs, to better match the food. Be aware, sometimes courses will be served with items which ‘complete the ‘picture’ but are actually inedible, like stones, flowers and leaves; although I particularly remember this one time in Nagasaki we were served stones which turned out to be edible giant beans glazed to look exactly like black river stones.

Pick of the Season
Only the freshest and choicest produce of the season will be used. For example, Sansai(mountain vegetables) are in season in the spring while Nasu(egg plant) is in season in autumn. In the summer Unagi(eel) is preferred, but in winter Fugu(puffer fish) is popular. Sometimes a dish item belongs to a particular season only because of the prevailing outdoor temperature, for example Oden (fish cake and tofu simmered in soy flavoured dashi) is ‘in season’ in winter because it warms you up. This focus on seasons is a nice touch but it also means the menu is not adjusted frequently, and if you revisit a restaurant too soon, chances are you will be served almost exactly the same meal.

No Duplication of Ingredients
One other feature of Kaiseki Ryori: there is no duplication in ingredients across all the courses. If even a bit of beef appears in one course, it won’t appear again in another. Fish is an exception. Different species of fish are not considered duplication, so different types of fish may be served during the dinner. High end Western elements such as caviar and truffles are slowly finding their way into the kaiseki kitchen, especially in the more urban areas, so don’t be surprised if you find some western produce being mentioned in your Kaiseki menu.

No Replication of Cooking Styles
There is also no duplication in cooking methods across all the courses. This ensures that the diner will continue to experience ‘new’ tastes and textures throughout the meal. How can this be possible for up to 10 courses you may ask? The answer is: Japanese cuisine has more cooking styles than any other. Besides being served a salad and soup there would also typically be a savoury custard. For the remaining courses there are literally dozens of Japanese cuisines to choose from, like: Sushi, Sashimi, Siero(box-steamed), Sukiyaki(soya-parboiled), Shabushabu(dashi-parboiled) and Sunomono(vinegar-simmered). Actually I’ve only named some cooking styles starting with S here. If we were to look at those starting with T, you’d have Tempura(batter deep fried), Tonkatsu(breaded deep fried), Teppanyaki(griddle fried), Teriyaki(sauce-grilled). You get the idea.

Example of Kaiseki Ryori
For reference, Here I’ll post the courses I had at a recent Kaiseki Dinner. It was quite a modern version of Kaiseki Ryori, from an esteemed restaurant called Ryu Gin:

  • 1. Salad of seven seasonal vegetables in a
    special pine nut dressing
    RG1
  • 2. Hot egg custard topped with bean curd skin
    and sea urchin
    RG2
  • 3. Simmered abalone, seaweed-crusted scallop
    and slow-cooked blue lobster
    RG3
  • 4. Grade A dashi soup with charcoal grilled
    alfonsino fish and matsutake mushrooms
    RG4
  • 5. Assortment of mackerel-themed sashimi
    RG5
  • 6. Charcoal grilled tile fish served with its crispy scales
    RG6
  • 7. A3 Saga beef served sukiyaki style, with black truffle
    RG7
  • 8. Matsuba crab served with Shiitake mushroom
    rice, topped with crab miso
    RG8
  • 9. -196℃ candy pear served with +99℃ pear jam
    RG9
  • 10. Green tea fondant with pumpkin seed ice cream
    RG10
 
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Posted by on January 15, 2014 in Japanese, Uncategorized

 

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Types of Ramen, Styles of Ramen


Types of Ramen: The Perfect RamenRamen is a noodle in soup dish which originally made its way from China into Japan when the country reopened its borders during the Meiji Restoration. The dish was refined and improved to such an extent over the past century that it has all but overshadowed its original Chinese cousins on the world stage. The world of Ramen is pretty complicated and this post will systematically categorize the different styles of Ramen that are common in Japan along with their various soup flavours, broth types, accompanying meats and toppings. It doesn’t teach you how to cook Ramen, but you’ll know how to order different types of Ramen at a restaurant or recognize the various types at the supermarket.

The word ‘Ra’ means pulled (into) while ‘Men’ means noodles. That’s how the noodles were made in the old days, a single lump of dough was manually stretched and folded in half dozens of times til it formed a bunch of thin noodles. The noodles are machine made today but the dough is still made from the same basic ingredients: flour, salt, normal water and an alkaline mineral water called kansui. It is the kansui which give Ramen noodles their unique bounce and taste and it also makes them yellow even though they contain no egg. As raw ramen noodles are alkaline and have some flour dusted on them, they have to be boiled separately from the soup. If you would like to try making your own ramen noodles from spaghetti I have a recipe here.

Ramen noodles come in many different varieties but they essentially belong to one of two types, low or high alkaline. The low alkaline noodles are thin and straight. They have a stronger taste of wheat, and have a heavier texture. They also tend to get soggy faster. The high alkaline variety are a brighter yellow colour, have a lighter feel and are more springy. They also add a layer of flavour as they have a taste of their own. Wavy ramen and thick ramen noodles belong to this second category. 

There is lots of debate over which type of noodles go best with which kind of soup and many say thin soups should go with the thin noodles cause they have higher surface area etc. , but you needn’t worry too much about this, the Ramen shop will typically pair the noodles with the soup for you and you rarely get to choose. There is a tradition in some shops to allow you to add extra noodles halfway while eating (called kaedama) but I recommend against this as the soup is not really hot enough by this time. Some others allow you to add rice to the left over soup, this I think is the better idea. 

Broths Ramen
Basic ramen broth does not have too many ingredients. It is usually made from pork bones, chicken bones or a combination of the two. In certain recipes dashi, which is a consommé made from Bonito(dried salted tuna) flakes or Niboshi(dried salted anchovy) is simmered with Konbu(a kind of kelp) and blended into the meat broth to create a purer clear broth. Fresh seafood may be used occasionally in certain regional varieties, but usually not beef and probably never mutton.

Flavour Types
For Ramen, broth and flavour are distinct and separate. This is one of the unique things about Ramen. Think of it as: broth + flavouring = soup.  A Ramen is usually defined by its flavour which affects its final taste. There are 4 primary types of Ramen soup flavours: Shio, Shoyu, Miso and Tonkotsu.

  • Shio (She-Oh)
    means salt and this is traditionally the way Ramen soup is flavoured. All Western broths would be considered of the Shio type. The salt doesn’t affect the appearance of the broth and therefore Shio soup tends to light coloured and clear. Shio flavoured soup will tend to be a tad saltier than the other types.
  • Shoyu (Show-You)
    means soy sauce and this is next oldest flavour type. Instead of salt, a sauce made by fermenting soya beans is used to make the broth salty. This sauce is not your regular table soya sauce, but typically a special sauce with additional ingredients made according to a secret recipe. The broth for Shoyu is the only type that tends not to contain pork. Shoyu soup is also usually clear, but is dark coloured and sweeter than Shio soup.
  • Miso (Me-So)
    In more recent times, Miso paste has also been used to give Ramen broth its savoury taste. If Miso is used, it is immediately obvious as the soup will be opaque. Shio or Shoyu  flavoured soups merely accent the flavour of underlying broth, while miso leaves a fuller complex taste in the mouth since it also has a strong taste of its own.
  • Tonkotsu (Tong-Coats-Zoo)
    is technically not a true flavour since it is contains either salt or soy sauce. It is made from boiling ground up pork bones (ton=pig, kotsu = bones) for 12-15 hours till all the collagen has dissolved into the stock as gelatine (details here). The result is a rich whitish soup that is distinct enough to consider Tonkotsu as a separate fourth flavour of Ramen. To be clear, the use of pork bones does not automatically mean the soup is of the Tonkotsu type. If the pork bones are boiled whole for a relatively shorter period, the result is just regular pork broth.

Meat IngredientsRamen Components
The most common type of meat served in Ramen is Chashu which is another type of food borrowed from China and subsequently modified over decades. It is basically a pork belly tied into a cylinder, braised and then served in slices. What the pork is braised in differs from recipe to recipe but general ingredients include soya sauce, sake, mirin and sugar. In my humble opinion, the Chashu is the hardest part to get right in a Ramen. Chashu often goes hand in hand with Shoyu Ramen since the braising liquid can form part of the ‘shoyu’. Sometimes the pork belly is braised in its original shape but also sliced. You can refer to my own oven braised Chashu recipe here.

Another item that one finds in their Ramen more often than not is Ajitama, a soya sauce seasoned boiled egg with its yolk still runny. The Chashu braising liquid also comes in handy when seasoning these eggs. Ramen can also be served with fresh seafood, Kamaboko(a bouncy fish cake with a characteristic pink swirl) or with no meat at all. Unlike for soba or udon soup noodles, slices of beef are rarely served with Ramen, although new age Wagyu Ramen has been making an appearance lately.

Toppings and Condiments
Whilst the number of possible ingredients used for Ramen broth is quite limited, a large variety of ingredients are used as toppings to differentiate one Ramen from another. The more common toppings include Nori (a type of seaweed paper), Wakame (a type of rehydrated seaweed), Menma (preserved bamboo shoots), Negi (scallion), Kikurage (black fungus), juliened leek, sesame seeds, fried garlic and pickled plum/ginger.  A lot of Ramen shops will also top off with a proprietary spicy sauce or a ball of spicy miso to give a kick to the soup. This way customers can chose how spicy they have their Ramen is.

Regional Styles
The way Ramen is cooked has more or less evolved over the past century along geographical lines. Tonkotsu is the primary flavour of Kyushu Island in the South while Miso is generally associated with Hokkaido Island in the North. The central island of Honshu is home to the Shoyu flavour. Even within these demarcations, local variations have sprung up and are known by their city or prefecture of origin. Many of these variations feature local produce that is famous nationally. The following is a list of the main varieties (that I have come across anyway) of Ramen.

Tokyo Ramen

Tokyo style Shoyu Ramen

  • Tokyo style Ramen
    Tokyo style Ramen is the archetypical Shoyu flavoured Ramen. Many Ramen stalls originally served soba in a dashi soup and when the use of Shoyu was introduced, the practice of using dashi was retained. Today chicken stock and shoyu is mixed with dashi to produce the unique Tokyo style Ramen. Tokyo Ramen is usually served with Chashu, Kamaboko, half an Egg, and is topped with chopped leek and preserved bamboo shoots. In Yokohama, the port of Tokyo, pork is used instead of chicken for the broth resulting in the iekei sub-variation.
  • Asahikawa style Ramen
    This is a less well know shoyu type ramen that is distinguished by its combination of seafood and pork into an oily stock. Like all ramen from Hokkaido, it is designed with cold weather in mind. Asahikawa ramen uses roughly the same toppings as shoyu ramen from Tokyo (see above).
  • Champon from Nagasaki
    Champon is a specialty of Nagasaki which was invented by a Chinese cook as a Meiji era equivalent of affordable fast food, for the Chinese students who were studying there. It is the most Chinois of all Ramen and today Champon is served at every restaurant in Nagasaki’s Chinatown  The home of Champon is said to be the famous Shikairo in Nagasaki. Champon is practically the only ramen from Kyushu which does not use a Tonkotsu soup. Unlike all other ramen, Champon uses special noodles that are cooked in the soup itself. This ramen is served with a stir fried mix of pork, seafood and cabbage.
  • Hakodate style Ramen
    As all ramen was originally Shio flavoured, Shio ramen wasn’t invented in any particular place. However, when one mentions Shio ramen, a bowl of Hakodate style Ramen comes to mind immediately. Hakodate is where the tradition of making ramen soup flavoured with salt has remained unchanged even as new flavours and styles were introduced all over Japan. Hakodate style ramen is usually made with chicken broth resulting in a golden coloured soup. Very often Hakodate Ramen comes with chicken meatballs.
  • Hakata style Ramen
    Tonkotsu type ramen originated on the warmer Southern island of Kyushu where most of Japan’s pig farming is done. Hakata is a district in Fukuoka City, the biggest city on Kyushu and the style of ramen from there is universally recognized as the standard version of tonkotsu. Hakata Ramen is usually topped with Chashu, egg, scallion, sesame seeds and pickled ginger.
  • Kurume style Ramen
    A close cousin of Hakata Ramen is Kurume(Koo-Roo-Mare) Ramen. This is thought of as the original way Tonkotsu was made before it was modernized into the Hakata style. Its soup is similar but even richer in pork taste (from adding pig’s head, trotters etc. to the broth). The noodles of this variety come topped with fried pig lard bits and dried seaweed.
  • Kumamoto style Ramen
    Kumamoto prefecture is in the middle of Kyushu and its style of ramen is yet another variation of the Tonkotsu type. It is served with stewed pork belly, and a generous amount of fried garlic together with the oil the garlic was fried in. Toppings include pickled ginger and julienned leek.
  • Kagoshima style Ramen
    Kagoshima is a port at the Southern tip of Kyush. Here the soup is lighter as it is made from a mixture of pork tonkotsu and clear chicken broth. Kagoshima is home to Kurobuta pork, which makes their chashu all the more delicious. Other types of noodles, similar to those from ‘nearby’ Okinawa or Taiwan are sometimes served in place of regular ramen noodles.
  • Kitakata style Ramen
    This style of Ramen has a unique shoyu flavoured soup made from pork broth mixed with dashi made from dried anchovies. It hails from the city of Kitakata in Northern Honshu which purportedly has the highest concentration of Ramen shops in the world. Kitakata style Ramen features flat noodles and is typically served with sliced pork belly, leek and fish cake.
  • Sapporo style Ramen 

    The Sapporo Ramen Story

    The city of Sapporo is in the Northern Island of Hokkaido and it is the bastion of Miso flavoured Ramen. The first use of miso in Ramen soup was by chef Omiya of Aji no Sanpei (the shop is still operating today) in Sapporo in 1954. Chicken or pork bones are used for the broth and when combined with red Miso paste makes for a rich soup, perfect for the cold weather up North. Hokkaido is home to the big vegetable and dairy farms of Japan as well as several fishing ports. Today the inclusion of the top natural produce of Hokkaido in the toppings (butter, corn, leek, roasted scallops) and soup (seafood) in Sapporo
    style ramen has become common practice.

    Wakayama Ramen

    Wakayama Ramen with Pork Ribs

  • Tokushima / Wakayama style Ramen
    Tokushima style Ramen is the most popular style of Ramen on Shikoku Island, the smallest of the 4 main islands. It uses a combination tonkutsu-shoyu soup which is deep brown in colour. This ramen is served with a raw egg instead of an almost-cooked one. The other special thing is it is served with baraniku, a kind of stewed pork rib. A sub-variation of the Tokushima style is Wakayama style Ramen. Wakayama is on the main island of Honshu, just across the inland sea from Tokushima which is probably why Wakayama Ramen can be described as a Tokyo style Ramen served in Tokushima soup. For instance it will be served with a boiled runny-yolk egg instead of a raw one.
tsukemen-1200

Tsukemen with Pork Neck

Tsukemen
This is a form of ramen where the noodles comes dry in a plate. The stock is concentrated into a thick soup and is served separately. The idea is to bathe each mouthful of noodles in the sauce before immediately eating them, which is why Tsukemen is usually translated as Dipping Ramen. There is no traditional flavour to the soup, and this just depends on what soup the ramen shop specializes in. The are two reason certain people prefer tsukemen; firstly the flavour is quite intense (but not more salty) compared to normal ramen and secondly the noodles are sort of lukewarm instead of piping hot when you eat them, so you can eat this really fast.

Ebi Ramen

Prawn Ramen

Special Ramen Styles
This last category of Ramen covers those noodles served in non-traditional soups and thus don’t fall under any of the regional styles above. One popular variety is the Ebi Ramen, where a meat stock is fortified with prawn heads, giving it it’s characteristic reddish hue. This prawn soup is unlike any other kind of ramen soup you have ever tasted. Besides the standard condiments Ebi Ramen is also topped off with some unusual ones like deep-fried shallots and sakura shrimp. One famous shop known for this type of Ramen is EbiKin; it is located just outside the (old, not sure if the market has moved yet) Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. If you would like to try making this style of ramen, I have a recipe here.

Chicken Ramen

Torikotsu Ramen

The other type of nouveau ramen I really like is Torikotsu Ramen. The stock of this type of ramen is made in a way similar to Tonkotsu but using chicken instead. After a long boiling time the resulting soup is similarly milky, heavy with gelatine and strong in meat flavour. This distinguishes it from the Hakodate style soup which is also made from chicken, but is clear. Torikotsu is typically topped with things like fried shallots, cabbage, scallion and perhaps a wedge of lemon. In some cases even the accompanying Chashu can be made from chicken as well. To try this type of less-common ramen, may I suggest a small Ramen chain in the Yokohama area called Matsuichiya. If you would like to try making this style of ramen, I have a recipe here.

 

Quality Ramen

Quality Ramen Pack

Supermarket bought Ramen
In this final section I am going to discuss home-cooked Ramen. Quality ramen from the supermarket normally comes in rectangular 2 serving packs. If they are available, they will be found in the refrigerated (not frozen) section. The packing will generally indicate the style (e.g. tonkotsu on the yellow pack) of the ramen. If its a really good product, there will be a picture of a famous Ramen chef whose recipe the product is based on. The noodles are soft, sealed seperately within and the instructions will tell you to cook them separately from the soup. The soup will come in the form of a large pouch containing a condensed soup paste. You’ll need to procure all the meat ingredients and condiments yourself separately, resulting in an authentic ramen. If you don’t have any chashu lying around the house, try pan-fried luncheon meat (please do not quote me on this) and perhaps some seasoned runny yolk boiled eggs made according to my recipe. The easiest condiments to use are perhaps Japanese dehydrated kelp, dried seaweed sheets and sesame seeds. You can pre-combine some as described here.

Soba stick ‘Ramen’

A second type of noodles is the off-the-shelf ramen-style soba stick noodles. Technically buckwheat soba noodles means this is not a true ramen but the soup pack that comes with with them is a concentrated form of a recognized ramen soup. These stick noodles also come in dual servings. The packaging will be flat and long, and typically indicate the regional style (Kumamoto, Kagoshima, Nagasaki from left to right in photo) of the soup, often with a map even. It’s not as good as the quality ramen above but on the plus side, they keep for a long time and don’t need to be refrigerated.

If your pack of noodles is the type where you just boil a hard cake of noodles in water or fill a paper cup with boiling water and add some soup powder after the fact, this isn’t ramen at all; its only regular instant noodles. If the noodles are cooked in the soup and not separately, this is a dead giveaway that you’re not making ramen. Besides being hard to the touch, the other tell-tale difference is these inferior noodles are always made with 1 serving. These instant noodles are dried by deep frying them in oil and the soup powder contains a heavy dose of MSG so this type of noodles is not too healthy. The packaging will neither give a ramen flavour nor style, but will be described by the meat (e.g. chicken, seafood) used to manufacture the soup powder.

 

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Zoom Feature Enabled


Its been hard work reposting all the pictures but you can now zoom in on the food photos if you like, just by clicking them. When you do zoom, they look like this.

 
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Posted by on December 1, 2009 in Uncategorized

 
 
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