Ramen is synonymous with Japan, but it is commonly thought to have come from China sometime during the Meiji period. The term “ramen” is supposedly the Japanese pronunciation for the Chinese word for pulled noodles, lamian. Additionally, an alternative term for ramen is chuka soba, literally “Chinese noodles.” However, food historians dispute whether there was ever any direct connection between the two. As anyone who has had both ramen and lamian can tell you, the types of noodle dishes are very different.
Even if they are unrelated, I thought it would be interesting to compare the original Chinese “ramen” with the Japanese version that has taken the world by storm. But in a country as obsessed with noodles as Japan, I could not find any restaurants that served fresh, hand-pulled, reasonably authentic lamian.
That is, until now.
A friend told me about a Chinese restaurant in Akasaka called Beijing that makes the renowned Lanzhou-style lamian by hand.
Inside the restaurant, you can watch the chef make lamian noodles from scratch through a large window. He takes a piece of dough and repeatedly folds and stretches it out at full arm’ length, periodically slamming the dough onto the counter with a loud whack!. He does this over and over until he produces many strands of long noodle, at which point he dumps it into boiling water to be cooked.
How authentic is their lamian? A couple of friends who had lived in China said it was pretty close to the real deal. The noodles are of the right thickness and chewiness — they look similar to Japanese udon, but are more translucent and have a different firmness and chewiness to them. The beef-based broth is great (mutton broth is also used in China), though my friends prefer to add more spicy chili sauce and/or vinegar to their soup. However, the restaurant goes a bit light on the cilantro (they apparently dump a ton of it into the broth in China) and adds small pieces of deep fried tofu, which you don’t find in the stuff on the mainland.
Overall, it’s delicious and satisfying bowl of noodles. The portions are very generous. I tend to have a big appetite and a single bowl of lamian at Beijing is enough to fill me up. Definitely come hungry.
Of course, comparing lamian to ramen really is comparing apples with oranges. The closest thing to lamian noodles I have seen in Japan is Tsumugi’s udon-like ramen, but even then Tsumugi’s noodles are softer and have different chewiness. Ramen in beef-based broth is rare in Japan with the exception of places like Matador, though the flavor of the soup is quite different from what you find at Beijing.
Whether you like lamian or ramen better comes down to personal taste. A couple of friends liked the lamian at Beijing, but prefer the creamy broth and fixings of a bowl of tonkotsu ramen. I can’t argue with them, though I enjoy eating both on their own terms.
Regardless, the lamian at Beijing is worth a try if you’re looking for a good, reasonably authentic bowl of handmade Chinese noodles as a change of pace from the ubiquitous Japanese ramen. Besides the Akasaka location, there is a branch of the restaurant in Kabukicho in Shinjuku.Beijing Locations: Akasaka: RITZ Building 1F, 2-14-11 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo; Kabukicho: 2-45-2 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Business Hours: Akasaka: 11:00am-midnight daily; Kabukicho: 11:30am-6:00am daily
Getting there: Akasaka: Take the Tokyo Metro to Tameike Sanno Station (Ginza line) or Akasaka station (Chiyoda line). Kabukicho: Closest station is Seibushinjuku station on the Seibu line. Also reachable from Shinjuku station (various lines).