Tonkotsu ramen is arguably the most popular style of ramen in Japan. From mass market chains like Ippudo and Ichiran, to smaller and more local ones like Ikaruga, there are countless shops competing to feed the nation-wide addiction to thin noodles in creamy pork bone broth.
One well-known chain of tonkotsu ramen shops in Tokyo is Kyushu Jangara Ramen (九州じゃんがら). Perhaps the most popular branch of Jangara in Tokyo is in Harajuku, just down the street from Meiji Shrine. There always seems to be a line coming out of the place on weekends.
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 few weeks ago, Tokyo was hit with its worst snowstorm in about 20 years. Depending on how you look at it, it was either a bad time to go out for dinner or a perfect time, given that I went to a cozy izakaya called Warayakiya (わらやき屋) located on a side street just off of Roppongi Crossing. But given the high marks it has gotten from several of my friends and professional reviewers on the internet, I figured that it would be worth the adventure through the wind and snow.
When people think about Japanese beer, they usually think of mass produced brands such as Kirin Ichiban or Asahi Super Dry. They probably don’t know that there’s a burgeoning industry of craft breweries in Japan that make a wide variety of good tasting beers. So I’ve decided to launch a series of posts exploring craft beer and craft beer restaurants in Tokyo.
Happy New Year, everyone!
Since the clock turned midnight last night to mark the beginning of 2014, millions of Japanese have been flocking to temples and shrines throughout the country to offer their prayers for a good year. If you go to one of the major religious sites here in Tokyo, such as Zojoji near Tokyo Tower or Meiji Jingu next to Harajuku, you will see an impressive annual exercise in mass crowd control. In almost clockwork fashion, wave upon waves of people are cycled through to the heart of the temple/shrine, where they throw a coin into a collector (five or fifty yen coins are considered the luckiest), pray, and go on their merry way.
Of course, after spending so much time standing in line, you end up getting a little hungry. That’s why there are usually food stalls set up at major shrines and temples.
One of the most fascinating things about food in Japan is how many foreign foods have been reinterpreted and reinvented in ways that make them distinctively Japanese. I’ve talked previously about tonkatsu (deep fried pork cutlet) which is the Japanese version of German schnitzel and American chicken fried steak. And of course there is ramen, which is Chinese in origin but has evolved into a quintessential Japanese dish.
What you may not be as familiar with is the Japanese take on pasta, the stuff that (according to legend) Marco Polo introduced to Italy from the Far East and the Italians have exported right back. You can find Italian pasta in Tokyo and, depending on where you go, it can be quite good. However, the Japanese have also developed their own unique versions that reflect local ingredients and flavors.
Ramen is arguably Japan’s national dish, but it originates from Chinese la-mian (pulled noodles). In fact, another term for ramen in Japan is chuka soba — Chinese noodles. If you’ve been to China or even a local Chinatown, you may have come across a noodle shop where someone made la-mian by taking a big piece of dough and stretch it out with to the full length of his wingspan, separating it into many individual strands in the process, and doing it over and over until he achieves a pile of noodles. Interestingly, I’ve never seen or heard of any la-mian places in Tokyo. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough or perhaps I need to go to a fancy high-end Chinese restaurant. It’s also possible that the demand for la-mian is limited here, overshadowed by the locals’ affinity for their own iconic ramen.
However, what I have found are plenty of noodle joints that serve tantanmen (dandan mian in Chinese), a spicy Sichuanese noodle dish.