Ramen – Japanese Soul Food

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NOODLES THAT POSSESS YOUR SOUL

No story about trending Japanese food culture could be complete without reference to ramen. A deceptively simple dish, ramen is a combination of soup, noodles and toppings that embodies the passion and flair of the cook. The complexity of flavours infused into a bowl of steaming ramen captivates many and has universal appeal.

From its origins as a dish of noodles in China, uniquely Japanese cooking approaches have evolved for every element of ramen.

Today each region has its own signature dish, and each ramen restaurant boasts a signature soup and stock. The ramen ‘culture’ is so varied that aficionados subdivide it into clear gastronomic preferences.

Ramen is also not just consumed at meal times. Closure to a bout of drinking is customarily achieved with a bowl of ramen, and there is no shortage of ramen restaurants open from lunchtime into the wee small hours. Japanese ramen restaurants have now ventured into Asia and the West, to growing acclaim. Fame is typically achieved by word of mouth and in Tokyo, meandering queues outside popular ramen restaurants are a common sight.

It is a step difference from traditional Japanese cuisine, but once experienced, this Japanese soul food will leave you smitten.

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THE MANY VARIATIONS OF RAMEN

The flavour and impression of a bowl of ramen is established by its soup. There is great variety in ingredients and how they are combined, and many restaurants keep their recipe a closely guarded secret. Ramen soup may be made from pork bones or chicken frames, or from small dried sardines, dried bonito and vegetables. Soy sauce, miso paste or salt added to the stock characterise the flavour and appearance of the soup, and oil may be added in the form of vegetable oil, lard, or chicken fat, to achieve rich broth.

Noodles are typically made from wheat flour, with each restaurant choosing thickness and shape – either straight or curly – as appropriate to their signature soup. Some will let customers choose their noodles either soft or al dente, the latter most commonly requested when the stock has been taken from pork bones. Common toppings are Chinese barbecued pork, pickled bamboo shoots,

flavoured egg, nori dried seaweed, fish cake, spring onions, and mung bean shoots, and while some restaurants will serve ramen ready-dressed, others will customise the dish to customer choice. Restaurants typically take great pride in their barbecued pork, so a good thing to do is to try at each restaurant and compare.

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WHERE TO FIND YOUR PREFERRED BROTH

The array of specialty ramen restaurants in Japan, from famous restaurants that are privately run, to fast food style chain stores, is bewildering. Generally speaking, if your preference is for light, simple flavours, look for advertisements of soy sauce or salt flavoured ramen. If you feel like eating rich, heavy flavours, go for pork bone or miso ramen.

Being a gastronomic tradition that has flourished in the regions, ramen in Japan is typically named after the area from which it hales. Tokyo ramen, for example, refers to the soy sauce flavoured ramen created in the Japanese capital, while Hakata ramen is a pork bone soup with thin, straight noodles that has its origins in the western Japanese city of Hakata, in Fukuoka Prefecture.

Across the sea in major Australian cities like Sydney and Melbourne, ramen restaurants are booming. Some popular Japanese restaurants have also opened Australian outlets, and are attracting local fan bases.

Once you find a ramen dish you like, make sure to delve deeper into the ramen culture by trying it with extras like a side dish of gyoza dumplings, or an extra helping of noodles.

Your preferred broth is just a slurp away!


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【Food】Genuine Izakaya Experience

One Japanese word that is making an increas- ingly frequent appearance in Australia in recent years is izakaya the term for combined restau- rant and bar spaces in Japan that offer both alcohol and a range of simple food.

Where the concept of a bar or pub in Japan conjures images of western-style stores serving western-style drinks, the izakaya is all Japanese. Many offer beer, chuhai, and Japanese sake, and a wide range of food as well. Something else that sets the izakaya apart from standard restaurants is that what you drink is the star here, and not what you eat.

Here are a few tips that will help ensure maximum enjoyment and a genuine izakaya experience during your next visit, whether it’s located Down Under, or in Japan.

ENJOYING THE APPETISERS

When you enter an izakaya and order a drink, you are first served some small dishes without
even having to order.

These appetisers, called “otooshi” or “tsuki- dashi”, fill the time between your first order and the arrival of your food.

Such dishes are prepared in advance so that they can be served straight away, and are designed as a match for your first drink. While you may hold some reservation over paying for something you didn’t order at first, learning to expect and appreciate such appetisers is the first step in enjoying hospitality izakaya style.

THE RIGHT FOOD FOR THE RIGHT DRINK

Good food is the perfect partner to a good drink. While it is popular to stick with beer throughout the evening in Australian pubs, the draw of an izakaya is the food that accompa- nies and brings out the flavor of the drink.

The term “sakana”, also called “ate” or “tsumami” refers to the food enjoyed alongside alcohol. Often served in small portions like the tapas of Spanish food, such dishes allow you to enjoy a wide range of different food.

Popular items on the izakaya menu include oden, yakitori, edamame, sashimi, karaage, stews, dried foods, pickles, and eggs rolls.

A PLACE FOR EVERYONE

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While izakaya were often seen as a place for male businessmen up until the 1970s, izakaya catering to
more feminine tastes in food and in drinks such as chuhai and wine are increasingly common, and many stores have worked on their interior to provide a place that anyone, women-only groups and families included, can enjoy.

In the 1980s, izakaya chain stores started popping up, and they came to be known as places with a good range of low-cost food and drink, and a venue where large groups can gather informally without having to worry about a bit of boisterousness. This accessible image has made izakaya a popular place for students, businesspeople, and friends to hold simple gatherings. Those out by themselves are more than welcome, too.

IZAKAYA ETIQUETTE

Some izakaya also offer the option of smoking areas. While the number of nonsmoking stores has risen in recent years, some permit smoking. For those looking to enjoy their time without worrying about smoke, nonsmoking seats are also available.

Some izakaya have seating areas where you must take off your shoes at the door, so it is a good idea to be wearing clean socks! Finally, other locations for a good drink in Japan include snack bars, cabarets, and clubs, the last two of- fering a uniquely Japanese style where female staff members serve drinks and enjoy a chat with the clientele.

【Food】Enjoy Authentic Sushi

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Today, sushi is widely available outside of Japan. In Australia, sushi has become more and more prevalent, with increasing num- bers of Japanese-style restaurants opening here. So it’s the perfect time to introduce you to a delicious way to eat nigirizushi, in which the topping is placed on a ball of rice shaped by hand.

There are no hard and fast rules for eating sushi. Both chopsticks and fingers are ac- ceptable. People who don’t want to get sticky fingers should use chopsticks, otherwise it’s quite acceptable to eat sushi with your hands.

Sushi tastes best when dipped into a small saucer of soy sauce to which you can add wasabi for extra zing. Obviously this depends on personal taste, however, you should be careful about how much wasabi you add to the soy sauce, as there is already wasabi on the sushi itself. Also, when dipping the sushi in the soy sauce, take care not to overdo it. There’s no point getting so much soy sauce that it cancels out the delicate taste of the – sushi. Soaking the rice with too much soy sauce can also cause the sushi to fall apart before you can eat it. Flipping the nigirizushi over so that you get just enough soy sauce on the topping, but not on the rice, is the most delicious way to eat sushi.

Incidentally, soy sauce is not necessary with certain types of sushi, such as unagi eel, that is pre-seasoned with a special sauce. It’s already served with just the right amount of flavouring.

As a rule of thumb, start with subtly flavoured sushi and finish with stronger flavoured pieces, to avoid overpowering the subtleties of the milder sushi. On the other hand, if after eating something oily such as toro, the fatty part of the bluefin tuna, you would like something lighter like a white- meat fish, then nibble on some pickled gin- ger. Pickled ginger is not just for decoration, it’s there to refresh your palate.