Winter whistles through the streets, slips its icy fingers down your coat, and you search for something, just about anything, to ward off the damp chill of a Japanese winter. Suddenly, you know with all certainty the one true cure — ramen.
Japan’s version of this Chinese noodle broth is popular across the nation, but Kyushu’s Fukuoka is legendary for tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen, a hearty soup and a great antidote to nippy weather. There are many secret tonkotsu broth recipes, but it is basically made by soaking and boiling pork bones with spices and vegetables for several hours. After that, however, different soup stocks may be added, other vegetables and spices mixed in: thus the innumerable shops with unique recipes. The basic stock is thick and rich and has a hard-to-place, slightly stinky aroma. Many ramen shops also make their own thin, straight, Fukuoka-style noodles and let customers choose the firmness when they order. Finding one’s own favorite restaurant is part of the fun, but the four listed below are good places to start a weekend of culinary overdose.
Hourin is an easy introduction to tonkotsu. This routinely packed restaurant serves up a relatively light soup (¥590), lacking the characteristic love-hate stinkiness of tonkotsu while retaining its flavor. The broth is complemented by a slightly spicy, “secret” miso sauce.
I asked the waitress about the sauce: “What’s in it? Garlic?”
“Ahhh, sorry,” she said with a wink, “that’s top secret.”
Noodles are gobbled up quickly in the traditional “lift and inhale” eating technique, so most customers shout for kaedama (refills). This means that for ¥100 or even less you get another serving of noodles to be added to the leftover soup to soak it all up.
Daruma, named after the first Indian Zen Master, dished up ramen that tasted like it had meditated many a long hour in a pot. Compared with Hourin, the soup was much heavier and the trademark tonkotsu aroma was strongest here among the restaurants visited. There was also a hint of fish and the menu informed us that katsuo (bonito), saba (mackerel) and aji (saurel) were added to the stock. Aside from the strong pork flavor, Daruma’s recipe had very little garlic or spice, making it a smooth, stick-to-your-ribs meal.
“We get a lot of famous customers,” said our waiter, pointing out the autographs of some famous individuals that completely covered the longest wall. Next to our table was Bulgarian sumo wrestler Kotooshu’s elaborate signature, a sign, if ever there was one, that Daruma’s soup meant some serious calories. If you find the broth too heavy, the pickled ginger provided is a good way to cut the broth and aid digestion afterward.
Next was Ichiran, the love hotel of ramen restaurants. Guests buy tickets (basic ramen is ¥790) outside and then sit in private booths, filling out complex forms to specify their kinky ramen desires. If you like your lovers strong and fatty, with tender flesh and a little of that magic secret sauce, your wish is their command. If you long for thin, leggy noodles and some saucy onion-garlic attitude, they can do that too. You then slide the ticket and the form through the curtain before you to the faceless waiter. The booth’s soup arrives hidden under a lid and the curtain is rolled down, allowing some privacy to the consummation of your noodle fetish.
First-time visitors can go the easy route and just choose “medium” or “regular” down the form, but I found the standard soup a little lackluster and overpowered by the secret sauce, which seemed to be Japanese red pepper. I’ll try a stronger flavor, more fat and less secret sauce next time. What that says about my inclinations I’ll leave you to decide.
Our final stop, Ippudo, is a chain restaurant like Ichiran, with locations across Japan and a new shop in New York City. The original restaurant, located in the Tenjin district, serves up three basic kinds of ramen: akadama (¥800), a thick, heavy soup; shirodama (¥700), a lighter, slightly sweet soup with white miso and lots of garlic; and a special honten kasane aji (restaurant-only layered-taste soup) (¥900). The special ramen adds chicken broth and caramelized onions to the pig-head tonkotsu, creating a sort of Japanese version of chicken soup. Should you find your meal lacking in garlic, each table has fresh cloves and a press, pointed like a gun at your social life.
If you aren’t interested in ramen, Fukuoka is also famous for motsu nabe (beef-intestines hotpot). Intestines are fatty, soft and slightly chewy, a fine complement to firm vegetables cooked at your table.
Yamanaka is one of Fukuoka’s most famous motsu-nabe restaurants and reservations are recommended. Tables at this sleek, upscale eatery are fitted with an electric range where a simple steel pot for the motsu cooks down additional vegetables. A standard spread for two consists of motsu, a stock of your choice (e.g. miso, soy sauce) cabbage, green onions, burdock root, konnyaku (devil’s tongue gelatin cube) and tofu (¥1,365 per person). The burdock is a personal favorite, as it retains its crunchiness even after being cooked. Yamanaka also serves mentaiko (spicy cod roe), another Fukuoka specialty. “Our mentaiko are specially ordered,” informed our waiter, “with high-quality firm grain, yuzu (citron) flavor and no preservatives. They’re pretty big too,” he added. It is best eaten on rice, as the fish eggs are too tiny to chew and a little too spicy to eat on their own.
Hungry or not, the places to party it up in Fukuoka are in the yatai, tiny portable shacks set up each evening along the canal in Nakasu or on Meiji-dori in the Tenjin district.
Yatai often have specialties, including ramen, but the real draw is the chance to chat with a group of very friendly locals in intimate quarters. The owners operate as both cooks and hosts, drawing people into conversation, cracking jokes and dishing up free samples. As night falls, the steamy, smoky shacks full of clinking glasses and raucous laughter draw locals and visitors alike to the warm heartland of Fukuoka, where winter is nowhere to be found.
Hourin ( 716-6755; www.ramen-hourin.jp; open 11:30 a.m.-5 a.m.) is just south of the Sankobashi intersection on Route 202. Daruma ( 761-1958; www.ra-hide.com; 11:30 a.m.-2:30 a.m.) is 300 meters east of Watanabe Station. Ichiran (www.ichiran.co.jp/index.html) has locations nationally. I visited the one in Canal City’s Theater Bldg ( 263-2201; 10 a.m.-midnight). Ippudo’s original shop ( 738-7061; www.ippudo.com; 11 a.m.-2 a.m.) is four blocks north of Route 202 on Tenjin-nishi-dori. Turn left and walk 50 more meters. Yamanaka ( 716-2263; www.motsunabe-yamanaka.com, 5 p.m.-11:30 p.m.) is one intersection south of Akasaka Station on Taisho-dori. Yatai are generally open from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. or later, especially at the weekend, and serve a variety of cheap drinks and food. Look for Yatai Mami-chan on Meiji-dori — it was a blast.