Ramen eateries catch on in London

by Richard Sunley

Kyodo

Ramen has finally begun to tickle the taste buds of hungry Britons in London.

Despite the popularity of ramen around the world in cities such as New York and Paris, Britain has long suffered from a curious paucity of good ramen, particularly given the popularity of Japanese food in the country. Now it seems the British are beginning to enjoy the noodle soup and enterprising restaurant owners are quickly getting behind the burgeoning ramen boom.

Ittenbari, a ramen restaurant that uses a secret recipe from the Kansai-region ramen chain Ryukishin, became in March the first to open its doors, followed by Tonkotsu in June and Bone Daddies in November.

Ittenbari initially counted a large number of Japanese and Chinese customers among its clientele; however, according to Director Toru Sasaki, the local British population has also begun to develop a taste for ramen.

“When we opened, many local people went for sushi and stuff and then when they saw this page (with ramen on the menu), they said, ‘What’s ramen?’

“Now local people are kind of moving on to ramen. I can see that happening. Local people have started coming here for ramen,” he said.

Tonkotsu cofounder Emma Reynolds also is joint owner of a chain of sushi and “katsu” (cutlet) restaurants in the British capital alongside Japanese chef Kensuke Yamada. Together they decided to open a ramen restaurant following the success of a series of ramen tasting sessions at one of their sushi and katsu restaurants.

“We did 10 of those (tasting sessions) over the course of three or four months, which were brilliant fun. It just snowballed from there and it sold out every week. We thought, ‘There is something in this,’ so we started to look for a site straightaway.”

Ken Furukawa, managing director of Tazaki Foods, an importer of Japanese food to Britain, has seen attempts at ramen come and go in the British capital over the last 20 years. He believes the higher quality of the current offerings will hopefully ensure that this time it is here to stay.

“There is a very good opportunity in London, demand is there and there are only a few ramen restaurants,” he said. “In the past few months, several ramen places opened in London and this time the quality is far better than several years ago.”

The new ramen restaurants have had a healthy start, with national newspapers and food bloggers in Britain picking up on the new trend and lines forming outside the restaurants with people eager to try the new addition to London’s culinary scene.

Recently, more established Japanese food chains such as Yo Sushi, a “kaiten” (conveyor belt) sushi chain based in Britain, have introduced ramen to their menus and the Japan Center, a Japanese food seller, has opened its own specialist ramen restaurant on a major London shopping street.

Despite Europe and Britain’s ongoing economic malaise, Ittenbari’s Sasaki, who went to university in Britain, says he was always confident that ramen would be a hit with the British public.

“It’s a recession, but people need to get out of the office sometimes so I wasn’t too worried.

“Every time I see Europeans and especially Brits (in Japan), I take them to an authentic ramen shop and they get quite impressed and say I wish I had that in London. So I knew that if I sold really good ramen here, it would be accepted.

“Regular ramen is 8.90 (¥1,170) and we decided not to do a service charge to make it as easy as possible for people to try out,” he said.

For now, the trend appears to be limited to London, but Sasaki eventually wants to expand to other parts of Britain as well. That said, there is still one aspect of ramen culture that has yet to catch on: the slurp. According to Reynolds, the Japanese custom of making a slurping noise while eating ramen is still a step too far for British customers.

“There’s not much slurping going on,” she laughed.

“I try and encourage it, but it’s quite a hard thing to do precisely. You need to practice at home, I think!”