Fukuoka was named the world’s seventh most-livable city by Monocle magazine this year for its eco- and business friendly initiatives — but its status as a ramen mecca couldn’t have hurt. Within Japan, Fukuoka is known, perhaps more than anything else, for tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen, thanks in part to local ramen giants Ippudo and Ichiran. Both of these mega-chains make Hakata-style ramen: tonkotsu broth cooked at a rolling boil and served with thin, sturdy noodles. Thanks largely to the success of Ippudo and Ichiran, this basic style — named for the Hakata neighborhood where it was born — has become synonymous with tonkotsu ramen itself. Hakata ramen may loom large in Fukuoka, but other local styles still shine in its shadow.
While the smell of pork-bone broth being made is not exactly mouthwatering, it contains a promise of lip-smacking results. A short walk from Hakata Station, the acrid stench of boiling bones can be detected long before Hakata Issou is in sight. Open since 2012, Hakata Issou (www.hakata-issou.com) has made its mark on Fukuoka with what it dubs “Neo-Hakata” ramen. The rich and slightly sour broth is handmade, resulting in a delicate froth that fans call “tonkotsu cappuccino.” Each bowl is topped with locally sourced roast pork, scallions, nori and wood ear mushrooms.
The ramen world is full of apocryphal tales. The story of another local style, Nagahama, dates to 1953 when a fish factory relocated to Fukuoka’s Nagahama district. Its workers wanted a quick meal with no fuss, and so an enterprising ramen chef obliged by cutting ultra-thin noodles that could cook in an instant. Die-hard Nagahama ramen fans order their noodles kona-otoshi: dipped in boiling water only long enough to remove the excess flour before being dropped into a bowl of steaming tonkotsu broth.
Ramen lore also has it that kaedama, the practice of ordering extra noodles, originated with Nagahama ramen, as noodles were served in small batches to keep them from getting too soggy. The best place to try Nagahama ramen is at one of Fukuoka’s characteristic yatai street stalls — try the ever-dependable Yamachan (1 Nakasu, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka; open 6 p.m.-2:30 a.m.), which operates yatai in Tenjin and Nakasu, as well as a brick and mortar shop in nearby Nagahama. It’s the local practice to polish off an evening of drinking with a bowl of noodles. Yatai are shuttered during the day, but open late into the night.
Before Nagahama-style ramen there was Kurume-style, which — according to another apocryphal tale — was developed when chef Miyamoto Tokio accidentally over-boiled his tonkotsu broth in 1947. The resulting brew was so flavorful that, Kurume-style ramen shops still recycle their old broth by pouring the remainder of each day’s batch into the next. In this way, Kurume broth retains its richness and doesn’t require the addition of extra fat. Hakata and Nagahama styles, by contrast, pour out old broth, start a new batch each day, and add pork fat for richness.
Honda Shoten offers quintessential Kurume ramen at 15 locations around Fukuoka Prefecture, and is currently featured at Ramen Stadium, a collection of eight ramen kitchens in Fukuoka’s Canal City (www.canalcity.co.jp). As these change regularly to showcase different ramen shops from across Japan, Ramen Stadium is an ideal introduction to the many varieties of the country’s most inscrutable noodle.