Thursday, May 10, 2012

Hakata Ramen in Fukuoka

Ramen may be Chinese in origin, but the Japanese have made it their own. They are obsessed with ramen noodle soup, devouring media dedicated to following ramen trends and tracking down the finest versions. Among the different regional variations, one holds pride of place in the hearts of aficionados: Hakata ramen, made in the easy-going port city of Fukuoka.

Fukuoka is actually two cities that have grown together over the years. Hakata – from which the legendary ramen gets its name – is to the east, and in feudal days was the commercial center, while Fukuoka, to the west, was the home of the samurai. They sit on the north coast of the island of Kyushu, separated by the Naka River. Most importantly, what many “rameniacs” claim to be the best ramen in the world can be found for sale throughout this conjoined city, both at its celebrated ramen restaurants and from its unique yatai, the ramshackle food stands dotted throughout the downtown, notably beside the winding Nakasu River and in the Tenjin nightlife district.

Hakata ramen is unusual in Japan for being served mainly at food stands, where conviviality is encouraged as an important part of the experience

The yatai are the soul and spirit of Fukuoka, contributing greatly to its reputation as one of Japan’s more welcoming and habitable cities. Diners sit outside beneath the stars on cramped wooden benches, elbow to elbow, chinking their beer glasses, making crosstable conversation – all part of the city’s relaxed vibe.
This is a relatively compact city with some impressive mall and beach developments – prime among them being Canal City – and a vibrant cultural life. Fukuoka Art Museum has one of the best collections of Western contemporary art in Japan, but the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum is the place to find out more about the culture and heritage of Hakata: its three buildings replicate life in past eras down to the tiniest detail.
As always in Japan, though, the main recreation for locals and visitors alike is eating – particularly ramen.
Definitions of what ramen is and the ingredients used to make it vary wildly, but regardless of the recipe, this is the food that fuels Japan. Essentially, ramen is some form of broth with egg noodles and toppings that can include steamed pork belly, green onions, nori seaweed, hard-boiled egg… the list is endless. From this base, varieties and regional variations expand exponentially: Tokyo ramen (probably the type best known elsewhere in the world) has soy sauce added to the soup; in Sapporo ramen (the third main ramen type), the noodles are thick and crinkly. But in the famous Hakata ramen, the noodles are straight and thin, and the soup is made from mountains of pork bones (tonkotsu) cooked for endless hours over a low heat. It doesn’t need soy sauce. It’s perfect.

Hakata ramen often includes chashu (simmered pork), kikurage (wood-ear mushrooms), and karashi takana (spicy pickled greens)

Best Places to Eat Ramen

Yatai by the river

Festooned with lights and constantly buzzing with diners, the yatai stands beside the Nakasu River in the center of the city offer one of the world’s greatest low-cost dining experiences.
The lines to sample their hot, steaming bowls of gut-busting ramen can often be daunting, but people eat quickly here and you can always enjoy a beer while you wait. On the menu are not just magnificent examples of the ramen chef’s art but also tempura, other noodle dishes, grilled fish, yakitori, and slow-cooked oden. Oden is a kind of Japanese pot au feu made with tofu, boiled eggs, daikon (a kind of white radish), konnyaku (a solid jelly made from a root vegetable), and kamaboko (colorful steamed fish-paste cakes), all bobbing in an everlasting savory brown liquid topped off every morning.
Unthinkably, the yatai of Fukuoka are under threat from a local authority determined to “clean up” its streets, so visit while you still can.
Nakasu (by the river in front of Canal City); open sunset–midnight daily Also in Fukuoka
If you are looking for a more civilized environment in which to sample Hakata ramen, Ichiran Ramen ( english; inexpensive), which opened in 1960, is a legend throughout Japan. Though it now has branches across the country, the original shop remains a place of pilgrimage for ramen fans.
Each diner gets a questionnaire to fill in with which they can fine-tune their order, specifying the firmness of the noodles, the strength of the onion, the fattiness of the broth, and so on.

Cooks add ingredients for some made-to-order Hakata ramen at a night street stand, or yatai, beside the river in Fukuoka

Also in Japan
In Tokyo, the Ramen Jiro (inexpensive) at 2-16-4 Mita, Minato-ku, is a legend: this grimy, rather forbidding place is famed for its mammoth bowls of “rustic” tonkotsu pork broth ramen, piled high with cabbage and the saltiest, fattiest pork. The chef at this Jiro – the original of a large chain – is one of a number of gruff, scarred ramen masters who have ascended to quasi-deity status, respected and feared like the feudal warriors of yore (albeit with their own pot-noodle ranges). Expect to line up around the block, whatever time of day, month, or season.
Around the World
Ramen has now conquered New York, with locals lapping up this quick, savory, filling dish in restaurants across Manhattan, but the most famous is Ippudo on Fourth Avenue (www.; moderate). Having transferred from Japan – where there are Ippudos up and down the land – this branch has scored a notable hit with its uncharacteristically (for a ramen joint) slick venue in the East Village. Lines start every day up to an hour before it opens, and keep on going until closing time.
A Dubious Delicacy
Apart from its much-prized ramen, Fukuoka is also famed for its fugu, the notorious puffer fish.
Usually served either raw or deep-fried, every once in a while this dish kills a hapless diner with its deadly neurotoxin. The fish are landed at the nearby port of Shimonoseki and ideally kept alive during transit to Fukuoka – if possible, right up until the moment an order comes in. Then, working swiftly, the highly trained and licensed fugu chef beheads and skins the fish before scooping out its toxic guts: the liver is the worst offender, but all the innards are discarded. In terms of flavor, fugu rarely lives up to the hype – which is why the Japanese tend to slather it in spicy condiments. But it is certainly an experience and one of those dishes that have to be tried at least once.
A Day in Fukuoka
Fukuoka is the largest city in Kyushu, and it’s thoroughly cosmopolitan. There’s not a huge amount to see in the way of traditional culture, but it has some great modern architecture, vibrant nightlife, and wonderful food.
MORNING : Head for Canal City, the city’s top shopping mall and entertainment complex, which has hundreds of shops and restaurants and a multiplex cinema.
Grab lunch at Raumen Stadium, which sells food from around Japan.
AFTERNOON The Hakata Machiya Folk Museum will fill you in on the social and cultural history of the region; alternatively, art lovers will find much to divert them at the Fukuoka Art Museum.
EVENING After dark, the only place to be is jostling for space on a bench outside one of Fukuoka’s famous yatai. Afterward, if you aren’t too full to move, head into the Nakasu district or head west to Tenjin; both are lively nightlife areas packed with restaurants and bars. Alternatively, check out what’s on at the Fukuoka “Yahoo” Dome, one of Japan’s best live music, sports, and concert venues; it’s also home to the city’s much-loved baseball team, the Daiei Hawks.
Getting to Fukuoka
Fukuoka Airport is a major international gateway.
The city’s train station (named “Hakata Train Station”) is on the Shinkansen “bullet train” line from Tokyo (the journey takes around seven hours).
Where to stay in Fukuoka
Arty Inn (inexpensive) is a well-priced and central business hotel.
Canal City Fukuoka Washington Hotel (moderate) is part of a chain, but well located in the amazing Canal City mall.
Grand Hyatt Fukuoka (expensive) offers five-star luxury, including a spa, pool, gym, tea lounge, and martini bar, in the Canal City complex.

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