Tokyo, a battleground where a fight to reach the summit takes place every day, with the ultimate noodles and soup as the weapons.
The latest trends? The best shops in the spotlight now? Masataka Sasaki, a Ramen Editor who has published many famous books has shared his top 5 ramen shops with us.
−−Why did you start following Ramen?
I liked ramen when I lived in Akita, where I lived until I finished high school, but not so much that I went around searching for new places to eat.
I then moved to Tokyo for university. After I first experienced authentic ramen at a specialty shop in Tokyo, I moved to Ogikubo which is an area with many famous ramen shops, and I started my days immersed in ramen.
Around the mid-1990s, it was the golden age of ramen when there was a “new vintage every year” with many legendary shops as “Aoba”, “Musashi”, “Kujiraken” (all of which opened up in 1996, as part of the legendary 1996 group of ramen shops) opening up and creating new trends.
Witnessing the process of modern ramen being born during this golden age was the starting point for me.
−−Every year was a vintage year! Sasaki-san, for someone who has experienced such excellent times in the past, what’s the attraction for “ramen” now?
Even for the major types of ramen broth, there are soy sauce-based, salt-based, miso, tonkotsu, chicken-bone broth (paitan), dried-sardine based, pork-bone (tonkotsu) seafood broths, and if you factor in the types of noodles, toppings as well, the variations are unlimited.
The more you walk around, you are sure to encounter a new bowl in this unlimited amusement park of ramen.
New shops open one after another and well-known shops continue to improve their flavor, and regional powerhouse shops continue to sharpen their blades. Despite your best efforts to go around to all of the ramen shops you want to visit around Japan and across the world, you probably won’t be able to finish trying them all during your own lifetime.
You may have heard of soup-less ramen (mazesoba) or noodles with buckwheat flour, but even noodle-less ramen is a type of ramen where “no rules is the rule”. If I ever find myself muttering “this isn’t ramen…”, I think it will be my last day as a ramen editor.
−−With a love for ramen as deep as the sea, it is unlikely that Sasaki-san will ever have to retire as a ramen editor. Please take a look at the latest ramen trends!
There are 5 major trends explained in detail.
There are many ramen shops that have started to use Japanese herbs such as ginger and Japanese pepper. Recently, ramen featuring spices as the star ingredient have become popular and while we see many shops serving soup-less tantanmen that uses red chili pepper and Japanese pepper to add spiciness and a sense of numbing, creating bowls of ramen that feature a subtle, yet deep flavor of ginger as well as the refreshing flavor of Japanese pepper are particularly popular with woman.
Recently, there have been many new types of broths appearing such as those made with prosciutto, animal-based ones made using pork or chicken bone and even broths made only with vegetables without using even seafood products such as dried fish or bonito flakes.
You will be surprised by the different impression you will get from each of these pork bone and seafood-based ramen soups in terms of taste and aroma compared to what you’ve tried so far.
●Pure hand-made noodles
There have been thick noodles in the past, but you might be fooled into thinking that your bowl is full of udon noodles, at some of the popular ramen restaurants that are serving very thick, hand-made noodles that have a delicious chew!
●Mini Rice Bowl
Rough and tumble side dishes such as having curry or rice with your ramen are a thing of the past. There are now many shops that serve cute looking mini rice bowls featuring toppings such as lamb confit, pecorino, mouth-watering chicken and clams.
●Hanging Skewer-Roasted Chashu Roast Pork
Chashu roast pork for ramen is typically fatty and voluminous, but around last year, the “hanging skewer-roasted” method appeared. This type of chashu roast pork is full of savory flavor and the slightly smokey taste is addictive.
5 of the Best Ramen Today, selected by Masataka Sasaki
1. King Seimen (Ouji,Tokyo) / キング製麺
The main specialty of the shop is a sophisticated white-dashi (white stock) broth, but the “Sansho (Japanese Pepper) Ramen” is recommended. As you slurp the curly noodles, you will feel the elegant fragrance of Japanese pepper through your nose with a fresh aftertaste. This dish is creating a lot of buzz in the world of Japanese herb-style ramen.
2. SAMAR（Ebisu, Tokyo）/SAMAR（サマル）
his is a variety of ramen served only at lunchtime by the popular shop “Sakana Bal”. The salt-flavored broth is made based on prosciutto enhanced with porcini mushrooms, fragrant vegetables and herbs has an exquisite taste! Enjoy adjusting the flavor to your liking with the tapenade (savory olive paste).
3. Dame na Rinjin(Ningyocho, Tokyo) / 駄目な隣人
This ramen shop features an adventurous broth made with bouillon de legume (vegetable stock) with a high quality soy sauce based seasoning (tare). The oil made with ginger confit creates a taste that will bring a smile to your face.
４．MEN CRY（Hamamatsucho, Tokyo）/MENクライ
You will be surprised when you see the hand-made noodles made with 100% Japanese flour! These unique, chewy noodles are as thick as Hoto noodles in Yamanashi prefecture. They complement the dashi flavored broth very well. Also recommended are mini rice bowls such as the daily special, rice with raw egg and the marinated egg-yolk rice bowl.
５．Marue Chuukasoba (Sugamo, Tokyo) / 惠中華そば（まるえ中華そば）
Curly noodles swim in a highly-transparent, clear soup. You can enjoy this salt flavored ramen broth which has a distinct brininess. You will also be very satisfied with the hanging skewer-roasted pork, which is full of flavor, fragrant and smokey.
Text&Photographs by Masataka Sasaki
A producer of a wide variety of content regarding ramen and food. He has edited many books on the topic of ramen and writes a regular column for SanekiBiz.
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Writer / editor / illustrator. Born in Osaka. Writes mainly for magazines, the web, and advertisements. My areas of expertise are travel, the outdoors, science, and history. My current dream is to visit shrines and temples on remote sea islands.