Sushi may lay claim to the title of Japan’s national dish, but it is fair to say that Tokyo was built on ramen. In the tough years immediately after the Second World War when rice was hard to come by and the Japanese capital lay in ruins, wheat from the American occupation forces was turned into noodles to feed the famished populace.
This high-calorie hit for Tokyo’s hard-working labourers fuelled the city’s reconstruction. And as the country got back onto its feet, a nostalgia for the hardscrabble of the early post-war years, lent what had been a suspiciously foreign dish (ramen’s origins lie in Japan’s China towns), a distinct Japanese identity.
By the 1980s, restaurants offering every conceivable style had sprung up to meet rocketing demand, with Tokyo alone thought to boast as many as 10,000 of the noodle joints.
Here are the basic styles, along with ten of Tokyo’s finest purveyors:
Shoyu: The signature style of Tokyo, a soy sauce base to which a stock is added. This style has lightness yet depth of flavour.
Shio: This means salt, but is in fact a reduction made from dried kelp and fish. The delicacy of this base has seen it attracting increasing interest in recent years.
Tonkotsu: A stock made from boiling pork bones down to a cream consistency, a style associated with the southern island of Kyushu but now popular everywhere.
Miso: Made from the same same fermented soy base as miso soup, this is a speciality of the northern island of Hokkaido, where it often served topped with sweetcorn.
Tokyo Ramen Top 10
Rokurinsha is perhaps the best of the new wave of ramen restaurants – something that is attested to by the intimidating queues. Its most famous offering is tsuke-men, a sub-genre of ramen in which the noodles are served separately and dunked into a thickened broth, in this case, a complex concoction consisting of pork, chicken bones, dried sardines, flaked mackerel and dried fish powder. If that sounds an unappealing combination, the effect is something like alchemy – a must try.
Tokyo Station B1, Tokyo Ramen Street 1-9-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda, Tokyo 100-0005
Ramen can be a depressingly masculine affair, but Afuri, famous for their yuzu ramen, has gone some way to producing a counterbalance to this effect. The restaurant serves a light citrus-perfumed shio or shoyu broth in stylish surrounds.
1-1-7 Ebisu, Shibuya, Tokyo
The menu at Sabuchan hasn’t changed in almost fifty years, for the entire course of which, Kinoshita-san, the shop’s taciturn master, has been dishing out ramen alongside bowls of fried rice – a combination now ubiquitous but which he is credited with inventing. This tiny restaurant, tucked in to an alley, epitomises the best of pre-boom ramen.
2-24 Kandajinbocho, Chiyoda, Tokyo
The great innovation of the Kyushu based chain, Ichiran, is to adopt the service model pioneered by Japan’s love hotels and sex shops: After buying their ticket from a vending machine, customers are directed by LED switchboard to their seat – a single-seat booth in front of a small service hatch – where, after being served by a pair of seemingly-disembodied hands, and free from the distraction of any human contact, they can savour their dinner – in this case a markedly superior hakata style tonkotsu ramen topped with signature chilli sauce.
1-9-8 Kichijoji Honcho, Musashino, Tokyo
Chuka Soba Inoue
For foodies, an early morning trip to the Tsukiji fish market is a must. But, for those made queasy by thought of raw fish at that time in the morning, a visit to next-door ramen shop, Inoue, may prove just the tonic. This shop is legendary amongst Tokyo’s ramen aficionados – and well worth the inevitable queue.
4-9-16 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Located at the edge of the campus of Tokyo University – Japan’s most prestigious centre of learning – Yamate Ramen has fed generations of brain-boxes. Their signature green ramen is given its distinctive colour by the addition of photosynthetic single cell microbes known as euglena – the cultivation of which was pioneered by a recent graduate of the university. According to researchers at NASA, the bizarre organism may just solve the problem of food production in space.
1-13-10 Uehara, Shibuya, Tokyo
This restaurant, conveniently located just a few minutes from the famous Hachiko statue at Shibuya Station, combines the Japanese passion for seafood with ramen. It is included here for its incomparable uni tsuke-men. Uni is the Japanese for sea urchin, a popular but pricey topping at superior sushi outlets. When mixed with ramen, the effect is nothing short of revelatory – a breath of the ocean.
1-11-2 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Ivan Orkin Ramen
Ivan Orkin is the New Yorker who took on the Tokyo ramen establishment and triumphed. He has won not only respect for his ramen, but national (and international) fame. Equally impressively, he is a relentless innovator; his rye noodles are particularly noted.
3-24-7 Minamikarasuyama, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo
The inclusion of Kisurin is a hat tip to the Chinese origins of ramen. This popular version known as tantan-men, offers a soup enriched with peanut and sesame oil. The inclusion of Szechuan pepper produces an unnerving numbing effect on the tongue. A welcome break from the some-times bland spicing of Japanese cuisine.
3-7-9 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Harukiya is one of the oldest ramen shops in Tokyo, and the originator of Tokyo’s signature shoyu style. Regulars pronounce the flavour unchanging – an antidote to the ceaseless fads that sweep the food scene.