Readers will know that our lunches are always frugal and light. No lavish meals for lunch. Lunch is needed to keep energy levels up not to pig out on. A favourite lunch for me is a Chinese Noodle Soup. A bowl of clear broth, some fine noodles and a portion of either Crispy Pork Belly or Char Sui Pork as garnish is a thing of joy for me. A sandwich with plain white bread - none of the fancy Panini’s, Rolls or Wraps - is what hits the spot for me. At home if I am out of the house an Idly or a Masala Dosa is what I look for. If getting that is an issue, and I am near a mall, I think that a Burger from MacDonald’s is perfect. It is hygienic, cheap and fast to eat. No French Fries and Cokes, just a burger.
Just before leaving, I saw a show on TV where David Chang the American Korean Chef ate at various Ramen bars in Tokyo. I thought why not slightly shift lunch from China to Japan. After all, Ramen are close cousins of Chinese Noodle soups. The Vietnamese Pho is similar. Why not have Ramen for lunch instead of the Chinese Noodle soup. HRH the Queen happily concurred.
What is a Japanese Ramen soup? The dish has 3 broad components, Noodles, broth and toppings.
The word `Ramen’ actually means noodles. These are made in the usual way with one important change. An alkaline salt, usually Sodium Carbonate or Potassium Carbonate, is added to the water used to knead the noodle dough. This results in a distinctly yellow colour to the noodle. The alkali also has one more effect. The texture of the noodle changes and they get somewhat bouncier, chewier, version of `al dente’. The noodle also holds the liquid much better. The noodles themselves can be thick, thin, ribboned or wrinkled.
The broth is what makes this dish. Broadly, you get four types of broth. The most popular and difficult to make is `Tonkotsu’. This is a pork bone based broth, where the bones as well as other ingredients are boiled for hours and hours. Think Black Daal Punjabi style cooked 4 times longer. The result is that the broth turns milky white, is intensely flavoured, totally Umami and extremely tasty. The second broth is `Shoyu’. This is a clear broth based on chicken bones and coloured with Soy Sauce. It is much lighter, simpler to make and cooks for far less time. `Shio’ is another broth that is even simpler, just a few bones for flavouring with salt as the main taste giver. `Miso’ as the name suggests is a Miso based broth that is often thicker and intensely flavoured.
The last component is the garnishes. Ramen are almost always Pork based, either the broth is or the garnish are. Pork Belly thinly sliced is a favourite garnish. `Nitamago’ or a seasoned soft boiled egg is a must as garnish. Eggs are soft boiled and then marinated in a mix of Soy, Mirin, Ginger and other condiments. The egg is halved any you get a half in your bowl. Other garnish include, `Nori’ – dry seaweed, pickled Mustard Greens, pickled Bamboo, Scallions or Green Onion, Sesame Seeds, Bean Sprouts and a special roast garlic sesame oil that is black in colour.
On the tables you have a selection of condiments to dress up your soup. The ordinary Soya Sauce, Chilli Oil, Chilli Flakes to the more unusual Garlic Presses with Raw Garlic. Apparently, the Japanese love to crush raw garlic into the Ramen.
Our first Ramen was at Tonkotsu at Dean Street. This was great introduction. We ordered one Tonkatsu style Ramen and one Shoyu style. Both were excellent. Melting Pork Belly, tangy Bamboo and the most delicious Egg. Totally satisfying. The bouncy noodles were a treat. We came away very happy.
|Soy sauce base, pork and chicken stock and medium thick noodles topped with mirin and soy marinated pork belly, half a seasoned soft-boiled egg, menma and spring onions|
|Rich, sea salt-based pork stock and thin noodles topped with slices of melt-in-the-mouth pork belly, half a seasoned soft-boiled egg, menma, bean sprouts and spring onions|
|Squid with Salt Pepper|
|The condiments. Note garlic press and bowl of raw garlic.|
Next we went to Wagamama. Several years ago, Wagamama hit London and the UK. The first Wagamama was started by Alan Yau in 1992 in a basement. Alan Yau achieved great fame and fortune as a restaurateur. Along with Wagamama, he owned Hakkasan, Busaba Ethai, Yauatcha and more recently Cha Cha Moon. Over the years he sold his interest in the restaurants and now, generally speaking, these are owned by private equity companies.
Anyway, back to the story.
Wagamama was modelled on the ramen bars of Japan. Large open rooms, community tables, plain wood decor, a limited menu, brightly lit and food quickly prepared and dished out by a team of young waiters. Boy oh boy, it was a rage. I have had many meals there in the past; I had innumerable photos of my face covered drinking from a large bowl of soup. This image became the cover of the book which just had to be published with the recipes of Wagamama. Then, with the passage of time, prices went up, Wagamama became a huge `tourist trap’ and I became more fussy and, dare I say, more knowledgeable about food. I had not been into a Wagamama in years.
We went in were seated and HRH the Queen decided to have a salad. I could not let myself down so I ordered what they called a Pork Ramen. HRH the Queens salad was a warm Salmon Salad with Miso mayonnaise dressing. It had lots of lovely greens – rocket, pea shoots, Wakame [seaweed] and came garnished with Sesame Seeds. Decent, to put it mildly. A dash of Soya Sauce livened it. The pretentious Wagamama offers low sodium Soya Sauce!! My Pork Ramen was a mess. Instead of a lovely seasoned soft boiled egg – the `Nitamago’, I got a horribly overcooked hardboiled egg complete with green ring around the yolk. To cover up the cock up, they served the egg yolk down. The noodles were not bouncy but seemed to be normal noodles. The garnish of bamboo was acceptable, the broth a weak chicken broth and the pork was a barbequed belly. To be fair, this was as it was described on the menu – well, except the overcooked egg. The whole dish was absolutely pathetic. Nowhere close to the real thing, almost a sham. But, I say again, it was as described on the menu. A waste of time, money and most importantly, calories, which could have been used to eat something worthwhile. Rubbish.
|Warm flaked Salmon with Wasabi Rocket, Carrot, Pea Shoots, Spring Onions and Goma Wakame seaweed with a Miso Mayonnaise dressing. garnished with Hijiki and Sesame seeds|
Noodles in a Miso, Ginger and Chicken soup topped with barbecued pork, a tea-stained egg, Pea Shoots and Wakame. served with a Korean barbecue sauce and garnished with Menma and Spring Onions - Please note the overturned egg.
|How pretentious. No raw garlic but Soya Sauce with less salt !!|
Next up was Shoryu Ramen once again in Soho on Denman Street. This place is run by the same guys who run the Japan Centre Canteen out on Regent Street, so one assumes they know what they are doing. Yes, indeed, they know what they were doing. One order was their signature dish, the Shoryu Ganso Tonkotsu, the milky pork broth with some Miso added and the usual garnish. The other order was Tokyo Ramen which had Soy based broth with barbecued pork and a garnish which included a Fish Cake. Both dishes were outstanding. The broths were top quality and the noodles bouncy as promised. This was a good meal. In fact we were so pleased that we went back the next day. I ordered the Yuzu Tonkotsu. Yuzu is a Japanese Cotrus fruit. Chilli we all know. So what they did was make a paste of Green Chilli and Yuzu. This tasted almost exactly like `Mirchi Cha Thecha' which a good Maharashtrian household makes. Also we were tempted by the deep fried Shoft Shell Crab Tempura.
|Shoryu Ganso Tonskatsu|
|Tokyo Ramen which had Soy based broth with barbecued pork and a garnish which included a Fish Cake|
|Yuzu Tonkatsu - The green paste on the left of the egg is a Chilli Yuzu [A Japanese Citrus Fruit much like a Lime]|
|Soft Shell Crab Tempura|
|A brilliant Chicken Karrage in a Chinese Bun at Shoryu Ramen|
|Each seat had a number. So waiters, even a new waiter would not get confused. Sensible touch I thought.|
I was indeed disappointed at how ordinary Wagamama really is. But, I presume it is catering to a different market, a less sophisticated palate and generally a tourist. If you want the real thing, do go to one of these Ramen Bars. If not, get a noodle soup at any Chinese restaurant. Wagamama is way off the map.