The ramen boom is real.
Ramen is patient. Ramen is kind. Ramen is the siren song you hear when you can’t feel your toes during winter.
No one really knows where ramen came from. Just saying the word “ramen” sparks debates about whether it was lost in Chinese translation, or purposely changed to rhyme with “amen” (that’s a joke). You can find a fairly comprehensive timeline here.
Even five years ago, it was really only offered in Melbourne as an afterthought on Japanese menus, (just under the “rice/noodle” section). Now it’s a dish for which people queue up, no matter the weather.
There are five ramen specialty restaurants along Russell Street alone. Shizuku in Richmond even offers home delivery. We have to accept it. Just like high-rise apartments, ramen has infiltrated Melbourne.
What is good ramen?
A good bowl of ramen is the holy matrimony of broth, tare*, noodles and toppings. The ultimate ramen has rich broth, tare that packs a deep punch, noodles with a bite, and toppings that complement while cutting through the other three elements at the same time. It’s a delicate balance – one cannot function without the others.
*Tare is the condensed form of umami placed at the bottom of each bowl of ramen. It is to ramen broth what mirepoix is to chicken stock. Tare determines the ramen’s soul. Broth is easy; tare is hard. Each ramen restaurant has its own secret tare recipe locked in a safe (a figurative one, anyway).
Not all ramen is created equal.
Generally there are two types of ramen broth: with a meat base (from pork and/or chicken bones) or with a seafood base (from bonito flakes and kelp). In recent years, Japan has started experimenting with vegetable-stock bases.
There are 47 prefectures in Japan. Each prefecture has its own signature variation, made by mixing soup bases, secret tare and local toppings such as barbeque pork, soft-boiled eggs, bean sprouts, black fungus, nori (seaweed), naruto fishcakes, scallions, corn, butter…
The point is: the person who claims to be a ramen expert is a liar. We are all but humble students on the path of ramen knowledge.
Melbourne is familiar with ramen such as Tonkotsu (pork), Shoyu (soy), Shio (salt) and Miso, the Chinese-inspired Tan Tan Men, and the relatively new dipping-style, Tsukemen.
This is where you get it.
Hakata Gensuke set the golden standard for Hakata-style Tonkotsu ramen in Melbourne. The main characteristic of Hakata ramen is the milky broth with fat bubbles floating on top, and the thin, angel-hair-like noodles. It ticks all the boxes and has the long queues outside its Russell Street and Hawthorn branches to prove it.
If you like variety, try Fukuryu Ramen in the city. It is the one-stop shop for all four types of ramen mentioned above. Apart from its wide selection and spacious seating, Fukuryu Ramen has one clear advantage over others: green-tea flavoured soft serve.
Little Ramen Bar commands its own little queue further down Little Bourke Street. The menu is definitely not little, but its Tan Tan Men is the best in town. Forget mild, just go for hot to fully enjoy this chilli-infused ramen with minced-pork topping. They also serve a mean Cha-han, a simple izakaya-style fried rice with egg, barbeque pork and spring onion.
Mensousai Mugen is the most typical Melbourne ramen shop of all. It’s on Bligh Place Alley along Flinders Lane. It is also one of the first shops to feature Tsuke-men, the dipping-style ramen that caught fire 10 years ago in Japan. The noodles and soup are served separately, then you dip the noodles in the soup before eating. If you want to watch a projected version of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai on muted repeat while you eat, pick a seat in the basement.
Collingwood’s Shop Ramen may not serve Japanese ramen, but it definitely serves Melbourne ramen. Using ingredients such as leek and king oyster mushroom, it’s the owners’ interpretation of the flavours of ramen. It also caters to the Fitzroy palate with a vegetarian cashew-milk option. The staff uses pasta machines to make the noodles fresh daily. This is also the only joint where you can have pork belly and tofu gua baos before your ramen. And pie afterwards.
How to eat ramen.
Technically speaking, if you manage to put noodles into your mouth, then you know how to eat ramen. Having said that, here’s a step-by-step guide to better enjoy this dish, as demonstrated by Yoshi, our ramen model from Mugen.
- Start eating ramen as soon as it is served. Don’t be polite, don’t wait for your mates’ ramen to arrive. They will understand.
- Using your chopstick, pick up a mouthful of noodles. Some would use the spoon to support the noodles, but Yoshi doesn’t need it. Not all of us can be Yoshi, though.
- Slurp it in. Seriously, don’t be shy. Besides showing respect to the ramen makers, slurping your ramen apparently has a scientific justification. Just like how wine connoisseurs gurgle wine, sucking air through our mouths forces air into our nasal passage, allowing for the full depth of flavor to be realised.
- It is not a sin to take a bite out of your topping and then put it back in the bowl. In fact, it is wise to keep your toppings-to-noodle ratio balanced. If you plan to order kaedama (a refill of noodles), do it while the broth is still hot. “Lukewarm ramen is amazing!” said no one ever.
- It is okay to pick up the bowl and finish the broth. Some Japanese restaurants even have hidden messages at the bottom of the bowl. We haven’t found one in Melbourne yet – but that’s not a reason to stop trying.