- Ramen, a short introduction
- Ordering your ramen at Tokabenizaru
- A taste that will make you visit again
Ramen, a short introduction
Ramen is arguably one of the most famous Japanese dishes. It’s one of the few dishes that you can have outside of Japan (whether it tastes good or not is another matter). It is said that ramen was originally imported from China around 150 years ago. However, the dish only came into its own less than a 100 years ago, at the start of the Showa era. Wheat noodles form the main ingredient. They are served in a hot tasty broth with a number of additional ingredients placed on top, such as chopped onions and sliced pork.
Saying that this is all it takes to make a great ramen would be a gross oversimplification. From those basic ingredients, literally thousands of different-tasting combinations can be made, depending on the texture of the noodles, the flavouring of the soup and the variety of the toppings. If you enjoyed your first bowl, then it is only the first step into the world of ramen cooking. During your trip, make sure to try different types of ramen, as well as regional variations in the cities you visit. Check out the Japan Guide ramen page for more information about the dish and the ramen adventures website for descriptions of more restaurants.
Ordering your ramen at Tokabenizaru
The main thing you need to know when ordering ramen is that there are four basic flavourings of the broth: soy sauce (“shoyu” 醤油), miso (味噌), salt (“shio” 塩) and pork bone (“tonkotsu” 豚骨). The best ramen restaurants will only specialise in one or two of these. Tokabenizaru’s ramen is soy sauce based only and so in this respect no choice is necessary. As is typical at a ramen place, you need to purchase your meal in advance from a ticket machine. At Tokabenizaru, this is placed inside but you still need to stand outside when making your choice since the the machine is on the 2nd step of the small staircase that leads to the 2nd floor. Luckily there are only 5 meal options, way fewer than your average ramen restaurant.
Top left in red, their speciality and the dish I tried and recommend: the “iwanori niboshi” ramen (“岩海苔煮干しら麺”). “Iwa” means rock and “nori” is seaweed, so “iwanori” is a kind of seaweed that grows on the rocks next to the sea. “Niboshi” is the name for dried baby sardines and is a popular kind of snack in Japan, but can also be used as base stock for soups. Don’t be turned off by the name though, since you won’t encounter any actual sardines in the soup, only the taste, which is quite delicious.
Below, in orange, are four variations of the “niboshi” only ramen: top left is with a half-boiled flavoured egg, top right is the basic “niboshi” ramen without rock seaweed, bottom right is the special “niboshi” ramen with all toppings and finally on the bottom left is the dipping noodle version of the “niboshi” ramen. Top right in yellow is simply an option to buy an extra large size of noodles. I find that the basic order of noodles is quite filling, so only go for this if you are big eater, since leaving uneaten noodles in your bowl is frowned upon.
On the left are six smaller buttons for various sides or extra toppings. From top to bottom: rice topped with grilled meat, a serving of rice, half-boiled flavoured egg, extra onion, extra seaweed, and finally a can of beer, in case you need something to wash that rock seaweed down. There is also an English menu hanging inside the shop. It doesn’t list all the options on the vending machine, but it’s useful if you are in a hurry or don’t have this article handy.
Once you’ve ordered and got your ticket or tickets in hand, you’ll need to find a seat. This is easier said than done at Tokabenizaru. There are only 5 seats squeezed between the counter and the sliding doors that make up the entrance to the place. This is without exaggeration one of the smallest restaurants I’ve ever been to. There are actually several sliding doors so once you’ve located a free seat, open the sliding door directly behind it, squeeze onto your counter seat and then twist around and deftly close the door behind you without bumping into your neighbours.
At this stage you can hand over your tickets or simply place them on the counter in front of you, if the sole ramen chef is busy with another order. You’ll then be asked to choose between two kinds of noodles: “kanomen” (菅野麺), or flat type, (resembling small tagliatelle pasta) and “nagiseimen” (凪製麺), or round type, (resembling small udon noodles). According to the description on the wall, both have their merits, so I simply went with the first one. Next I was asked to choose whether I wanted a lot of oil in my soup, a medium amount or just a little. Being health-conscious but wanting at the same time to enjoy the typical Tokabenizaru taste, I chose medium. While you wait, you can check out the tiny kitchen just beyond the counter and watch your order being made. Occasionally, the chef will slip out to get extra ingredients from the 2nd floor (no extra seats there unfortunately).
A taste that will make you visit again
When the ramen was served, the finely cut rock seaweed was a wonder to behold. Not only was there a generous helping of it, but when mixed with the soup, it clung to the noodles giving them a sharp salty marine taste, nicely complementing the sweeter soy sauce taste of the broth. The noodles had that firm chewy taste that makes ramen such an enjoyable dish. Watching the ramen being made in front of my eyes, really whetted my appetite, and I wolfed the noodles down hungrily. It is acceptable to suck in air while while putting the noodles into your mouth to cool them off and avoid burning the your palate. Ramen must be eaten hot!
Once you finish the noodles and there is enough broth left over, rather than order extra noodles, I’d recommend getting a small bowl of rice, simply by asking the chef for “raisu” and handing him 100 yen directly. Then you can put a little on your spoon and use it to soak up the broth. I rarely finish all the broth (most people don’t), but eating it with rice turns it into a new dish and before you know it, all the broth is gone!
Despite the fact that Tokabenizaru is a famous ramen shop in the area – they display the characteristic autographs made by celebrities who ate there – so far I’ve never needed to line up to get a seat. On the other hand, no matter what time I go, there are always other customers arriving and leaving, or as you have to do at this place, squeezing into a seat and squeezing out. So if you haven’t yet had your ramen fill during your stay in Japan, make sure to stop by this authentic ramen restaurant that offers a unique and addictive taste.
If you have a craving for more ramen, how about trying lemon dipping ramen at Suzy House in Yotsuya?
For smartphone users, please click here to go to the Tadaima Japan website which includes detailed location information.