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. Check out the Japan Guide ramen page for more information about the dish and the ramen adventures website for descriptions of more restaurants.
Ordering ramen at Mugi no Hana
Temomi Chukasoba Mugi no Hana (手もみ中華そば 麦の花) is part of a “keiretsu”, or a set, of companies, called the Toka Group, which includes 3 other restaurants, all located in Arakicho, and all specialised in ramen. The restaurant used to be called Tokabenizaru but the concept, name and menu were all updated in July 2018. However, as before, their ramen broth is soy sauce based.
As is typical at a ramen place, you need to purchase your meal in advance from a ticket machine. Here it’s 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 upper floor. Luckily there are only four different meal options, fewer than at your average ramen place.
In the big yellow boxes, they are Mugi no Hana’s main offering, “chuka soba”, with various “upgrades”:
- “Chuka Soba” with a soft-boiled flavoured egg (top-left)
- “Chuka Soba” with 5 extra slices of roast pork (top-center)
- “Chuka Soba” special combining the 2 options above (2nd row-left)
- “Chuka Soba” with the usual toppings (center-right)
You may be wondering why their ramen is called “chuka soba” which translates as “Chinese soba”. Aren’t soba noodles (made from buckwheat flour) different from ramen noodles (made from wheat flour)? In the past, ramen used to be called “chuka soba” (中華そば), a reference to the origin of the dish. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the name “ramen” became widespread. Some shops still prefer to use the older name to make their dish sound more authentic, although it can be confusing for those of us lacking the cultural reference!
The big red sign on the very left, says that you can switch your regular “chuka soba” to a black “chuka soba” by saying “burakku” (the word black in Japanese) when handing over the ticket. It uses a kind of black soy-based sauce that gives a tastes reminiscent of black pepper. There is also a basic 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.
Once you’ve got your ticket in hand, you’ll need to find a seat. This is easier said than done since 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. 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.
The Taste as it was Long Ago
The main update to their concept is to present a ramen that is “musashi nagara” (昔ながら) which means unchanged or the same as it was long ago. In other words, when ramen was called “chuka soba”. Although I wasn’t around in those days, the look of the dish is very much what I imagine it must have looked back then – quite different from the modern offerings of new trendy ramen shops.
The ramen when ready is placed on top of the counter, and you will need to carefully pick up the hot bowl with both hands, and put it down in from of you. The dish comes with the following typical toppings:
- “Menma” (bamboo shoots)
- “Negi” (finely cut spring onion)
- “Chashu” slices (roasted pork)
- “Naruto” (fishcake with a colourful spiral pattern)
The soup broth had a satisfying rich soy taste. However the noodles were the highlight. The restaurant name uses the expression “temomi” which means something like hand massaged, and refers to the way the noodles are made: the dough was kneaded by hand, and not by a machine. The sign outside also says that the noodles were custom-made by a specialised noodle making company.
First, the noodle shape was slightly unusual – thin and flat, somewhat resembling tagliatelle pasta. Next, they had a pleasant chewiness and mouthfeel – you could fill your mouth with them and really enjoy their taste. I tried both the regular and the black version, and found it hard to decide which one I liked best.
Once you finish the noodles and there is enough broth left over, 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!
One last word on the name: “Mugi no Hana” means the flower of the wheat plant. Although ramen noodles are made from wheat, its flower has no direct connection to the dish. Interestingly, in English the name has a double meaning because “flower” sounds like “flour” and wheat flour is, of course, one of the main ingredients of ramen!
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If you chose to visit this restaurant after reading this article, don’t hesitate to tell the staff you found out about them through the Tadaima Japan website.
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