Improving on the Original
One of the interesting aspects about living in Japan, versus visiting as a tourist, is how my Japanese friends have introduced me to variations of well-known dishes. I had eaten okonomiyaki in Europe, but after moving here, a friend took me to eat monjayaki, a kind of liquid okonomiyaki. I was also familiar with Japanese sake, but another friend had me taste namazake, the unpasteurised version of sake. It was as if they had taken me down a hidden alleyway of Japanese cooking. I was surprised that such minor changes to the dishes could lead to completely different tastes.
Interestingly, I thought these variants tasted better than the originals. The same is true for abura soba, a different take on the ramen dish, which originated in Tokyo in the 1950s. I love ramen: I regularly have it at restaurants and at home, but eating abura soba feels like a special treat. If I were to live outside Japan someday, and came here on a trip, it would be on my list of must-eat dishes. It has a simple and addictive taste that I can easily bring to mind. On the other hand, because every ramen broth is different, it’s harder, if not impossible, to keep track of the taste of individual ramen dishes.
Another point all these variations have in common is that they’re not as well-known as the original dishes. You probably won’t be able to find them in other countries, and they’ve only recently started to catch on in Japan. One reason is that they usually have some flaw that prevents them from appealing to a wider audience: monjayaki is not a beautiful dish to look at, namazake requires constant refrigeration, and abura Soba translates as “oily noodles”, “greasy Noodles” or “fatty noodles”. It doesn’t sound like something you would want to eat, let alone enjoy!
Squirt, Circle and Repeat
Despite the unappealing name, abura soba contains little oil. A more appropriate name would be “soupless ramen” since it’s a noodle dish served without the broth. It’s even claimed that it’s healthier than regular ramen, since the broth contains most of the fat and salt. Omitting the soup certainly brings down the price and cooking time. So how can it taste so good to the point of being addictive without having ramen’s core element?
Let’s look at how abura soba is made. First, a combination of thick soy sauce or “shoyu tare” and pork grease sauce are put at the bottom of the bowl. Then a serving of noodles is added above. Finally, traditional ramen toppings, like menma, negi, nori and chashu, are placed on top of the noodles. So apart from the first step, it’s quite similar to regular ramen. At this point, the kitchen preparation is complete, and the hot bowl is put in front of you. The first time, I definitely felt that something was missing – I can’t possibly eat it like this?
The final steps of the preparation are left to the diner. First you’ll need to add vinegar and chili oil yourself. This is probably where the “oil” part of the name comes from, although it refers to the condiments. You can squirt on as much as you like, but it’s recommended to first make two circles above the noodles while squirting the vinegar (the transparent bottle), then repeat with the chili (the darker bottle). This step always makes me nervous since I’m no so good at cooking and seasoning dishes. It’s better to squirt conservatively by squeezing the bottle lightly (or making smaller circles), since you can always squirt a little more on later if the taste is too bland. The last thing you want is for your dish to become too oily!
Before digging in, there is one last critical step that is required: you must mix everything thoroughly using your chopsticks. Since the sauce is sitting under the noodles, you need to do an up-down motion rather than circular. The aim is for the sauce to coat the noodles evenly, similar to carbonara pasta. This takes some effort and patience, and you need to be careful not to squirt any of the sauce or toppings onto the counter, or yourself. You should also do the mixing before the noodles cool down since the coating process is more effective when the noodles are still hot. If you want to instagram your dish, you’ll need to do it fast. Sadly, the final result never looks pretty, which I guess is one of the reasons is isn’t served that way!
Menchintei’s Abura Soba
New abura soba restaurants and chains are constantly popping up all around Tokyo. I’ve been to a few and while they are indeed very good, my favourite has always been Menchintei. Since half the preparation is left to the customer, the difference between restaurants has a lot to do with the ingredients used, including the oils. According to Menchintei’s website, their signature taste comes from their sauce, and their chewy and firm medium-thick noodles. The name “menchin” itself is composed of the characters for noodles (“men” 麺) and rare (“chin” but is also read as “mezurashii” 珍しい). You can even buy packs of their noodles (including the sauce, oils and toppings) from their website so that you can make their abura soba at home.
Several years ago, I was taken to the original branch located in Shinjuku city; the full name is Tokyo Menchintei Tsurumaki-Cho 東京麺珍亭本舗 鶴巻町店, a 10-minute walk from Edogawabashi station on the Yurakucho line. After leaving the station, we followed a street parallel to the Kanda river, till we reached the broad Gaien-Higashi-dori Avenue. There are no other restaurants or shops in the neighbourhood, so I was surprised to see a line outside. However, it makes sense when you consider that Menchintei has the coveted rating of 3.5 on Tabelog and has less than ten counter seats inside. Also, since it costs less than regular ramen, it attracts a lot of cash-strapped students from nearby Waseda university. Fortunately, the line moved very quickly – it’s a ramen place after all. If you don’t like waiting, they have a second branch that is less busy, on Waseda-dori Avenue, about five minutes on foot from Waseda station. If you go outside the lunch hours, you’ll probably be seated fairly quickly. One last note on the original branch: their days off are irregular. In fact, there is a note outside saying that they’re closed on days the owner is in a bad mood!
I’d recommend ordering the “standard abura soba” or the “soft-boiled egg abura soba”. Like the oils, the egg yolk will coat the noodles, enhancing the flavour further. There is a “char-siu pork abura soba” that comes with a generous amount of braised pork slices. I had it once and was quite full afterwards. The standard version includes just one slice, and I find that to be sufficient. You’ll also need to choose the amount of noodles, from one ball (１玉 140gr 600 yen) to four balls (４玉 560gr 1000yen). This last option is called “oni-mori” or “demon serving” (鬼盛り) – something to consider if you have a monster appetite. When it comes to ramen servings, I usually find the regular size to be more than enough, since the soup can be quite filling. However since abura soba has no soup, you might want to go for a large-size portion or “omori” (1.5 balls 大盛 おおもり), especially if you are feeling hungry.
Menchintei’s staff recommend mixing the noodles first, without squirting on the oils, and try the dish simply like that. Then add the vinegar and chili oils (two or three circles each), and taste again. I usually add the oils before mixing, so I thought I would try their way once. It made me appreciate how the combination of those two oils upped the taste. The oils stick to the noodles better than the broth does, and I could clearly distinguish the sourness of the vinegar and the spiciness of the chili. Before you finish everything, you can add some other condiments that are available on the counter to enjoy different tastes: sesame seeds (“goma” ゴマ), garlic sauce (“ninniku-sosu” ニンニクソース), pepper (“kosho” コッショウ) and very spicy chili pepper (“togarashi” 唐辛子).
If you aren’t a frequent visitor to ramen restaurants in Tokyo, you might be put off by the worn out look inside Menchintei’s restaurants. Although it’s the standard look of the small tasty ramen joint, it’s a far cry from the image most people have of modern Tokyo restaurants. If that’s your case, I’d recommend Menchintei’s newest branch which opened in July 2019, five minutes on foot from Yotsuya-sanchome station on the Marunouchi line and ten minutes from the Tadaima Japan Shinjuku Ryokan. The interior is new and bright, and feels very different from the two other branches. Since it’s still relatively new, you can usually get a seat without waiting. There is a laminated sheet hanging next to the ticket machine with English translations.
I’ll end this article with one last thought: chili oil in Japanese is called “ra-yu” (ラー由 or 辣油 a combination of the characters for spicy and oil). Could this be the same “ra” that forms the first part of “ra-men” (ラーメン)? It isn’t really, but the coincidence is food for thought!
Read more about ramen on the Tadaima Japan website:
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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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