BACK IN 1981, WHEN HIDEHITO UKI OPENED SUN NOODLE.
RAMEN IS A DISH ASSOCIATED WITH JAPAN, BUT ITS ORIGIN WAS CHINA, AND ITS PROLIFERATION IN HAWAI‘I AND ACROSS THE UNITED STATES IS CLOSELY LINKED TO ONE LOCAL COMPANY, SUN NOODLE. Ramen arrived in Japan with Chinese traders in the early 1900s, and caught on as an inexpensive food that could feed many, according to Ramen Lab executive chef Shigetoshi Nakamura, who presented some of his specialties at The Kahala Hotel earlier this year. While cooking up his Torigara shoyu ramen and brothless steak mazeman, he said Tokyo’s first ramen shop opened in 1910 and was quickly embraced, eventually evolving from subsistence dish to a dish fetishized around the globe and mythologized via video games and specialty museums.
The local ramen scene was small back in 1981, when Hidehito Uki opened Sun Noodle. The few ramen shops already had relationships with other noodle makers, but said he was lucky that the owners of Ohotsuku and Ezogiku were willing to take a chance on a teenager with little experience, and asked whether he could make noodles exclusive to their shops. It took a lot of trial and error before they were satisfied, but the experience set the artisanal direction for Sun Noodle, which now has factories in Honolulu, California and New Jersey, with one more to come, in Houston, Texas, which has a growing number of ramen aficionados and is a gateway to new markets in Mexico and South America.
Through Ramen Lab ramen-ya incubator, the company now works with chefs around the globe to create customized recipes based on regional flavors and local ingredients that have resulted in New York Heritage Italian-inspired ramen noodles in a tomato broth topped with basil, crimini mushrooms, Italian sausage and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, or Arkansas BBQ rib and fried chicken ramen bowls.
But here in Hawai‘i the classics still prevail, and, assuming you trust the restaurateur’s choice of noodles, there are generally two considerations when ordering ramen: broth base and flavor- ing or broth heft.
Ramen broth is usually made from chicken or pork stock combined with such ingredients as kombu (kelp), bonito flakes, shiitake and onions. Contemporary broths may be vegetable based to serve a growing audience of people who choose meatless lifestyles. From here, people can choose from four different flavor profiles of ingredients added to that base:
Shoyu ramen: The addition of soy sauce to a chicken or vegetable soup base results in a clear brown broth, with a salty, savory flavor. Some shops serve sliced beef with this type of ramen instead of more common pork chashu.
Shio ramen: This pale, yellowish broth is accented with salt. In keeping with the light, clarity of the broth, kamaboko is often served in place of chashu.
Miso ramen: This style of ramen is relatively new, starting in Hokkaido about 1965. Miso and is blended with an oily chicken, fish or tonkotsu broth to create a thick, slightly sweet and hearty soup. Because of its strong flavor, these types of ramen bowls are often accompanied by a variety of toppings, from ground pork to butter and corn.
Kare ramen: Like miso ramen, this curry-flavored soup holds up with a variety of toppings.
Tantan: The Japanese version of Sichuan-style dan dan noodles features a reddish, spicy chili-and-sesame soup, usually containing minced pork, garnished with chopped scallion and chili and topped with baby bok choi. It’s one of the signatures at locally owned Goma Tei Ramen shops.
Tsukemen: With this dish, noodles are served cold for dipping in a strong flavored broth. Ramen aficionados often prefer this format because the noodles retain their firm texture without turning flabby from time spent soaking in broth, and dipping each strand results in a rich umami coating. It’s also perfect when summer days prove to be too hot for soup. The broth usually calls for such flavor-packed ingredients as mirin, soy sauce, kombu, dried bonito flakes, garlic, mushrooms, miso, ginger, bean paste and sesame oil.
Extra: AGU A Ramen Bistro has been a local leader in pushing the boundaries of acceptable ramen. Some of his creations over the past few years have included yuzu ramen for a refreshing citrus flavor, and heavier styles such as founder/owner Hisashi Uehara’s “OG
Kotteri” incorporating black garlic oil, garlic chips and rendered pork fat, and a Parmesan kotteri with a mound of the freshly grated cheese.
Broth weight is measured in its thickness, from the clarity of assari-style ramen to cloudiness of thick tonkotsu broth.
Assari: These broths are clear and thin, usually flavored with more vegetables, fish, or bones cooked briefly at a light simmer to avoid cloudiness.
Tori paitan: “Paitan” refers to a milky white soup and can refer to one made with chicken or pork bones. Medium weight tori paitan is specifically made from chicken bones with a mix of vegetables and kombu for additional flavor.
Tonkotsu: This thick white broth is made from boiling pork bones for hours to extract the fat and collagen that gives this broth its cloudy, weighty character. Pork oils give it a silky, luxurious viscosity. This broth is the specialty at Golden Pork Tonkotsu Ramen Bar on King Street.
Kotteri: Like tonkotsu broth, long- boiled pork bones give kotteri ramen a thick, heavy richness from emulsified fat, protein and collagen. Because of its collagen content, it’s often sold as a beauty food to replace lost collagen in older women. Locally, Tenkaippin on Kapahulu Avenue is a specialist in kotteri-style ramen.