From Hello Kitty to Japan Hour to Ayumi Hamasaki, Singaporeans are hooked on all things Japanese. But the one thing that locals love most about Japan is undoubtedly its great-tasting food. Japanese food has fast become a staple in the average Singaporean diet and one can find Japanese restaurants everywhere, offering a wide range of dishes from high-end sashimi to a simple fare of sushi or teppanyaki.
In recent years however, the humble everyday ramen noodle has gained popularity among Singaporeans, evident by the increasing number of ramen outlets mushrooming in the country.
Don Teo, 33, manager and chef at Ohsho agrees. "Ramen is the craze right now because Singaporeans favour Japanese food. They also travel a lot and are exposed to different types of Japanese cuisines and cultures, which is why they appreciate ramen so much."
"Japanese food, especially Ramen, is getting more popular in Singapore," says Mr Takagi Takaaki, 57, owner of ramen shop Tampopo. "Not only is it tasty, it is also very affordable."
Ramen originated in China thousands of years ago and was introduced to Japan by the Chinese around the 17th century. Though the origin of the word "ramen" is unclear, most believe it to be a Japanese translation of the Chinese word "la mian", meaning hand-pulled noodles.
When trying to distinguish between different types of ramen, it is important to take into consideration the two main and most obvious factors, namely the soup and noodles.
Oodles of noodles
There are many different variations of ramen in Japan and each prefecture, province, city and town has its own unique taste, texture and flavour as well as appearance. Three cities famous in Japan for ramen are Hakata, Sapporo and Kitakata, where the humble ramen has attained national prominence. So if you are ever in the region, do make it a point to stop by and try a bowl of ramen.
Hailing from the Hakata district in Fukuoka, Hakata ramen can be easily recognised by its firm texture and thin, straight appearance. This noodle is typically paired with the rich and milky tonkotsu broth and topped usually with cha shu (roast pork), benishoga (pickled red ginger) or takana (pickled vegetables).
Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, is especially famous for miso ramen as the rich-tasting dish originated there. Sapporo ramen is curly and thicker than most ramen and is usually topped with sweetcorn, butter, beansprouts or stir fried vegetables. Due to the harsh cold winters in Sapporo, this dish is usually served piping hot and its thick, chewy noodles work well to keep one full.
Kitakata ramen has its roots in Kitakata in northern Honshu and features flat, wide and curly noodles which are chewy in texture. Served best with a clear soup made from pork bones or chicken stock, popular toppings for Kitakata ramen include sliced char shu, menma bamboo and spring onions.
In hot soup
Ramen is usually differentiated by its broth, which is typically prepared from stock using chicken, pork or a combination of both as its main base, and later flavoured with salt, miso or soya sauce. In Singapore, the four most popular types of ramen are shio (salt based), sho-yu (soya sauce), tonkotsu (pork bones) and miso (fermented soy beans), each catering to a different taste palate.
Shio - shio ramen comes in a light, clear soup with a slightly salty flavour. This soup base is popular with diners who prefer a light meal as the soup is not thick and cloudy, unlike other types. Due to its lighter taste, shio ramen relies more on its condiments and toppings to bring out its taste and is typically accompanied with fresh vegetables like leek, onion and bamboo shoot.
Sho-yu - Popular in Tokyo, sho-yu ramen is also served in a clear soup, except with a slightly darker colour owing to its soya sauce base.
Tonkotsu- Perhaps the heaviest of all soup bases, tonkotsu ramen comes in a cloudy, white soup. This milky colour is the result of boiling liberal amounts of pork over high heat to release the essence of the meat and bones, giving tonkotsu ramen its characteristic richness.
Miso - The pride of Sapporo, miso ramen is served in a cloudy, salty soup and derives much of its rich flavour from fermented soy beans, the main ingredient in Miso.
The various soup bases of ramen work well to cater to different taste palettes, thus ensuring that almost everyone is able to find something to their liking, says a representative from Aoba, a ramen restaurant. For example, shio ramen is a clear soup-based ramen, suitable for people who like their ramen light in taste and texture, whereas tonkotsu ramen is milky in colour, which is rich and dense.
Singaporeans just love their ramen
No matter where each ramen restaurant hails from, one thing's for sure. Singaporeans are loving the Japanese-style noodles and cannot get enough of it, judging by long queues snaking outside these niche establishments around the island.
"I've always loved Japanese food, especially ramen, and in the last two years I've noticed more ramen outlets opening - which is a good thing for me!" says Florence Kuah, 32, a retail manager at SingTel. "I like tonkotusu ramen and usually have my fix at Muratama Ra-Men at least twice a month."
Here are eight restaurants serving up mouth-watering ramen
If you've ever wanted to try a piping hot bowl of authentic Japanese-style ramen, read on.
177 River Valley Road #01-23/24 Liang Court
Average price: $23 - $25/person
Popular Dish: Shabu Shabu Black Pig Ramen
Opened in 2004, Tampopo serves up a good mix of authentic and contemporary cuisine, including ramen imported directly from Japan. The outlet offers Hokkaido ramen (a slightly more chewy texture) as well as Kyushu ramen (a thinner whiter noodle), with traditional soup bases like shio, sho-yu, miso and tonkotsu. Look out also for its signature shabu shabu black pig ramen, which is a hit among customers. Diners at Tampopo lean towards the slightly more mature working crowd, families, as well as Japanese expats.
Tampines 1, 10 Tampines Central 1, #03-16 - 19
Average Price: S$14/person (There is no service charge in Manpuku)
Popular Dishes: Sho-yu tontoro ramen, shio cha shu ramen and shio scallop ramen
Located in Manpuku Japanese Gourmet Town in Tampines 1, Aoba specialises in Asahikawa Hokkaido ramen and is a popular choice among customers who prefer a light, clearer ramen broth. Its two traditional soup bases, sho-yu and shio, are prepared with a unique recipe and blend of 12 natural ingredients, giving it a distinctive flavour and taste.
5 Koek Road #01-10 Cuppage Plaza
Average Price: $18/person
Popular Dish: Tamago Ramen
Ohsho is one of the older players in the ramen scene, having established itself seven years ago.
What sets Ohsho apart from its competitors is the fact that the restaurant offers, apart from the traditional shio, miso and sho-yu, other interesting dishes like garlic and tom yam ramen. It is no wonder then, that the establishment is popular among teenagers as well as the older working crowd.
7 North Canal Road
Average Price: S$9 for half portion S$13 for full portion of ramen
Popular Dishes: sho-yu butter and corn ramen, sho-yu ramen
Baikohken started over 41 years ago and traces its origins back to Hokkaido, Japan. The Singapore outlet opened two years ago and is the restaurant's first outside of Japan. Specialising in Hokkaido Asahikawa ramen, Baikohken offers three different types of soup base to go with it, namely shio, sho-yu and miso. Customers here are from all walks of life, though a lot of Japanese expats also patronise the outlet.
5. MARUTAMA RA-MEN
6 Eu Tong Sen Street, #03-90/91, Tel: 6534 8090
The Central @ Clarke Quay, 177 River Valley Road #02-01 Liang Court , Tel: 68372480
Average price: S$ 15 - 25/person
Popular Dish: Aka Ramen
Head to Muratama Ra-men for a taste of authentic Japanese cuisine. Unlike most outlets, the ramen here is handmade by its chefs, with ingredients fresh from Japan. The restaurant, with branches in Tokyo and Saitama, works with a chicken soup base to create a variety of tastes. Look out for its signature ramen, whose broth is made from a unique blend of seven different types of nuts. Dining here on weekdays, you will see the typical working crowd but if you come over the weekend, the scene changes as more Japanese expats patronise the outlets then.
6. SAPPORO RAMEN MIHARU
1 Nanson Road, The Gallery Hotel
Average Price: S$15 - S$20/person
Popular Dishes: Miso Tonkotsu, Tokusen Miso and Tokusen Tonshiro
Sapporo ramen Miharu uses fresh Sapporo Nishiyama noodles imported from Hokkaido, which are fatter in texture compared to the usual types of ramen. The restaurant, which has its roots in Chiba, Japan, offers four main types of ramen - miso ramen, tonkotsu ramen, sho-yu ramen and shio ramen and caters to the office crowd on weekdays and families of Japanese expats on weekends.
7. NOODLE HOUSE KEN
150 Orchard Road #01-17/18, Orchard Plaza
Average Price: S$11 - S$13/person
Popular Dishes: Tamago ramen and char siew ramen
Tucked away in the heart of Orchard Road, Noodle House Ken offers diners three different types of ramen - shio ramen, sho-yu ramen and miso ramen, all cooked from tonkotsu stock. With its centralised location, the outlet sees a variety of customers throughout the day. Lunch and tea time are filled with teenagers and younger working executives while dinner time usually sees an influx of Japanese expats to the outlet.
60 Robertson Quay #01-04, The Quayside
3 Pickering Street #01-32/33, China Square Central - Nankin Row
177 River Valley Road #B1-50 Liang Court (located in Medi-Ya Supermarket)
Average Price: S$15 - $20/person
Popular Dishes: Tonkotsu ramen, black pork shabu shabu, stewed black pork ramen
Ichibantei has been in operation for almost six years and has three outlets in central Singapore. Specialising in kyushu ramen, the restaurant offers a variety of soup bases to complement it, namely tonkotsu, sho-yu and miso. The outlet is also patronised frequently by expatriates and local Japanese living in the area.
What are your favourite ramen restaurants? Post your reviews here.
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