Kyushu Ramen: Differences by Region and Great Local Restaurants
Ramen, a Japanese dish that has now become popular around the world and is considered Japan’s soul food has different characteristics and flavors depending on the region. In a past article, I have introduced the ramen of Hokkaido. This time, I want to show you the ramen of Kyushu, another completely different style of ramen!
Hakata Ramen has now become one of the major types of ramen along with the ramen of Tokyo and Sapporo. It can be considered one of the Big 3 of ramen. When you hear, Tonkotsu Ramen of Kyushu, I’m sure many of you envision the ramen of Hakata. The characteristic of Hakata Ramen is the tonkotsu soup and the very thin noodles. Tonkotsu soup is made from cooking pork bones under high heat for long hours. By doing so, the flavors of the marrow are extracted and the fats are emulsified in the soup. Depending on the part of the pork they use or the length of time that it is cooked can bring out different flavors. So, even if it’s the same tonkotsu type of soup, each ramen restaurant has a specific method in coming up with their own flavor of soup.
The most common toppings for Hakata ramen are cha-shu pork (char siu/roast pork) and kikurage (cloud ear mushrooms). There are often other toppings that you can add at the table such as ground garlic, red pickled ginger and sesame. The tonkotsu soup is quite high and fat so the garlic and red ginger can be used as a palette cleanser and helps reduce the greasy feel and smell of pork.
Having a system called “kaedama” is also the Hakata style. Once you finish eating the noodles in your bowl, you can have an additional serving of just the noodles to add in your soup. The thin noodles can get too soft very quickly in your bowl of soup, but by having additional noodles added later with this kaedama, you can always enjoy firm al-dente noodles.
In fact, it is said that the kaedama originated in the Nagahama ramen. Nagahama ramen refers mainly to the ramen of Nagahama of Chuo-ku, Fukuoka City. In the past, Hakata ramen and Nagahama ramen were considered different styles of ramen. However, in recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to differentiate the two styles and they are now considered almost synonymous. The reason the kaedama system was developed in Nagahama is because of its fish markets. The workers of the market had to eat very quickly in between their bidding. So, the thin noodles that could be cooked in a short time were served in smaller portions, and then additional noodles could be ordered as kaedama for those who could stay a little longer and wanted more noodles.
Ramen restaurants such as Ippudo who serve the Hakata style ramen have been opening not only all over Japan but overseas as well. It has helped spread the popularity of the Hakata ramen.
Among the ramen from Kyushu, Kumamoto ramen ranks second in fame following the Hakata ramen. It is a similar type of ramen to the Hakata ramen that it is a tonkotsu ramen using the pork marrow soup. The appearance of the soup is also a milky white color so it may look similar to the Hakata ramen.. The difference is that Kumamoto ramen uses a thicker type of noodle compared to Hakata ramen. For their tonkotsu soup, they blend soup from extracted from chicken as well so the flavors are a bit milder. Additionally, in Hakata, garlic is used raw. In Kumamoto it is often fried or toasted and used as garlic chips, or it is used in an oil to get a roasted toasty flavor. The standard toppings are cha-shu, kikurage and takana (pickled leaf mustard).
Kurume is considered to be the “Original Kyushu Ramen” and said to have had influence on the ramen of all the prefectures of Kyushu other than Kagoshima. The type of soup is similar to Hakata, and is tonkotsu. The most famous Kyushu ramen are now from Hakata/Nagahama. However in 1937, the first ramen to be born in Kyushu was out of Kurume City. The soup of that time did use pork bones but was not a milky colored soup. The popularity of the milky colored soup spread all over Kyushu about 10 years after. It was accidentally created in a ramen restaurant called “San Kyu” in Kurume City when the soup was overheated. The ramen of San Kyu and Kurume had a great influence on the ramen of various parts of Kyushu such as Kumamoto, Oita, Northern Kyushu and Miyazaki, with Kagoshima being the exception.
Kurume ramen is similar to Hakata ramen that the soup is a tonkotsu soup and the noodles are straight and not wavy. There is a lot of similarity in the toppings as well, but there are many restaurants that place sheets of seaweed as a topping.
The Kagoshima ramen is said to be the only ramen of Kyushu that has not been influenced by the style of Kurume. They have an independent ramen culture within Kyushu; it is unique and does not resemble the other ramen of Kyushu. First of all, for the soup, they use mainly pork marrow but also chicken and vegetable stock. The soup is clear compared to that from ramen of other prefectures of Kyushu. It is a little less fatty as well. As for the noodles, it differs with the ramen of other parts of Kyushu because it is white in color and a softer style of noodle. They use a thicker type of noodle that is similar to the Okinawa style soba as well as a thinner type of noodle that has its origins in the rice noodles from Taiwan. In most ramen restaurants in Kyushu, they offer daikon radish pickles for free, which is also characteristic of the region.
Now that we are seeing colder weather, it really makes you crave the rich flavor of Tonkotsu ramen! Kyushu ramen can now be enjoyed even outside of Kyushu. Do try the different tonkotsu flavor of each ramen restaurant and keep warm for the winter months!