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A foodie’s guide to Fukuoka

Fukuoka, a port city on Japan’s southernmost Kyushu island, burst onto the world’s culinary map in 2014 when Michelin published a guide to the city’s restaurants.

Mikko Takala

The biggest surprise in Fukuoka was the number of restaurants earning Michelin stars, about as many as in Hong Kong or London. But the city’s real claim to food fame is its street food and its rich tonkotsu ramen noodles soup.

You can get by just fine without a guidebook, but why make it hard? We break it down here for you instead.

The secret to ramen is in the sauce.

Japanese comfort food

Ramen originally was – and remains – cheap, fast food, but since the 1980s it has become a matter of national obsession. Whereas other areas of Japanese cuisine are governed by strict ancient traditions, noodles were exempt and allowed experimentation. The public embraced this new culinary culture.

For the best bowlfuls of ramen, head to a dedicated ramen restaurant. Kyushu is the country’s pork production centre, so it’s no wonder that Fukuoka’s speciality, tonkotsu ramen, also known as hakata ramen, is based on pork bone broth. This long-simmered broth is murky and deeply flavoured. It has a rich aroma, which you can smell as you walk around the city, which has some 2,000 ramen shops.

Fukuoka’s wheat noodles tend to be narrower than elsewhere. A bowl of soup is usually topped with a couple of slices of chashu (pork), kikurage (mushroom), spring onion and pickled red ginger. If that’s not enough, the soup can be seasoned at the table with toasted sesame seeds and garlic. The broth and noodles are equally important, but so is the flavour base, known as tare.

First up is a visit to Ichiran, which has grown into an international chain since opened in 1960. The original restaurant, in a dim alleyway, takes quite an effort to find. After slipping some coins into the ticket dispenser in front of the restaurant to pre-pay for my meal, I look for a free booth. Next I mark on a piece of paper how well done I want my noodles as well as how strong and how spicy the broth should be. At the press of a button, a waiter picks up my order from behind a curtain. In a moment the steaming delight appears. There is nothing to distract one’s concentration as each diner is separated by screens. The complete silence is broken only by the occasional sound of slurping. The noodles are eaten piping hot and quickly.

Eating at ramen shops, one becomes accustomed to speed, silence, and conformity. Customers don’t linger at ramen restaurants, which typically only have about 20 seats. Most diners are in and out within 15 minutes.

Ramen rebel Hideki Irie, owner of Mengekijo Genei does his ramen differently.

“What’s the secret of good ramen, you may ask? Is it memorable? Normally ramen just fills the stomachs of the mass public. But I want to create something unforgettable and unusual,” says Hideki Irie, owner of the Mengekijo Genei ramen restaurant.

“I want my customers to have fun. I want them to chat with each other,” adds Irie, who refers to himself as a “ramen chemist.” His restaurant is designed like a theatre, with a direct view into the kitchen from the surrounding stands – set to the beat of loud dance music. With his glittery watch and trainers, Irie looks more like a pop star than a noodle cook.

Riverside mini-restaurants

The yatai is a not-to-be-missed institution. As evening falls, dozens of food stalls appear on city-centre sidewalks and along the Naka River on Nakasu Island. These mini-restaurants offer a variety of food at reasonable prices. Take a seat at the counter and order by pointing, because chances are you may not share a language.

These informal restaurants sprang up in the post-war era to serve low-income residents. As the city became wealthier, some image-conscious city fathers began to frown upon them. Permits for these mobile eateries are handed down within families, and new ones have not been granted for years. There are only about 150 yatai entrepreneurs left, and the number is shrinking. City leaders are however beginning to realise the significance of the yatai stalls for Fukuoka tourism.

Gyoza, often eaten as a side dish with ramen.

Late night snacking

In the West, the ramen boom began about a decade ago in New York, spreading throughout the US and then to Europe. Fukuoka’s Ippudo Ramen was the first ramen chain to open in New York, followed by Ichiran and Hide-Chan. Former hip-hopper Hideto Kawahara’s Hide-Chan chain began just a few blocks from Mengekijo Genei. Its short menu is based around traditional tonkotsu, but daily specials may include surprising flavour combinations from foie gras to pancetta. Kawahara also stresses the ramen maker’s freedom, and expects the soup to find new markets abroad.

For many, a bowl of noodles is best after a night on the town. While touring the bars of Oyafuko Dori, the main party street in the Tenjin neighbourhood, locals always have the same recommendation: Shin Shin. Upstairs from this side-street eatery, a boy band is practicing its dance moves in the middle of the night. The restaurant’s walls are scribbled with graffiti by local bands. Back in the ’70s, this neighbourhood gave birth to Mentai rock, named after another local delicacy mentaiko, which is marinated, sometimes fiery cod roe. Shin Shin’s basic ramen broth is perfectly kotteri (rich, oily and filling), while the noodles are slightly chewy and the pork slices melt in your mouth. Classic tonkotsu at four euros a bowl.

The food at Umi no Michi is far from typical bar food.

Fine dining

Beyond street food and ramen, Fukuoka also boasts 43 restaurants with Michelin stars, including a duo deemed worthy of three stars. Many of these are pricey kaiseki, sushi or fugu restaurants that do not actively court Western customers – while the three-star Sagano has a list of rules for behaviour for foreigners on its website. Some high-end restaurants welcome Westerners, though.

“Of course we want foreign customers,” says Naohiro Miyatake, who owns the fugu restaurant Hakata Izumi. “I know that some Fukuoka restaurants are hard to find and often don’t have menus in English. But our entire staff has studied English,” says the master chef, who has been slicing blowfish for 46 years.

Getting a table at some of these places is nearly impossible, even for natives. The small three-star sushi restaurant Gyoten, for instance, has a five-month waiting list. Most don’t take reservations directly, only through hotels, and by then it is usually too late for visitors.

For a broader, more easy-going palette of Japanese cuisine, try one of the city’s izakaya restaurants, the Japanese cousin of the gastropub. Their menus can include just about anything from sashimi, tempura, and tofu to hamburgers, pizza, and as expected ramen.

Text Mikko Takala
Photos Tommi Anttonen

Yakitori shops specialise in grilled, skewered chicken.

3 x musts in Fukuoka

1. Udon are wide wheat noodles, often served in clear broth with tempura vegetables. According to some food historians, udon were born in Fukuoka, which boasts a shrine dedicated to the noodles.

2. Yakitori shops specialise in grilled, skewered chicken, but also serve other kinds of meat such as butabara, grilled pork, as well as vegetables. Yakitori restaurants are casual places where locals hang out to read newspapers or manga comic books.

3. Gyoza. Steamed and fried dumplings filled with minced pork (or beef, chicken, and prawns) scallions, ginger, and garlic. Often eaten as a side dish with ramen.

Addresses:

Ichiran Tenjin, 1-10-15 Tenjin, Chuo-ku
Mengekijo Genei, 2-16-3 Yakuin Chuo-ku
Hide-Chan, 2-13-11 Kego Chuo-ku
Ramen Stadium, Canal City Hakata
Shin Shin, 3-2-19 Tenjin Chuo-ku
Hakata Izumi, 2-20-14 Sumiyoshi, Hakata-ku
Umi no Michi, Kimuraya bldg B1, 1-12-3. Tenjin Chuo-ku



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