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Text by Mikko Takala.
Photos by Tommi Anttonen.
All the important sights and activities of Fukuoka are within walking distance or a couple of metro stops of each other; and the locals are noticeably friendlier than in the busier metropolises. Monocle magazine has ranked Japan’s sixth-largest city as one of the world’s most liveable cities. And compared to Osaka or Tokyo, Fukuoka offers an easier introduction to Japanese food culture.
The city burst onto the world’s culinary map in 2014 when Michelin published a guide to Fukuoka restaurants. The biggest surprise was the number of restaurants earning Michelin stars, about as many as in Hong Kong or London. Still you can get by just fine even without a guidebook, as Fukuoka is best known for its street food and its rich tonkotsu ramen noodles soup.
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 many kinds of food at reasonable prices. Take a seat at the counter and order by pointing, because chances are you may not share a language. Food and drink are available until the wee hours, with customers queuing for an hour or two to eat at the best yatai spots.
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.
Many yatai stalls serve decent ramen noodles soup, but for the best bowlfuls 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. Based on the tare, ramen soups are divided into four types: salt, soy, miso, and tonkotsu ramens.
First up is a visit to Ichiran, which has grown into an international chain since it opened here in 1960. The original restaurant, on 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. If you aren’t fast enough, they get soggy. Slurping enhances the flavour and cools the noodles as they enter your mouth.
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 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.
Competition in the sector is tough, egged on by an army of bloggers and a dozen magazines devoted to ramen. This once-lowly dish gained new respect a few months ago when Michelin handed out its first star to a small, cheap Tokyo ramen restaurant.
“What’s the secret of good ramen? 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.
“I started out working as a private detective, but it was a depressing job. Then one day at an ordinary noodle shop I saw a little boy and his grandfather eating ramen, and they looked so happy that I decided to devote myself to this,” he recalls.
Twenty years ago, Japan did not yet have the kind of ramen culture as today. Restaurants made their own soba and udon noodles, but ramen places bought their noodles ready-made.
“For me the logical first step was to go to work at a flour manufacturer,” continues Irie. “I didn’t want to use anything artificial in my soup, including MSG flavour enhancer, which a lot of people are allergic to. So I went to a soy factory to learn how soy sauce is made. Then I began making my own sauce. It took several years of studying before I was ready to open Mengekijo Genei.”
Irie’s sauce costs more than 200 dollars per litre – but it’s not for sale, not even to chef Joël Robuchon, who holds a record number of Michelin stars.
“Robuchon tried to buy my sauce, but why should I give him mine? He can make his own,” says Irie with a grin. With two restaurants in Tokyo, Irie plans to open one in New York or Paris.
First we take Manhattan
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.
“Ramen has already established its position as a staple Japanese food in Western countries. The culture of noodles and obsession over soup will spread to Europe and the US, just like sushi did,” Kawahara predicts.
If you want to sample a cross-section of the whole country’s ramen offerings, the Canal City mall’s Ramen Stadium features eight popular ramen chains. The machine where you buy your meal tokens even has an English-language option!
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.
Five-month waiting list
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.
“These places don’t follow stiff etiquette. They have wide-ranging menus and reasonable prices. An evening at an izakaya including drinks may cost 40 to 70 euros,” says Masahiko Kamesaki, who runs several izakaya in Fukuoka.
We’re sitting in a room lined with tatami mats at his Umi no Michi eatery. There is plenty of sake and cigar smoke, yet the food is far from typical bar food. The restaurant boasts one of Fukuoka’s biggest tanks full of seafood for customers to choose from. The pride of the restaurant is iki-zukuri, sashimi of live octopus, which is still alive when served. It doesn’t get any fresher than this. Kampai!
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
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 was 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.
3 x Shopping in Fukuoka
1. Jokyu Shoyu. Soy products including soy sauce made next door according to ancient methods. Japanese garden in the courtyard. 1-12-15 Daimyo Chuo-ku Fukuoka.
2. Toyokatsu. Hand-wrought kitchen knives. Shintencho Shopping Arcade 2-8-218 Tenjin chuo-ku Fukuoka
3. Wamono-ya Kaya. Colourful tenugui cloths and kitchenware at outlet prices. Marinoacity Fukuoka, 2-12-30 Odo Nishi-ku Fukuoka
This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of Finnair’s monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.