February 20, 2013: Ramen wars.
There is, apparently, a ramen war being waged in Australia. But for an article I read by a wannabe foodie in the newspaper, I wouldn’t have known. And, having frequented Sydney establishments such as Ramen-kan, Ichiban Boshi and Oiden, the idea of a ramen war sounded about as absurd to me as a war over who has the best white rice or barbecue pork buns in Chinese food.
But that was until I found out who the players are. It turns out I’ve been eating regularly and quite unintentionally at one of the establishments that’s right in the thick of this war. The article I read explained that these ‘new age’ ramen restaurants put more into their soups and apply serious culinary technique to the preparation of the contents of each bowl and, after thinking about it in hindsight, I realised they were right. All this time, the only thing on my mind was “For twelve bucks, this bowl of ramen had better be amazing”. And it always was. It just never occurred to me why.
A quick qualification before I go any further: while I’m very familiar with Japanese food, I wouldn’t dare to claim native familiarity. I’m sensitive to such claims, particularly after a former work colleague declared vociferously that I’m an idiot for thinking 小籠包 (aka xiao long bao) have been around for years. I didn’t know how or where to begin explaining just how wrong he was, so I was happy to just let him continue embarrassing himself by saying that it’s the “latest thing” out of China. But I digress.
The ramen I’d been unwittingly eating was at Ramen Zundo, located in World Square on the south end of the Sydney CBD. The soup is a wonderful double-broth, the vegetables are fresh, and the tonkotsu slices melt evenly in your mouth. The ramen itself, however, is obviously from a packet, but I don’t mind so much because the soup is so fantastically balanced with the vegetables and the seaweed slices.
The next establishment I tried was Gumshara Ramen, located in a corner food court at the Goulburn Street end of Chinatown. I’d heard plenty about this place and, in fact, it’s the place referenced most in the press as being the ramen joint with the thickest and most satisfying soup. Unfortunately that seems to be Gumshara’s only legitimate claim, though even then I’d dispute how satisfying it is. With soups that have been thickened with marrow and bone, and sometimes with what looks like a t-bone steak thrown in as a condiment, consuming a bowl of Gumshara’s ramen is like trying to inhale a hot bowl of blended meat. The noodles and everything else that went into the bowl may as well not even be there – it’s near impossible to distinguish the flavours. I didn’t enjoy this place nearly as much as as Ramen Zundo.
The latest place I’ve tried is Ippudo (一風堂) at the Pitt Street Westfields in Sydney. Pictured here is their standard ramen, with a hard boiled egg (with a soft, runny centre) that’s worth the extra two dollars. It’s a little more expensive than Ramen Zundo and Gumshara Ramen, and the serving sizes are just a tiny bit smaller by comparison, but you can see where the money goes. Unlike the other two places, the ramen here is made fresh on the premises. I’m not sure if it’s something that people can tell in the same way that Chinese people know that fish is fresh or frozen, but you can taste the difference in these noodles. And they’re fantastic. The soup, while not as punchy in flavour as Ramen Zundo, is laced with subtlety.
If I had to score these places out of ten, it’d be:
Ippudo – 9 – great noodles, good soup, amazing egg, great atmosphere
Ramen Zundo – 8 – great soup, shame about the noodles, nice atmosphere
Gumshara Ramen – 6 – much too thick. And WTF with the bin-diving homeless guy in the food court area??
Novel as these places are, I don’t think I’d ever treat the ramen served in these establishments as the norm. In Asian dining, soup is usually only meant to be a filler, the same way bread is treated in Western society. Sure, you can have great bread, but it’s unusual for it to be the crowning glory of one’s meal.
Then again, I could never say no to a loaf of sourdough from Sonoma…