When we were planning our first trip to Japan one of our friends said to me 'Promise me you'll slurp ramen at the train station'.
At Matsumoto Station, I fulfilled that promise. With my limited recognition of Hiragana, beginners level spoken Japanese, a bit of pointing and help from the bevy of welcoming mama-sans working in the small platform restaurant I bought myself a 500 yen bowl of ramen and quickly slurped it down in the company of mostly suited fellow train travellers, with a couple of minutes to spare before we boarded the train to Kyoto.
We've travelled around Japan several times now, each time in early spring when the air is still cold and there's still a little snow on the ground. For a quick meal to get us through a busy afternoon of sightseeing, or at the end of the long, cold day when we are tired, there is nothing more enjoyable then a bowl of warm, steaming and nourishing ramen. It's a staple on our travels, and generally good value too.
Ramen is Chinese in its origins and regional varieties abound across Japan. Stock is the basis of ramen and hence a good stock is essential to its success. There's a cheesy film that I quite like called 'Ramen Girl' starring Brittany Murphy as an over-priviledged, aimless American woman in Tokyo who manages to get herself apprenticed to a Chef Maezumi at her local ramen restaurant. His memorable line from the film sums up what a good ramen is all about:
A bowl of ramen is a self-contained universe with life from the sea, the mountain and the earth all existing in perfect harmony. Harmony is the essential. What holds it all together is the broth. The broth gives life to the ramen.
As there are many regional varieties, there are a variety of broths available. My favourite is the tonkotsu broth, which is made from pork bones, resulting in a rich, thick, milky white stock. This type of ramen is associated with Fukuoka/Hakata. The best ramen we have ever had has been on the island of Kyushu and our favourite restaurant is Komurasaki in the city of Kagoshima, where you sit at the counter watching the stock master at work as you eat your ramen - it's mesmorising.
Not the best photograph but you get the idea
But I'm not really here to regale you with tales of our travels or film reviews. I'm here to review Ramen-Ya, a ramen restaurant tucked away down a laneway at the back of the GPO. We've been going here since they opened in late 2008, when they used to offer table service, and although we found the quality of the tonkotsu stock a bit disappointing late last year (I have found its quality to be a bit inconsistent over time), things are back on track and I have to say that I think it's one of the better ramen restaurants in Melbourne.
Ramen-Ya prides itself on offering authentic Fukuoka/Hakata-style ramen. Three types of stock are available to choose from - miso, shoya (soy) and tonkotsu, and four toppings to choose from- char siu, minced chicken, gyoza and seafood gyoza. My preferred combinations are the miso stock with minced chicken and the tonkotsu with char siu, which is my favourite and the one I always go back to. The standard price is $10 a bowl however I order some extra char siu which adds a couple of dollars to the cost. Still good value in my book.
The ramen is served in a large bowl with a generous amount of chewy, tangled noodles, topped with spring onions, bamboo shoots, fish cake, pickled ginger (yes, the bright red stuff), pickled seaweed and a boiled egg (not as soft as it could be but I'm not complaining), all nestled in their proper place. The stock was lovely and rich on the night that we went and flecked with pork fat, coating the noodles as you slurped them up. All very tasty and welcome on a cold night.
We often find ourselves at Ramen-Ya on cold and wet Melbourne evenings, when the rain dripping over the awnings, the tea lights casting a dim glow over the tables and the dankness of the laneway makes for a melancholy atmosphere. A bowl of ramen on nights like this is comfort indeed. I recommend you try it too.
Ramen and bento boxes available from $10
350 Bourke Street
350 Bourke Street