Okinawa ain’t got much going for itself in terms of ramen. That is because instead Okinawans take pride in their soba, a noodle soup dish indigenous to the islands that is nothing like the thin buckwheat noodles that you’re probably envisioning. But the topic of soba we’ll save for another day. Right now, it’s all about the ramen.
Even though I do like Okinawa soba, a friend and I were lamenting a few weeks ago how much it sucks that ramen isn’t the big deal down here that it is in other parts of Japan. While there are surely a significant number of mostly chain (but entirely oishii) ramen restaurants here–which you better believe we make a point to hit up on a regular basis–there are just so many more awesome spots to try on “the mainland,” encompassing a wider range of variety as well. To learn all about the delicious world of ramen, I suggest starting here at my friend Keizo’s blog, which documents his journey from LA native to ramen chef/connoisseur in Tokyo… the man literally does not go a day without eating at least one (but perhaps two or three) bowls of ramen! PS he is also one of the people who’ve inspired me to update my blog daily for the next few weeks–despite his busy schedule, he is ever-so-diligent about posting ramen content for every day without fail. Now that’s passion!
Anyway, though I’m no expert on ramen I do have to say that I like it quite a lot. It rained again tonight (one of those crazily-windblown evenings where rain somehow manages to fall from every possible direction), and thus the second best alternative to sitting at home listening to the rain was to grab a bowl of steaming noodles and broth with some buddies! We met up, umbrellas in hand, at Kouryu Ramen in Naha, my favorite ramen-ya (ya = restaurant or shop in this case) on the island so far.
Kouryu specializes in Hakata Ramen, originally from the island of Kyushu, which has a scrumptiously thick tonkotsu (pork bone) based broth, slurpaliciously thin, straight noodles, and an additional splendidly spicy sauce that gives everything even more of a kick. But the best part about the place is the degree to which you can customize your ramen–while many ramen-ya allow you to do so, Kouryu definitely takes it to the next level by letting you choose every last detail of your bowl. How do they do this? Read on!
First, as is typical of most legit ramen-ya, when you arrive at Kouryu you choose your order from a ticket vending machine. Here, the machine is actually outside, before you even enter the restaurant. You pop in your cash, select your order, and the machine spits out your ticket (unless you have exact change, make sure to hit the change button/lever when you’re done).
The abundance of pictures on Japanese menus has been so key to me not going hungry in this country! Here’s my friend Guranto picking out his self-customizable bowl of ramen.
Next, you enter and sit down. Some ramen-ya have counter space only, tables, or both; Kouryu in Naha is tiny, so there’s just a counter.
Oftentimes there will be a basket, shelf, or at Kouryu, hangers, in which to store your stuff. I forgot a jacket (and was thus pretty cold once we went back outside), so I just hung up my purse.
Once seated, the staff take your tickets, which look like this:
Now, here’s where the staff might ask you how you’d like your noodles cooked, how oily you want your broth, etc (hopefully you know Japanese if this is the case). However, at Kouryu, because their M.O. is all about having your ramen “your way,” they make this process even easier by equipping us with detailed personal order forms.
And then, they make it even EASIER for bad foreigners who haven’t been studying their Japanese…
Now you can specify EXACTLY how you want your completely personalized bowl to turn out simply by circling your choices. Here’s what I ended up choosing this evening for my work of art: thin noodles, cooked very hard, “normal” sauce, normal oil, “you betcha” to leeks, 3x the spicy sauce, hai to roast pork! And it doesn’t end there… next, as long as you chose the correct option back at the machine, you can select four MORE toppings of your choice (“from 8 kinds of food,” hehe). Tonight I went with the mustard greens, cloud ear (a stringy brown mushroom), a perfectly boiled egg (so delish), and garlic chips. I also like getting bamboo shoots sometimes. Of course if you’re a fan of green onions, you can add double the leeks; if you’re a pork fan, an additional slab of stewed pork is a good option too.
Hand the sheet to the cooks, and in no time (especially if you chose ハリガネ noodles, “like sticks,” in which case they just barely soak them) they’ll be handing you back your bowl of delicious ramen, 100% made-to-order. Here’s mine!
Mmm, noodles like sticks… just the way I like ’em! (They really aren’t that hard; I just like my noodles al dente ok?).
Here’s what some other people got. Tsukemen ramen (the noodles and other contents are separate from the broth, in which you dip the noodles… the broth can be either hot or cold I think, though this one is cold):
Ra-yu ramen, sans the broth but chock-full of flavorful chili oil that had my friend Oz sweating up a storm:
Oftentimes, ramen-lovers will be so enthralled with their noodles that they slurp them all right up, and there’s still a ton of soup left. Solution? Kaedama, or a second serving of noodles (costs about 1-2 bucks). Most of the time you just “sumimasen” the staff for this, but Kouryu has these gumball machine-like contraptions at the counter for you to stick your coins into if you’re still hungry. The lantern lights up, and they bring you more noodles. Genius, right?!
I’ve definitely been known to get kaedama on several occasions, but I passed tonight, since instead in the beginning (in my starving state) I also got myself a side order…
Gochisousama! That was certainly a feast.
As full as we were afterward, the sheer amount of sodium in ramen has a tendency to cause one’s tastebuds to do a full 180… we were craving something sweet. Our solution?
The end of Ramen Part I! Can you guess which one of us is actually Okinawan? Hint: it’s not me :)