Ramen heads – as aficionados are known – often have a story about the bowl that got them hooked. For British-American chef Tim Anderson, it came in 2004 on a chance visit to the family-run ramen shop Daikokuya in Los Angeles. “It was a tonkotsu with standard toppings,” he says. “The only unusual thing was the noodles, which weren’t thin, straight and hard but curly, thick and yellow, like you’d find in a Tokyo shoyu ramen. The sensory impact – I’d never had anything like it. This rich, creamy, porky bowl of ramen. Every mouthful different. You slurped the noodles and picked up bits of crunchy beansprout, sharp spring onion, vinegary pickled ginger, braised pork chashu. I was talking to my friend and lost track of the conversation. I was so involved.”

The dish prompted a research trip to Japan, where Anderson deepened his knowledge of ramen and also later met his wife, with whom he now has two children. It led to him winning MasterChef UK in 2011 in part by making a ramen dish (with truffled lobster gyoza) in the final. He launched Nanban, a London ramen chain (which has since closed), and published a series of books on Japanese cuisine. That bowl of tonkotsu changed his life. 

Freshly rolled ramen strands, from Tim Anderson’s Ramen Forever
Freshly rolled ramen strands, from Tim Anderson’s Ramen Forever © Laura Edwards

For most of us, ramen is more likely to change our mood than our life. But it’s testament to the layers of flavour, comfort and complexity in a great bowl of ramen that we recognise its power to inspire devotion. What started out as a cheap, nourishing way of feeding a hungry population in postwar Japan has grown into an obsession among chefs, who make kodawari (roughly meaning “artisanal”) ramen using high-quality ingredients and handmade noodles.

But what is ramen? Unlike other noodle soups, ramen uses a specific alkaline wheat noodle (udon and soba are not ramen). The alkaline salts (kansui) lend the noodles their satisfying chew and elasticity, which sets them apart from other types such as egg or rice. Ramen also embodies broth (chintan, a light clear broth, or paitan, a richer, fattier broth); tare (a liquid seasoning built around salt, soy sauce or miso); fat (such as schmaltz or chilli oil for flavour and body); and toppings, of which eggs are often the most fetishised, especially among westerners. “Who can blame them?” asks Anderson. “A perfect ramen egg is truly rapturous – the salty sweetness of the marinade, the firm and bouncy white, the rich and jammy yolk – it is how we always want eggs to taste.”

Roast chicken and corn bowl from Luke Findlay’s Supa Ya Ramen (Pavilion)
Roast chicken and corn bowl from Luke Findlay’s Supa Ya Ramen (Pavilion) © Sam Ashton/Pavilion

Ramen is now a global phenomenon but cultural differences persist. In Japan, certain shops impose strict rules: no talking, no mobile phones, no babies, no perfume. Customers are expected to eat and go. All you hear is slurping. In the west, diners like to chat over their bowls and even go on ramen first dates. “That is bizarre,” says chef Luke Findlay of Supa Ya Ramen in London’s Dalston, where bookings are in 60-minute-max slots and “non-authentic” ramen options include roast chicken and corn, and fried cabbage and cheese. “Ramen is not a sociable food,” says Findlay. “Your head buried in a bowl, your top getting splattered. It’s hard to have a conversation.” 

And yet how a person faces down a scalding hot bowl speaks volumes about compatibility. In Ivan Ramen, Ivan Orkin’s recipe-filled account of launching two cult ramen shops in Tokyo in the early 2000s, the American chef fondly recalls the times a “cute girl wearing Chanel” would walk in and absolutely go to town: “There’s fat splashing all over her fancy shirt, her face is glistening with beads of fat and sweat. She’s just like, ‘F**k it, I’m eating ramen.’” 

Tenmaru ramen restaurant in London
Tenmaru ramen restaurant in London © Dalton Tucker

Now Menya Kisso in Tokyo, Aji No Daio in Muroran, Keyaki in Sapporo and Himawari in Asahikawa count among the best ramen shops in Japan. In the UK, London chains Ippudo and Tenmaru get Anderson’s endorsement. But he reserves higher praise for Matsudai Ramen in Cardiff, where chef James Chant offers a small menu of classic and vegan tonkotsu alongside spicy “sunset red” tonkotsu and house shoyu. His ramen mail-kits are available nationwide. Findlay also lists Tomo No Ramen in Bristol, Everyday People in Nottingham, New Wave Ramen in Manchester and Maneki Ramen in Worcester; and, in Europe, Slurp in Copenhagen, Hrimnir in Oslo, Ramen Momo in Reykjavik and Koie Ramen in Sweden and Norway. Anderson’s top US picks include Akahoshi Ramen in Chicago, Tsujita in Los Angeles, Black Dynasty in Nashville and Totto in New York.

Shio paitan ramen from Kinoya in Harrods dining hall
Shio paitan ramen from Kinoya in Harrods dining hall

Also worth mentioning is Kinoya, an izakaya and ramen concept from chef Neha Mishra in Harrods’ Dining Hall. An import from Dubai, Kinoya claims use of superior ingredients to other London offerings in bowls costing £25 to £29.50. For a food often seen as cheap and cheerful, Kinoya offers a convincing model for ramen as a premium experience. 

Supa Ya Ramen by Luke Findlay (Harper Collins, £26)

Supa Ya Ramen by Luke Findlay (Harper Collins, £26)

Ramen Forever by Tim Anderson (Hardie Grant, £26)

Ramen Forever by Tim Anderson (Hardie Grant, £26)

Those keen to make their own will appreciate Anderson’s benevolent sensei of a cookbook Ramen Forever, which offers detailed instructions on demanding aspects such as making broth and noodles from scratch, with more basic tips and solutions. These include what to look for in shop-bought noodles (they should contain sodium carbonate, potassium carbonate and/or E numbers 500 and 501 in the ingredients list) and recipes for “Whole Chicken Ramen”, “Leftover Nando’s Ramen” (as if you ever have any) and “‘Nothing Special’ Ramen” (a low-effort version using instant ramen with fridge and pantry staples). Findlay started out making supper-club ramen in a domestic kitchen, and in his book Supa Ya Ramen suggests using a pressure cooker to make stock in about 90 minutes that would traditionally take 10 hours. You could buy good stock too.  

To make your perfect ramen, though, you need to know what you’re aiming for. Ramen exists in infinite forms. Do you want it funkier, spicier, black garlic-infused, wonton-topped, tantanmen-style (after Sichuan dan dan noodles), or even soup-less (a variety known as mazemen)? “Slurp as much as you can as research” is Anderson’s advice. Even those with no intention of making their own can get behind that.  


“Nothing Special” ramen

A pan of “nothing special” ramen
© Laura Edwards

This recipe is designed to tick the proper ramen box from common refrigerator and store cupboard ingredients when you don’t have any good broth, nor tare, nor oils, nor nothing!
Makes 1 serving

20g (0.7oz)lard
80g (2.8oz)pork mince
½onion, thinly sliced
A big handfulbeansprouts
2garlic cloves, grated
1 tbspsesame oil
2 tbspred miso
1 tbspsugar
1 tbspwhite wine
1 tbsptomato purée
2 tbspshōyu
1 tbsppeanut butter or tahini
A pinch eachwhite pepper and smoked paprika
1 tbspgrated parmesan or cheddar
1 portionshop-bought noodles
A big pinchsesame seeds
1spring onion, thinly sliced
Chilli oil, to taste (optional)
Salt, to taste
  1. In a wok or medium saucepan, melt the lard over a high heat and add the pork mince, anchovies and onion. Stir-fry for a few minutes, breaking up the anchovies as you go, until the pork is cooked through and the onion has begun to soften. Toss in the beansprouts and garlic and stir-fry for another one or two minutes, then tip everything out into a bowl. 

  2. Add the sesame oil to the pan and set over a medium heat, then add the miso and sugar and fry it for a few minutes until the aroma becomes rich and caramel-like. Stir in the white wine, tomato purée, shoyu and peanut butter or tahini and cook for another few minutes, then add the pepper, paprika, water and cheese. Bring to the boil, add the noodles and cook them to your liking. 

  3. Once they’re done, taste the broth and add salt or more water as needed – different noodles will absorb different amounts of liquid, so you’ll have to adjust for this accordingly. Transfer the broth and noodles to a bowl and top with the stir-fried mince and veg, and garnish with the sesame seeds and spring onion. Add as much chilli oil as you like.

    Extracted from Ramen Forever by Tim Anderson

Miso curry butter chicken bowl

Luke Findlay’s miso curry butter chicken bowl
© Sam Ashton/Pavilion

Messy, rich, buttery nonsense. This is a bit tricky to make for one bowl, so make a batch of it and keep some to eat over rice.
Serves 1

3chicken breasts
3garlic cloves
200gnatural yoghurt
5 tspgaram masala
1 tbspground coriander
2½ tspground cumin
1 tbspsmoked paprika
2 tspground turmeric
2 tspchilli powder

For the sauce

3garlic cloves
5 tspgaram masala
2½ tbspground coriander
5 tspground cumin
2 tspchilli powder
400g canchopped tomatoes
200mldouble cream

To serve

1 portionnoodles
  1. Start by preparing the chicken. Cut the chicken into bite-size pieces and finely chop the garlic and ginger. Put the chicken in a bowl and add the chopped garlic and ginger, natural/plain yogurt, all the spices and the miso. Mix everything together, cover and leave in the fridge overnight to marinate. Remove the chicken pieces from the marinade.

  2. For the sauce, heat the butter in a saucepan, add the chicken and fry it in the hot butter, getting a nice colour all over. Remove from the pan and set aside.

  3. Finely chop the onion and garlic, and add them to the pan. Gently fry for a few minutes until softened. Add all the spices and cook slowly for 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook for another 5 minutes.

  4. Pour the sauce into a blender or food processor and blitz to a fine purée. Pour the sauce into a clean pan and add the double/heavy cream and miso (check for seasoning, it might take a little more miso). Add the chicken to the sauce and gently tick over until the chicken is cooked through. Cover and leave to rest in the fridge, ideally overnight or for a couple of hours, but if you can’t wait, it’ll still be good to go straight away.

  5. To serve, warm the sauce and cook the noodles in unsalted water for 1 minute 10 seconds (the noodles should always be cooked in unsalted boiling water for 1 minute 10 seconds. Always. Unless you want less of a chew, then you can cook them for longer – just keep testing them until you get the right bite for you).

  6. Put the noodles in a ramen bowl, pour over the sauce and chicken and give it a good mix.

    Extracted from Supa Ya Ramen: Ramen Reinvented, by Luke Findlay

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