|Classic Shio Ramen with Tokusen Toroniku pork cheeks.|
When I think of ramen noodles it evokes increasingly distant memories of my college days, when for twenty five cents I could buy a cellophane block of hard, dry noodles and a foil bullion pack which would sustain me through another night of, er, “studying.” Like so many of my neo-poverty colleagues, I practically lived on the stuff. It was cheap, salty and cooked up in about three minutes. It didn’t matter if the crusty noodles got smashed between the books and beer in my backpack because all I was looking for was a salt delivery system; just throw a little beef jerky in the pot and you had yourself a meal. That’s what I thought ramen was.
Years later a friend invited me to a lunch of real ramen – a food I had thought little of since those lean college days. I hesitated before accepting the dubious invitation; my disbelief suspended only because this guy is a well-established “foodie.” He spoke of things I had never associated with ramen: “globules of shiny fat,” alkaline noodles and umami. It didn’t sound like the ramen of my youth and I began to wonder if, perhaps, I had missed something along the way. Still, I approached the half-curtained entry to Ramen Santouka in the Central at Clarke Quay warily, preoccupied by visions of plastic bowls filled with grey, watery soup and flavorless stale noodles. I could not have been more mistaken.
What I did not know upon entering Ramen Santouka was that I was entering not just an unassuming Japanese restaurant chain from Hokkaido but also a world of food fanaticism and unrelenting, age-old culinary exactitude. Admiring the elegantly simple décor and sweeping view of the Singapore River, my dubious expectations dissipated when, throughout the room, I saw nothing but happy people slurping noodles out of large stoneware bowls from which floated gentle puffs of sumptuous steam. Before I knew it, similar dishes were placed before us, along with a plate of juicy Tokusen Toroniku pork cheeks, the warm aroma of which triggered an instant Pavlovian response. What is this mysterious concoction before me? I thought and, as if he could read my mind, my friend simply whispered: “Ahh, shio ramen.”
It is said that the majority of ramen diners burn the roof of their mouths ever so slightly on their first sip of every bowl of ramen, and my experience was no exception. The slight singe of my first taste was accompanied by a deep, earthy flavor that blossomed on my palate into a silky richness like I had never before tasted in soup. The shio broth in which my tender noodles rested was dense and milky white, evenly infused with the tiniest spheres of bubbly, liquid marrow. Despite its salt and pork origin, it was not excessively briny or oleaginous. Instead, its smoky sensation of savory pork stock, blended with the woodiness of shitake mushrooms, ginger, garlic and tickled with a herbaceous, salty hint, was a masterful lesson in depth, texture and balance. And that was when all preconceived notions from college vanished and I realized that ramen – perhaps the purest form of Japanese “comfort food” – is serious cuisine.
Just what is it that makes a simple bowl of boiled bone soup and noodles take on rock-star status in the world of great food? In Japan it’s more than a food or even cuisine, but indeed, a way of life. Santouka chef and supervisor Koji Kanoi explained that great ramen requires a commitment to precision, patience and a lot of practice. Which is why not just anyone can boil up a pot a ramen; not a decent one, anyway.
The ramen closest to the Chinese culinary roots from which this distinctly Japanese food sprang over a hundred years ago is shôyu, a soy-based broth and the most common version found in such ramen-centric venues as Tokyo. But at Santouka they span the general categories of true ramen also serving shio (salt), tonkotsu (pork broth) and miso (fermented bean paste) varieties. Whatever the style (or tare) of ramen, they always start with the broth – the genesis of which is an enormous pot of water, dried fish and vegetables and exceptional pork bones.
Producing the broth involves carefully roasting the bones before boiling them furiously for over five hours to extract all their flavor and marrow. Then commences a sixteen hour balancing act of adding to the liquid other ingredients, including chicken, herbs vegetables, konbu seaweed, dried bonito flakes and any number of secret ingredients. It simmers under precisely controlled temperatures in order to reach the perfect combination of intensity, flavor and viscosity.
“But it’s really all in the bones.” Kanoi-san whispered as he raised the lid from a vat of roiling bones. And not just any old bones. After years of experimenting with many sources around the world, Santouka found the perfect pigs to precede its soup. “The marrow is the key and our carefully staggered cooking process gently coaxes it out and builds the broth,” he explained. But when I asked where those exquisite bones came from, Kanoi-san just sucked a little air through his teeth and smiled politely.
“There is no room for shortcuts if it is to meet our standards,” said the soft-spoken cook from Hokkaido. “So today’s soup was started yesterday and the soup cooking now will be ready tomorrow.” The finished broth – thickened naturally by the luscious marrow – is carefully maintained under meticulous temperature control until served. Mine – one shio and one shôyo (I had to try both!) – were ladled into bowls atop luscious homemade noodles – alkaline based to absorb just the right flavor while remaining slick and firm to the tooth. Floating on the surface was the classic accompaniment of scallions, nori, bamboo shoots and an umbioshi sour plum to compliment those amazing pork cheeks with a delicate brown outer ring, succulent pinkish center and an unparalleled butter-soft texture on the tongue.
At only 200 grams each, only sixty Tokusen Toroniku cheeks are prepared on a typical day. “We tried cheeks from different regions of the world, starting in Japan, but also in Australia, the United States and elsewhere before finding the very best. But that’s all I can say.” Kanoi-san said, reverently holding an intricately marbled slab of the wagyu-style meat. The pork is marinated in shôyu before the actual braising process begins, following which it undergoes a profound transformation so secret he only let me peek at the precious meat in a simmering, reddish fusion of braising stock, herbs and spices. I pressed him for the recipe, but he just sucked more air through his humble smile.
|Pork cheeks secretly braising.|
I nodded, suddenly understanding that such trivial questions about recipes are not easily answered, because the ramen at Santouka is more than just a really good recipe. The brilliance that makes this soup so indelibly arresting is indefinable. Its unsurpassed richness is more than just the product of using the best ingredients and building into it a distinct-yet-indefinable source of umami. Its luscious texture is more than just the result of culinary expertise. Such depth and complexity of flavor can only be borne from a knowledgeable passion for perfection and a stubborn refusal to accept anything less. And it’s that sliver of culinary magic – a discipline which takes years to learn and a lifetime to perfect – that carves the unbridgeable chasm between the quick-fix instant ramen of my youth and Santouka’s gustatory masterpiece.
6 Eu Tong Sen Street #02-76
The Central at Clarke Quay
+65 6224 0668