4 Distinct Features of Tonkotsu Ramen: A Southern Delicacy


If you are a ramen fan, you've most likely heard of tonkotsu ramen. It is one of the 4 most popular Japanese ramen (with the other 3 being: miso, shio and shoyu ramen).

Today we will be looking at the tonkotsu ramen in detail:

In 1937, ramen was brought to Kurume, Fukuoka. Two years before that, a chef in Kurume had heard that noodles called ramen were very popular in the Tokyo and Yokohama area.

He moved to Tokyo and learned how to make ramen there. At the time in Tokyo, broth was made from torigara (chicken bones) and only a little bit of tonkotsu (pork bone).

Soup of Tokyo ramen consisted of broth and soy sauce (shoyu). This Kurume chef opened a restaurant called Nankinsenryo and served Tokyo-style ramen back in his hometown.

After the opening of Nankinsenryo, similar Tokyo-style ramen restaurants started opening up in Kurume.

yatai ramen stall food cart

10 years after Tokyo-style ramen was introduced in Kurume, a ramen-stall owner took his eyes off his pot of broth and the accidental high heat from the strong fire boiled the broth more than it was supposed to.

The broth was very cloudy and the owner was about to throw out the broth. But he decided to try it...

And it was delicious!

He started to use this cloudy broth for his ramen and this was the beginning of the tonkotsu ramen.


what is tonkotsu ramen
Nowadays, the soup of tonkotsu ramen is known for these distinctive characteristics:

1. The soup is very rich, thick, and cloudy because pork bones are boiled for long hours in high heat and components of the bone is melted into the soup.

2. This soup contains a lot of umami. This is due to the inosinic acid from the bones.

3. Fat and gelatin from the bones give the broth its distinctive taste.

4. The only downside to this broth is the residual smell from the animal bone, so as common condiments to this ramen, ginger and garlic are used.

In short, tonkotsu ramen was developed from shoyu ramen.

kyushu ramen map


My first tonkotsu ramen experience happened 15 years ago on a cold winter afternoon in Tokyo, my friend and I went to a tonkotsu ramen restaurant.

We were brand new to the Tokyo scene since we were 18 years old at the time and just arrived for the first year of college.

I was from eastern Japan while my new friend was from the southern part of Japan.

Arriving a week earlier than my friend, I was a little more familiar to Tokyo and I found a Hakata ramen restaurant which I liked.

I wanted to show off this hole-in-the-wall cool and hip new style of tonkotsu ramen to my new friend.

I was so surprised because he didn't like it and the taste was not authentic to him.

He was from Kyushu which is the birthplace of tonkotsu ramen.

Honestly, at that time, I didn't know where tonkotsu ramen was from.

It was a very embarrassing but enlightening experience, I started to learn more about ramen since then.

I will introduce 5 different kinds of tonkotsu ramen in Kyushu:

Hakata / Nagahama Ramen

hakata nagahama ramen

Hakata ramen originated in 1941. A street stall called “Sanbaro" is the original creators of the Hakata ramen. At the time, Hakata ramen soup was transparent which was influenced by Nankinsenryo in Kurume.

Nagahama ramen was first served in 1953 at Ganso Nagahamaya.

You will see that noodles at Hakata and Nagahama ramen restaurants are very thin and you can choose the hardness of the noodles from 6 varying levels.

From soft to hard:
Bariyawa, yawa, kata, barikata, harigane, konaotoshi

The reason why these noodles are thin is because it doesn't take much time to boil. Ramen was a favourite for the busy workers at the fish market in Nagahama. Because the noodles are thin, there is a system for people who want to eat noodles called "kaedama"
fish market
Nowadays, the same thin noodles are used in Hakata ramen because of the influence from Nagahama ramen. However, flat noodles had been used for Hakata ramen originally.
kyushu tonotsu ramen thickness thinness
A great point for this type of ramen is the fresh soup of Hakata and Nagahama ramen since chefs make a new batch of broth every single day.

Toppings of this ramen are quite simple - usually, green onion, chashu sesame, ginger, garlic, and karashi takana are used as a pairing to this type of ramen.

Since its broth and toppings are simple, Hakata and Nagahama ramen has a delicate but well-balanced taste.

Kurume Ramen

kurume ramen

It is first served in 1937 at Nankinsenryo. Kurume ramen is the root of all tonkotsu ramen in Kyushu including Hakata ramen.

Kurume ramen has a richer and more unique taste than Hakata ramen since new broth is added into the original boiling pot of soup. Some restaurants have been boiling the same pot for half a century.

Amount of oil in the soup is a lot less than Hakata ramen, so you can drink the soup in its entirety.

Ramen noodles contain more water than regular noodles, so the soup soaks into noodle easily. Kurume people prefer to eat softer noodles.

Kaedama is not as common with Kurume ramen than it is with Hakata ramen. People there order yakimeshi (fried rice) instead of kaedama when they feel they won't be full.

Common tooppings of Kurume ramen are chashu, green onion, kikurage, seaweed, garlic chips, grated garlic, black pepper, and ginger.

Tamana Ramen

tamana ramen

In 1952, a Kurume ramen shop called Sankyu opened a Kurume-style ramen restaurant in Tamana, and it got popular quickly.

The reason why it became so popular was that there were a lot of seaweed farms in that area at that time. Ramen was popular to the seaweed farmers as they wanted to heat their cold body up after harvesting seaweed.

The noodles are a medium thinness and also straight. Its broth has a strong tonkotsu flavor and a lot greasier than other types of tonkotsu ramen.

Kagoshima Ramen

kagoshima ramen

The broth is made of tonkotsu, but torigara, vegetables, dried seaweed, and dried sardines are also used. Unlike other tonkotsu ramen, this broth is not cloudy and has a clearer and lighter taste.

Noodles are thick because of the influence from Okinawa noodles. Pickles are always served before this type of tonkotsu ramen.

Kagoshima is faraway from Fukuoka (which is the center of topknots ramen), so it developed its own original ramen culture.

Kumamoto Ramen

kumamoto ramen

Yamanaka-san, Shigamitsu-san, and Kimura-san were impressed by the taste of the tonkotsu ramen from the Sankyu restaurant in Tamana, and openend their own restaurant in Kumamoto city. 

Yamanaka-san opened Komurasaki
Shigamitsu-san opened Ajisen ramen
Kimura-san opened Shoyoken. 

These three are legendary restaurants. Have you heard of any of them? 

Kumamoto ramen was developed in the 50's.

Of course, broth is made from tonkotsu, but torigara (chicken bone) is also used, so it is milder and creamier than Hakata ramen.

There is no pork smell from the tonkotsu in the broth, unlike Kurume ramen, since they make broth from scratch everyday. 

These medium thick noodles pair well with fried garlic and mayu (special oil made from garlic). The creamy soup helps boost your appetite.


I will be sharing a recipe of one of these variations - Kumamoto tonkotsu ramen.


Ingredients:

Soup:
Pork bone (collar-bone) 1
Pork bone (thigh-bone) 1
Core of cabbage 1
Water 1.8L
ramen soup broth
Sauce:
Sake 200mL
Soy sauce 50mL
Salt 2tsp
Mirin 50mL
Konbu 1 piece (approx. size: 10x10cm)
tare soup ramen
Mayu:
Garlic 5 cloves
Olive oil or lard 100mL
mayu
Noodles:
Prepackaged ramen noodles or make your own from scratch!

ramen noodles

Chashu:
Learn to make your own from scratch!

chashu

Topping:
Chashu 2 slices
Kikurage (Soaked in warm water) 3 pieces
Green onions 3 pieces
Mayu 1tsp

chashukikuragegreen onionmayu kumamoto ramen


Directions:

(A) Making the Soup

1. Cut up pork bone using a hammer
2. Boil bones in a pressure pot for approximately 30 minutes
3. Turn off the heat and let sit for 10 minutes
4. Boil the bones and cabbage together in a regular pot for 1 hour
5. Remove the bones and cabbage from your broth
DONE

(B) Sauce-Making

1. Soak konbu into sake for 2 hours
2. Boil sake and konbu together for 10 minutes using low heat
3. Remove konbu from the sauce
4. Put mirin, soy sauce, and salt into the sauce
DONE

(C) Making Mayu

1. Slice garlic
2. Add oil into a heated pan and fry the chopped up garlic
3. Before the garlic turns brown, take out half the garlic
4. Brown the remaining garlic still in the blender
5. After the oil and garlic cools down, mix it together in a blender
DONE

(D) Putting Everything Together

1. Slice kikurage
2. Chop up green onions
3. Heat up the soup made in Step A
4. Boil noodles
5. Prepare serving bowls
6. Put sauce (from Step B) and heated soup (from Step A) together into a serving bowl
7. Put in boiled noodles and toppings together
8. Ladle in 2 tablespoons of mayu into each bowl
ENJOY!

This recipe consisted of many components and steps, but homemade ramen made from scratch is the most rewarding experience! You will understand what I mean when you take a bite!

To plate the perfect tonkotsu ramen, you will need the perfect Japanese tableware. Take a look at some of our recommendations we think you will love!


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