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Tonkotsu Ramen Origins

Today, Tonkotsu Ramen is loved by people the world over. But what's the story behind pork bone ramen? For one, it actually might have started out as an accident!

Tonkotsu Ramen Origins - Nagahama Noodles

Tonkotsu Ramen - A Global Superstar

Thanks to global brands like Ippudo and Ichiran, tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen has taken the world by storm. This rich ramen style is not from Tokyo though.

Tonkotsu Ramen Origins - Kokumaro
Hakata Style at Kokumaro in Tokyo

In fact, it wasn't even until the 1980s and 90s that really Tokyoites started to eat it.

Tonkotsu Ramen Origins - Ramen Shop Ippudo Fukuoka City
Ippudo's Original Shop in Fukuoka City

Well before this, tonkotsu ramen was thriving on Japan's island of Kyushu. This is where our story begins.

The Beginning

Kyushu is Japan's fourth largest island. Influenced by Chinese cuisine, locals LOVE pork. It was therefore only naturally that Kyushu ramen would be all about pork.

Tonkotsu Ramen Origins - Ramen Mural Fukuoka
Ramen Mural in Fukuoka, Kyushu

The exact details are as murky as tonkotsu soup. But ramen historians believe that ramen shop Nankin Senryo (南京千両 本家) was the first to invent tonkotsu ramen. This happened in Kurume City, Fukuoka (Kyushu) in 1937.

Tonkotsu Ramen Origins - The Original
The Original Tonkotsu Ramen at Nankin Senryo

It was a sort of hybrid of two ramen styles. The first was a soy sauce-based ramen that began to appear around Tokyo at the time. The second was Nagasaki champon, which features a heftier pork bone based soup.

Tonkotsu Ramen Origins - Nagasaki Champon
Nagasaki Champon at Rairairai in Tokyo

So Nankin Senryo combined these two, creating a clear soup tonkotsu ramen.

Tonkotsu soup actually didn't get cloudy until nearby Kurume ramen shop Sanku (三九) came along in the 1940s. A cloudy soup is the result of boiling pork bones for hours and hours. Apparently Sanku did this by accident, leaving the pot boiling for too long!

Tonkotsu Ramen Origins - Nankin Senryo
Inside Nankin Senryo

Whether this is an urban legend or not, the practice stuck. We have Sanku to thank for today's cloudy tonkotsu ramen. Let's dive into 3 important sub-styles below!

Kurume Ramen

That pork bone soup "accident" at Sanku evolved into Kurume ramen. It's known for having a distinctly heavier, thicker soup. Furthermore, many Kurume City ramen shops will practice "yobimodoshi".

Tonkotsu Ramen Origins - Kurume Bowl
Kurume Ramen at Taiho

This is the process of cooking the soup in the same pot over and over. This naturally gives it a full-bodied, fermented-like quality. Also, some Kurume ramen shops are known for their ramen being pork bone stinky!

Hakata Ramen

Hakata, Fukuoka City is home to Japan's most celebrated tonkotsu ramen. Kurume and Nankin Senryo influenced it. But Hakata ramen stall Sanmaro (三馬路) and its equally light pork bone soup likely played a direct role too.

Tonkotsu Ramen Origins - Hakata Bowl
Hakata Ramen at Aka Noren

Hakata ramen soup generally isn't as rich as in Kurume. It also features thinner noodles. Many Hakata ramen shops even let you customize the noodle firmness, whether "harigane" (extra firm) or "futsu" (normal).

Nagahama Ramen

Like Hakata, Nagahama is in Fukuoka City. The differences between Nagahama and Hakata ramen have become blurred over time. But they do have different backstories.

Tonkotsu Ramen Origins - Nagahama Ramen
Nagahama Ramen at Nagahamaya

Nagahama is a port area. As such, Nagahama ramen was made for fisherman working at the port. Just like Hakata ramen, thin noodles made the most sense. This meant the fisherman wouldn't have to wait long for the ramen to be prepared.

Tonkotsu Ramen Origins - Kaedama Noodle Refill
Kaedama (Noodle Refill) at Ichiran

Additionally, the kaedama (noodle refill) system may have started in Nagahama. Lastly, in both Hakata and Nagahama ramen, condiments like benishouga (red pickled ginger) and sesame seeds are common.

Tonkotsu Ramen Origins - Saga Bowl
Saga Ramen at Ichigen

We'll continue with this topic in another post, covering 4 more regional styles of tonkotsu ramen, as below!

  • Kumamoto Ramen

  • Miyazaki Ramen

  • Kagoshima Ramen

  • Saga Ramen


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