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 - 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.
In fact, it wasn't even until the 1980s and 90s that really Tokyoites started to eat it.
Well before this, tonkotsu ramen was thriving on Japan's island of Kyushu. This is where our story begins.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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".
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, 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
We'll continue with this topic in another post, covering 4 more regional styles of tonkotsu ramen, as below!