Ramen is a complex beast. Ramen masters spend a lifetime perfecting recipes and techniques. And the new breed of young artisans are mixing it up, getting creative and wacky. Ramen geek blogs such as Go Ramen and Ramen Adventures suggest we could spend a lifetime and several arteries eating the stuff, and still never quite come to grips with the universe of possibilities in every bowl.
Our heads go all swirly just thinking about it. So we embark on a ramen boot camp at Ichi-Ban Boshi in the city. Over a week we try the classic ramen styles, which, according to Wikipedia, are shio, shoyu, miso and tonkotsu. And we try some fancier variations thereof.
It turned out to be quite productive exercise. We still know bugger-all about ramen in the big scheme of things, but we do feel more grounded in the basics. And a bit more porky.
Shio (salt) ramen - $9.90 - a pale clear salty broth, plain'n'simple. The googie is a $2 optional extra. Not the most exciting ramen, but more an everyday soup that some of it's richer, lardier brothers and sisters.
Tokyo ramen - a shoyu (soy) style broth, salty, but with darker, more rounded flavours than the shio ramen.
Miso ramen - $9.90. Flavoured with miso (fermented soy bean paste). This has a deep, rich flavour and is almost, but not quite, creamy in texture, and has a subtle fermented funkiness to it. It gets very rich towards the bottom of the bowl. This is Alison's favourite ramen, and she loves Ichi-Ban Boshi's version.
The tonkotsu ramen wasn't available when we were in the mood, they only make 15 per day, but here's one we tried earlier in the Bondi Junction shop. Tonkotsu is made from boiling pork bones and is often very rich and thick. We've come to prefer some of the less hardcore versions of tonkotsu such as the lighter, milky Hakata style, as well as when tonkotsu is mixed down with shoyu (Shawn's favourite) or miso. For the mother of all artery clogging tonkotsu ramen in Sydney head to Gumshara in Eating World, it's hardcore.
With the basics under out belts (literally), we try some of the fancier pants ramens...
Ninniku ramen - $11.90. Soy sauce based ramen topped with baked garlic. This is uber garlicky and delicious. It's funny how Japanese food either has no garlic or it's nuclear garlic.
Tsukemen - $13 . Cold noodles to be dunked into the strong, salty soup. We went for spinach noodles because green food is awesome, regular egg noodles are also available. The broth was quite strong, with lots of soy and a tangy flavour that we guessed may have been a red vinegar, it tasted quite Chinese to us. Not our personal fave.
Tantan tsukemen - $13. Dip the cold noodles into the tantan soup with minced pork, soft boiled egg and choy sum. It's delicious. The broth has a nice warm chili heat, but not too spicy. The noodles are excellent. Wikipedia tells us that 'tantan' is a Japanese version of Chinese Dan Dan noodles, a spicy soup with minced pork and preserved veggies. Note you can also get a tantanmen - which is a regular ramen version. This dish is a fave.
Kimuchi ramen - shio (salt) ramen with kimchi (spicy korean pickled cabbage). Halfway through the kimchi melds with the broth, it's like drinking a big bowl of kimchi, freaking yum (or freaking yuk if you don't like kimchi).
Wonton ramen - $13. When told the tonkotsu ramen is finished for today, Shawn randomly points at the menu as says "I'll have one of these." He thought it would be a bland take on Chinese wonton soup but it turned out to be wonderful. Lovely prawn filled wontons, tasted a bit garlicky and the prawns are cooked just so with a lovely bite to them. The broth is like the shio (salt) ramen, plain and simple. The noodles are buttery and spaghetti-like in texture. Halfway through the bowl the flavours meld into a wonderful Japanese-Chinese-Italian wonderland, with just a teeny chili bite This turned out to be Shawn's surprise favourite of the lot.
The more we visit Ichi-Ban Boshi the more we like it, the noodles were spot on every time, The city store feels odly flash compared to the original, low rent old Bondi Junction store. It's clean bright and modern, a very pleasant spot on a sunny afternoon. The wait-staff have that wonderful Japanese chirpy polite drill that makes us happy and alerts our taste buddies that real Japanese food is on the way.
Ichi-Ban Boshi is at Level 2, The Galleries, 500 George Street. Head up the escalators, next to the wonderful, wonderful, wonderful Kinokuniya bookshop. www.ichibanboshi.com.au/