Vancouver is surrounded by rainforest. That means it rains nearly half the days from November to March. When those cloudy skies hit, nothing chases the chill from the bones better than a steaming bowl of Japanese noodle soup. Long before Momofuku’s David Chang made ramen trendy in New York and beyond, Vancouverites were already addicted to this salty comfort food. As in Japan, ramen has become a local obsession. Expect to find queues outside the most popular ramen-yas, many of which are clustered in the city’s West End near Robson and Denman Streets, aka Ramen Row.
While it is generally agreed that there are eight main regional styles of ramen in Japan, the basic recipe of broth, noodles and tare (liquid seasoning) is open to endless interpretation. The springy alkaline noodles can be straight or curly, thick or thin, and cooked soft, medium or al dente. The broth might be pork, chicken, beef or fish – or any combination thereof. Broths are usually categorised by three classes of seasoning: shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce) and miso (fermented bean paste). But where does that leave tonkotsu, which is really a creamy, pork-bone broth base, yet often exalted as a flavour unto itself? Although seemingly simple, ramen is a vastly complex dish. And Vancouver is one of the best cities in North America to sample its aromatic mysteries.
It might be considered rather nervy for a white girl to be making noodles in Chinatown. But Andrea Carlson, once known for directing fine-dining kitchens, is no ordinary chef. Nor is Harvest Community Foods your average corner store and eatery.
In addition to hawking organic fruits and vegetables in a bi-weekly Community Supported Agriculture scheme (pre-packaged boxes that come from local farms), Harvest Community Foods makes awesome hipster ramen. Echoing the store’s ethos, the pork broth is free-range, made from slow-simmered trotters and skin. The noodles are fresh, crafted by a local restaurant. The watercress, spring onions, radish, garlic and ginger toppings are all organic, as are the hard-boiled soy-sauce eggs, a common ramen topping, here gussied up with sweet mirin.
Of course, it wouldn’t be hipster ramen if it didn’t include bacon. Here, the bacon garnish is candied in mirin. And this being Vancouver, there is obviously a vegan option, with broth made from squash, kombu, onion, garlic, ginger, mirin, soy sauce and miso. Nervy? Sure. Delicious? Out of this world.
Kintaro is Vancouver’s original, Tampopo-style, ‘greasy spoon’ ramen shop. Opened in 1999, it still attracts daily outdoor line-ups. Purists appreciate the unglamorous experience of its cramped tables and open kitchen, where four massive stockpots simmer behind a well-used counter. As with many Vancouver ramen shops, Kintaro’s noodles are dry (imported from California). And the toppings – sprouts, menma (lactate-fermented bamboo shoots), green onions, corn and a hardboiled egg – are basic.
The real star here is the opaque tonkotsu pork broth, boiled for 22 hours to extract maximum collagen from the bones. When ordering, customers are asked to select a preferred unctuousness of broth (rich, medium or light) and braised pork belly chashu (fatty or lean). To determine the richness of the broth, the chef skims the melted debris from a pot of reduced stock and tamps it through a strainer right into the bowl. Three shakes for rich, one for light. Go for the gusto. You only live once (although maybe not for long if you eat this liquid-heart-attack-in-a-bowl often enough). Kintaro’s other unique offering is a miso ramen with grated Swiss cheese and a slice of mozzarella on top. “Ladies just lo-o-ove it!!” the menu exclaims. Vancouver does aim to please.
Meanwhile Kintaro’s ‘healthy’ sister ramen-ya is a far more upscale endeavour, located a few doors down. The chef-owner of Motomachi Shokudo must have been feeling guilty when he designed this temple to the body, appointed in polished concrete walls and rough-hewn wood. Here, the emphasis is on organic ingredients, free-range eggs and a lighter, lower-fat chickenbased broth. New generation miso ramen is seasoned with four types of miso sourced from various regions in Japan. Spicy miso ramen with organic chicken is seasoned with chilli peppers slivered so thin they look like threads of saffron. But the real specialty is the inky bamboo-charcoal dark miso ramen.
Among its many purported health claims, powdered charcoal is said to cleanse toxins from the digestive tract and exfoliate skin. (For what it’s worth, Burger King makes a black burger in Japan with a bamboo-charcoal bun.) Beauty benefits aside, the charcoal powder lends the blackened ramen broth a mildly smoky flavour that combines nicely with generous lashings of white pepper. We recommend you try both ramen shops: sin, cleanse, repeat.
Chicken ramen might seem sacrilege to purists, but the broth at this Japanese chain is richer than most made with pork shin. Marutama Ramen offers only tori paitan, a creamy chicken broth that is far from ordinary. Extracted from bones, gizzards and cartilage-rich feet, the special stock is almost as thick and fully flavoured as tonkotsu, yet clean and brightly balanced with no heavy aftertaste. It’s just pure, delicious, chicken-umami goodness.
The toppings are simple – sharply pungent green onion and dried aosa (sea lettuce), which add a splash of ocean brininess more vibrant than nori. It’s a beautiful blend that doesn’t require any miso or soy sauce (typical seasonings not offered here). If you order your ramen spicy, the kitchen adds mustard and chopped green chilli oil. Unusual for Vancouver, the kitchen makes its own noodles (the moisture in the Pacific Northwest air apparently inhibits the aging process).
If you time your visit properly, you can watch the cooks roll and cut the wheat-flour noodles on imported Japanese machinery tucked behind a woodpanelled counter in the front window. The noodles are slightly less springy than the regular, dried variety and can be ordered soft, regular or firm.