Mention Fukuoka to anyone Japanese and they will associate the city with ramen, specifically tonkotsu. Steaming bowls of the porkiest goodness you have ever tasted, topped with slices of pork, sesame seeds, some spring onions and half an egg. It is served in all locations, from hole-in-the-wall restaurants where you buy tickets outside to choose your meal, to quirky modern re-interpretations of noodles set in equally quirky locations, to the yatai, pop-up street-side stalls that Fukuoka is also famed for. Reader, we tasted them all. While you consider this feat of gluttony, it is worth also bearing in mind that the Fukuokan ramen is a simpler and smaller beast than its London cousin. And also, conveniently, with most bowls around JPY 800, only a fraction of the price.
First up, the yatai ramen. The riverbank and much of downtown is filled with stalls so we plumped for one at random. The noodles were thinner than we had slurped previously and the topping and extras simpler - what it perhaps lacked in slices of pork, it made up for with generous amounts of spring onion and sesame seeds. The broth was lighter than we had expected but with no lesser flavour. Having steeled our stomachs for a full-on noodle workout, we were pleasantly surprised by how it managed to be packed full of flavour without being overwhelmingly filling. We wanted a good ramen hit while still leaving room for, well, more ramen. This we got.
In between slurps, we kept half an eye on the ramen cooks and were pretty impressed by their speed and dexterity. Not sure we could ever get that good noodle-wrist action.
For our next selection, we delegated to Roads and Kingdoms who recommended
Mengekijou Genei. We almost missed out on this one... we found the right place on a quiet side street (no mean feat in Japan), we established it was open and it seemed that there were people inside. But we couldn't get in... we double checked the address, went down the road to ask directions, knocked increasingly less politely.... nothing. Turns out it is a SLIDING DOOR. Go forearmed with this knowledge and don't let the inability to operate a door stand between you and a delicious bowl of ramen.
The restaurant is small with all the benches arranged amphitheatre-style facing the chef. A bit gimicky but don't let this put you off. The ramen itself is lip smackingly good and not at all gimicky. The bowl I chose (apologies, can't remember the name) was light and clear and filled with noodles with just the right amount of twang and bite. Again, the toppings were simple, a couple of slices of chashu pork and a few rounds of spring onions - all the love is poured into the broth rather than the accessories.
Third up was Hidechan, one the ramen super brands that have - unlike most other restaurants in Japan - spread outwards from their original ramen shop and set up multiple locations across Japan and abroad. Hidechan has opened up in New York and is famed for his chashu pork.
We were hampered somewhat by the lack of an English menu and a Japanese menu with handwritten script-style kanji. We kept it simple and went for the house special. One with a generous serving of chashu, the other with even more chashu. And boy, they were good. Again, a lighter, clearer broth than we had thought we might get but with no less flavour. The egg in this one was pretty much perfect.
The Fukuoka tonkotsu broths were lighter than we had assumed they would be while coming with the traditional egg-spring onion-sesame toppings of the Hakata style. It was definitely worlds apart from the ominously-named "Osaka black", pictured below, a soy-based bowl from Kingumon in Osaka.
Tonkotsu. That's one ramen base ticked off. Leaving at least four others to conquer in the other regions of Japan with even more variations on toppings.... seafood in Hokkaido, the classic Tokyo salt broth, and even Wakayama ramen with stewed pork ribs. More reading (we love Lucky Peach for this), more research and quite a few more bowls of noodles to slurp. We are even minded to fire up the stock pot and have another crack at it ourselves.