Here at Very Tasty World we have a passion for pasta and, as our regular ramen reviews emphasise, there is a joy in the variety of internationally available variants of noodle niceness that you can enjoy at home with just a kettle, a bowl and a pair of chopsticks. Of course, ramen restaurants are also available, if you are lucky enough to be able to reach one, so you don’t even have to trouble yourself to turn on the kettle.
But what if you want more?: To learn more and to taste more? What if you want to understand the history of ramen, instant or traditional, and to try various examples with different flavours from around the country for which ramen is best known? There is only one place to go, a foodie theme park where you can learn the history and, importantly, taste many different types of ramen in all their broth infused glory. The Shinyokohama Raumen Museum (The English site is here – please be clear of the spelling with the additional ‘u’, which is correct in Japanese, otherwise you might have search engine issues) is that place, a multi-storey building dedicated to everything that is ramen. We naturally felt obliged to travel there and research our culinary favourites. We were not alone in this desire to get to know ramen because Brittany Murphy’s character Abby does exactly the same thing when she visits in the film The Ramen Girl.
The museum is located in Yokohama, the second largest city in Japan, which is easily accessible from Tokyo. If you have a Japan Rail Pass you can use the shinkansen (bullet train) to arrive at Shin Yokohama, which is the closest station, but there are plenty of other train services available too. The ground floor is the museum’s main area of knowledge, displaying a range of information about the history of ramen from traditional to instant. The displays include chronological timelines and also show the progression of instant noodle technology. So you can observe the pots, the packets and even a noodle unravelling.
But the proof of the pasta is in the eating. So you need to head downstairs in order to fulfil your craving. Pro tip – if you are planning to visit, make sure you do so on an empty stomach – don’t have too much for breakfast in the morning..
The eating area, Sunset Shopping Street, is a recreation of a town in 1958, the year that instant ramen was invented. The whole environment has a sundowner setting with cloudy dark blue sky and street lighting which all adds to the ambience.
There are a number of restaurants where you can sample regional ramen, from miso ramen to salty soy sauce and rich, creamy tonkotsu where the broth is made by boiling pork bones for hours. The only problem is deciding which shop (or shops) to choose from, even though you know its ramen you want, the choices are far more complex than the expected ‘what flavour broth or meat/fish/vegetable combo,’ but the bigger ‘what region?’ question because each venue represents a different region of Japan’s quintessential local concoctions. Regional variations are prevalent in lots of Japanese foods such as udon (thick noodles) and okonomiyaki, so each ramen shop offering different options and all declaring their own as the very best, presents something of a conundrum to the casual noodle-slurper. We did see a number of visitors share a bowl of ramen before moving onto the next shop in order to taste as many different variations as possible. However, since our visit, the museum is clear that all adult visitors to each shop should purchase a bowl of ramen. This seems absolutely reasonable as it’s not fair to the restaurant owner to have table space taken up with multiple visitors sitting around a single bowl of noodles. Still, it’s a very pleasant choice to have to make. And these days you can order different sized portions, so if your appetite is big enough you may be able to sample many different types of smaller bowls. The street also has a traditional sweet shop, just in case you are still hungry!
Oh, and there’s even a classic kaiju (monster) poster on one of the fake hoardings – what more could you want?
This really is an essential tourist trip for ravenous lovers of ramen. Great fun for foodies in terms of understanding history of the world’s most popular instant food and also getting to eat yummy ramen.
BRAND: Indo Mie
FLAVOUR: Fried (Goreng)
No. OF SACHETS: Four – Soupbase, flavour oil, chilli and extra thick katsup manis
Indonesia, home of fine food. One of the more popular dishes to hit our shores is nasi goreng, a tasty fried rice dish with a mysterious egg on it and what do we have here but mi goreng, a fried noodle dish with (if the cover shot is anything to go by) with a mysterious egg on it. Indeed, close scrutiny of the packaging could well put off the prospective buyer, there are far too many peas for my liking (admittedly one pea is far too many peas for my liking) and the aforementioned egg looks a little suspect, the background is so white it hurts your eyes and the labelling’s colours just do not match. Add to that the intrinsic problem of creating a fried dish that you make by adding water and it’s really only curiosity and the tantalising lure of four seasoning sachets (as advertised) that leads you to part with your hard earned cash.
First impressions could not be more wrong. This is an awesome product, textbook noodles that cook exactly right in a delightful tangle, all golden and shiny, from your chopsticks. The smell is heavenly but just wait for the taste. It’s sweet and tingly and savoury and light. The balance from the sachets is perfect, there’s not too much chilli and the katsup manis is incredible, sticky and sweet and pumped with soy goodness. Go and buy a crate of these now!
*Retro noodle packet
Director: Robert Allan Ackerman
Food Type: Ramen (if you couldn’t guess)
Film Rating: 6/10
Foodie rating: 8/10
The subgenre of ramen based foodie films came to its apotheosis with the noodle nirvana of Tampopo (1985). Here the Japanese pasta sub-subgenre gets an American twist with The Ramen Girl, a learn-to-cook Japanese foodie film set in Japan and, surprisingly for a Hollywood film, it has a significant amount of (helpfully subtitled) dialogue in Japanese. It is also a romantic comedy, albeit one centred on food and culture; so more a ramen-tic comedy.
Abby (Brittany Murphy) has travelled to Tokyo to be with her boyfriend Ethan (Gabriel Mann). But it seems that he couldn’t care less, taking a job in China at the first opportunity, he leaves her alone in his half empty apartment. Weeping with sadness at her situation she enters the eatery across the road, which is right in the middle of closing for the night, bawling her eyes out. Bemused by the distraught foreign girl in their midst, the owner and his wife give her some of the remaining ramen to see if it will assuage her misery and persuade her to leave so that they can go to bed. Abby devours the ramen and quaffs the broth and, in doing so, becomes intoxicated by the ramen experience. She comes up with an obsessive idea – to learn to cook ramen. So she seeks lessons from chef and owner Maezumi (Toshiyuki Nishida). But this is not a simple student and mentor situation as Maezumi is a tough employer who gets her to engage in tasks such as cleaning the bathroom rather than cooking. It is not aided by the fact that even though the establishment’s sign marks it as a soba restaurant (そば蕎麦 – buckwheat noodles) its unhappy proprietor is regularly anything but sober. But Abby pursues her new career by persevering. She does manage to develop a social life and find new friends when she visits a club in Roppongi where she re-meets a bunch of western acquaintances, including Gretchan (Tammy Blanchard) and they get talking to Japanese salaryman Toshi Iwamoto (Soji Arai), who seems to be a bit more coherent than his associates. Abby and Toshi start dating and so her relationship blossoms alongside her ramen tuition. But then her progress comes to a frightening prospect when she learns that, “The master’s coming in two months.” This renowned ramen critic’s evaluation could result in laudation or humiliation. Maezumi is surprisingly optimistic about Abby’s chances and establishes a wager with a rival ramen proprietor which could lead to major consequences for both Abby and his well-established business. He even takes Abby to visit his mother who reveals her own profound ramen philosophies. What holds for Abby, and indeed Maezumi, in the future?
The Ramen Girl is a mixed bowl of ramen and broth that is distinct in its exploration of cross-cultural misunderstandings and the humour or challenges that result. The main characters have rounded back stories but ultimately the food is the driver to the events in this film. Learning ramen from a sensei seems to be a similar process to learning kung-fu from a sifu. There are difficult, strenuous, apparently mundane tasks that go on for an age before actual understanding the required skills to implement the technique that the master is teaching. These are important to Abby’s understanding even as they are apparently futile.
The competitive nature of developing cookery skills for a discerning master is a theme in many cooking films such as Jadoo-Kings of Curry, King of Cooking, Nina’s Heavenly Delights, and Eat Drink Man Woman. Here, the emphasis lies with the broth, its creation and its flavour, not to mention the side effects on the palette and spiritual/emotional response of consuming the concoction, is central to this film’s (very discrete) philosophical assertions. Early on we see how Maezumi’s creations can, in the right circumstances, create impulsive mirth and happiness in his clients as Abby declares, “I wanna make people happy the way you do.”
The food in the film is 95% ramen based but there is a notable exception where cross-cultural cuisine is the focus of one delightful scene. It’s Christmas and Abby, wearing an elf hat and having had her attempts to decorate the restaurant savagely mocked by Maezumi, has returned to her flat where Gretchan has moved in. The pair celebrate with a drink and a KFC Bargain Bucket, a familiar food take away for an American but KFC is also the Christmas meal that one eats in Japan. The romance of the film is definitely ramen-based, however, when Toshi takes Abby on a date to visit the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum, foodie heaven, which also offers a historic depiction of ramen throughout the years as well as the flavours of broth throughout the regions of Japan – with the inevitable consequences of a bloated but happy stomach.
The Ramen Girl is a mixed concoction of East meets West which, whilst not departing from genre expectations, at least blends them together in a different way that is sweet and fun. Not haute cuisine but satisfactory for when you feel peckish.
As the mighty Mekong reaches Vietnam and approaches the South China Sea the main waterway splits into a maze of rivers that form the Mekong Delta. The region is known locally as Cuu Long, or “Nine Dragons”, representing the nine main tributaries.
Three to four hours’ drive away from the relentlessly loud and energetic Ho Chi Minh City, the hectic hubbub of the city slowly transitions to rural rice fields. It is possible to undertake a river cruise from a number of locations in the area; there are plenty of choices and each offers various levels of indulgence. It’s a lovely way to see the country from a very different perspective and at a pace that is much more laid back. We made the journey from Cần Thơ to Cái Bè starting along the Sông Hậu branch of the river and sailing into the Mekong.
Depending on budget there are different boats available. Some are rather splendid – compact, but with all the facilities you might want.
All have decks with seating so that you can enjoy the view.
Many of the boat trips offer excursions to various attractions along the way. These include floating markets and factories that produce rice paper, whiskey or sweets. It is also possible to visit some of the onshore villages in the area and to explore them on foot, visiting local farmers and learning about the food that’s produced there.
The area is extremely fertile and rice is the major crop grown. Due to the climate in South Vietnam it is possible to achieve three crops per year.
There are no cemeteries in Vietnam so families set up graveyards in the fields.
There are also a number of fruit trees that grow in the delta. Some are familiar.
Wild limes also grow in the area.
Jackfruit has become hugely popular in recent years as a ‘meat substitute’. Its texture and ability to absorb flavours make it incredibly versatile for vegetarians and vegans – mock ‘pulled pork’ is a particular favourite. But actually it is very tasty as a fruit in its own right.
Tapioca is the starch derived from the roots of the cassava trees and often used in puddings (which are far more delicious than school dinners).
Some of the residents are happy to open up their houses and it is possible to do home stays with local families. If you’re just on a day trip, visitors are sometimes offered some of the amazing fruits grown on the island.
This platter was exceptional. It may seem strange but there is an order to eating the fruit to gain maximum enjoyment: Always start with the sour flavours and finish with the sweet.
One plate that was a particular revelation was the pineapple. Of course fresh pineapple is utterly scrumptious, especially when it hasn’t travelled half-way around the globe, but it was served by sprinkling a little chilli and salt on each piece and was a taste sensation. It makes sense: like a lot of Vietnamese food it includes sweet and sour flavours (which the pineapple provides) plus an additional salty dimension and a good dose of heat from the chilli. Delicious!
Banana leaves are not only functional, they can also be decorative – just look at this lovely banana leaf ‘origami’ grasshopper.
It was late afternoon by the time we returned to our boat.
Time for a delicious, decadent dinner.
Then after-dinner drinks watching the sun set over the Mekong.
FLAVOUR: Kun Nambi Yukejang
No. OF SACHETS: Four – Chilli, dehydrated vegetables, soya mince and
a huge 11.8g soup base
These big noodles come in their own happy noodle home, a massive insulated white bowl with detachable sunflower yellow plastic lid to ensure all the flavours are well sealed in during cooking. Naturally such luxuries come with a price tag but every once in a while you need to treat yourself and hang the expense. So I did. And jolly nice it was too.
The noodles cooked evenly and were of an ideal consistency, the soup base was hot and tasty with hint of garlic and a lip-licking sweetness that really satisfied. As far as the vegetables went there was definitely a feeling of variety – carrots, leek, peppers and even what appeared to be (and indeed tasted like) egg. (Subsequent ingredient examination revealed the inclusion of imitation egg flake!) Add to this a total absence of peas and you have one classy package. The only slight disappointment was the soya which, while of a suitable texture and not domineering in any way, had the merest hint of a metallic aftertaste. Lots of flavour, lots of noodles (only tackle when very hungry) and lots of fun.
*Retro noodle packet
Miso is the very essence of the fifth flavour umami, that enigmatic taste of ‘savouriness’ or ‘deliciousness’ and forms the flavour base of so many Japanese dishes. At its heart it is basically a fermented mix of soy beans, rice, koji (aspergillus oryzae, the national mould of Japan – really!), salt, water and time…
Like many Japanese foodstuffs, miso has regional variations. As a general rule (and there are always exceptions) the colour of finished miso is darker in the north, and lighter in the south of the country. Kyoto is famous for sweet white miso, for example. This means that it is possible to encounter a wide variety of miso on your travels – from rich umami to salty to sweet and with textures from smooth to chunky.
We visited a miso factory/koji park on a trip to Kanazawa on the western coast of Japan. Shinkansen (bullet train) construction reached Kanazawa just recently, in 2015, and the city is now easily accessible from Tokyo; the journey takes around 2.5 – 3 hours. It’s a great city with a lively market (which has some amazing seafood restaurants) and one of the top three gardens in Japan. The miso factory is located at Ohno machi (Ohno port), which is a bit of a journey; you can catch a bus from the Kanazawa station area (ask for the location of the bus stop at the tourist information centre inside the station concourse – it’s a five minute walk away) and it’s the very last stop. When you arrive at the sea you are there. You’ll likely be the last ones on the bus. Alternatively you can get a taxi. The journey from the station takes around 20 minutes but the cost is considerably higher than the bus. Then just walk over the bridge to the little island.
As an aside, at the far end of the island is a charming museum of mechanical toys which has a brilliant hands-on exhibition where you can spend hours playing games and enjoy viewing antique toys and games. The staff were absolutely delightful and very much wanted to make sure we enjoyed the exhibits. They were also very helpful when it came to supplying a timetable for the bus journey back into the centre of Kanazawa.
There are many historic mechanical puppets – karakuri – on display. The museum is a memorial to Benkichi Ohno,a master craftsman who lived in the area from 1831. Many of his creations can be seen at the museum.
Some exhibits show you how the puppet mechanisms work.
Some dolls are cute(ish) which turn into scary (incidentally these words are, respectively, kawaii and kowaii in Japanese, be careful not to confuse the two!).
Around the circumference of the main building there are tables and chairs set out with all sorts of puzzles that you can try to solve.
It’s a really hands-on museum and it was lovely to see families with children of all ages sitting together and working out solutions to some of the puzzles.
This doll is 300 years old, from the Edo period. The craftsmanship is exquisite.
After a lovely diversion, it was on to the Yamato koji park, just a 10 minute walk away at the other end of the island. It’s part factory, part museum, part shop and part café. There weren’t any specific tours when we visited but the staff were super-helpful and directed us to a display where we could understand how miso is made.
Miso basically contains five ingredients: water, koji, soy beans, rice, salt. Koji thrives on the rice. Then it is mashed with the soy beans, salt and water. After about six months yeast forms. The miso flavour develops thanks to the interactions between the yeast and the koji. Fermentation can take as long as three years.
Soy sauce is made using a very similar process and ingredients to miso but uses wheat instead of rice. A mash is formed and then it’s pressed (like olives for olive oil). After fermentation, the resulting liquid is soy sauce. It was fascinating to taste the difference between pasteurised and unpasteurised soy sauce. Unpasteurised soy has a more complex flavour because some of the aromas are lost in the pasteurization process.
Some the the traditional fermentation vessels are enormous.
You can also dip your hands into a koji hand bath which will, apparently, give your skin a soft and delicate sheen. It’s quite nice to be able to dip your hands into a warm bath, especially on a cold, wet day. Apparently two minutes is the optimum time – there is a timer so you can check. And yes, we can confirm that our hands did emerge from the bath silky-smooth.
There is a shop with an extensive variety of products and you are able to sample before you buy. It is particularly interesting to be able to taste different sauces.
Amazake is a sweet, low alcohol drink made from fermented rice and koji. Amazake literally means ‘sweet’ (ama) ‘sake’ (sake, which can be used to describe alcohol). You can buy the paste, mix with hot water and drink. It’s sweet and has a smooth, creamy texture. And for a delicious dressing, you can mix amazake with ponzu soy sauce (ponzu is a citrus juice comprising Japanese fruits sudachi, yuzu, and kabosu and vinegar mixed with soy sauce to give an amazingly tangy, salty flavour) in the ratio 1:1.
And one of the best foodie souvenirs – for the adventurer who cannot travel without seasoning – spray soy sauce, conveniently packaged in a container that would even fit into your hand-baggage.
They also have a café and ice-cream maker. Amazake and soy sauce ice-cream were on offer and we tried both. Soy sauce ice cream sounds so wrong but it was delicious, full of rich salty umami flavour that complemented the creamy ice-cream.
What was also rather lovely was that the CEO, Mr Yamato, was on site that day and came to say ‘hello.’
We shopped for as many products as we could fit into our luggage. One particular packet that we were very happy to find was that of inoculated rice koji. It was also conveniently flat for packing and much cheaper than koji that we can purchase in Europe.
Making our very own miso was most definitely going to be one of our foodie missions on our return home. To be continued…
BRAND: Sau Tao Brand
FLAVOUR: Shrimp-Eggs Noodle – Wonton Soup Flavour
TYPE: Normal (with shrimp egg)
No. OF SACHETS: Two – Soup base and sesame oil
COUNTRY: China/Hong Kong
Sau Tao Brand Shrimp-Eggs Noodle (Wonton Soup Flavour) is a product that is as tasty as its name is unwieldy. Although not the most competitively priced noodle the extra money has been lavished in all the important areas – the noodles themselves are made with the titular shrimp-egg, which appear in the ingredients listing before the cheaper standard egg and result in extra bite. It doesn’t end there as the water used is apparently Alkali Water and the noodles themselves manufactured strictly using ‘Electrical drying, Fresh and clean,’ techniques for optimum consumer confidence and bags of flavour. Likewise, the soup base packs in plenty of prawn powder punch and even finds room for some dehydrated chives, a refreshing change from the occasional leek that one comes across. The oil is a sesame/vegetable blend that is not too overpowering, which means that the overall package offers a highly recommended gourmet noodle with a delicate aroma and a wonderful creamy stock.
Not for the novice as it can be easily under/overcooked but we wholeheartedly endorse this for the experienced noodler. Even the packaging is light and breezy, assured and modern with a gentle contrast between the featured blues and pinks.
*Retro noodle packet
BRAND: Sapporo Ichiban
FLAVOUR: Chow Mein
No. OF SACHETS: Two – green laver and soup base
‘Japan’s No. 1 Selling Brand,’ the package announces in a handy packaging star graphic before continuing to ensure that you are aware that it comes ‘with Natural and Artificial Flavors.’ This is what we want: the best of both worlds. If you are going to put artificial flavourings in a product don’t hide it, flaunt it. Technology is your friend both in and out of the kitchen, so embrace it!
Despite the fact that this tastes absolutely nothing like any chow mein I’ve ever eaten this is a surprising winner. There is an almost jet black stock that is mightily tasty and slightly sour. There is no heat to disguise anything, just honest chemicals to tickle your taste buds. You really do have to go for this yourself, you won’t be disappointed, the noodles are just perfect and the portion is more than generous. And where else can you get a bag of gloriously green laver with your purchase, I ask you? Highly recommended.
*Retro noodle packet
Limburg in the south of the Netherlands offers a complete rural contrast to the cosmopolitan charms of Amsterdam. When we recently picked up train tickets at Schiphol airport’s railway station to make the two hour journey, the friendly ticket master enquired, “are you sure you are going to South Netherlands?” On receiving an affirmative reply he very kindly printed out a suitable timetable for us showing us where and when to change trains. He was super-helpful.
Limburg is much more rural and the way of life is more relaxed. The flat landscape, interspersed with pretty towns and villages, is ideal for walking and cycling at an easy pace, especially along the banks of the broad River Maas.
Limburg residents are very sociable. This is emphasised by their greeting technique: not one, not two, but three kisses on the cheek. Left-right-left. Or right-left-right. Either is fine.
If you are lucky enough to visit a local home you will almost certainly be offered coffee and vlaai. Dutch coffee is always properly made ground coffee. Vlaai – also known as Limburgse Vlaai – is a tart. The base isn’t made from traditional flaky pastry but from a yeast dough which gives it a light, cake-like texture. Each vlaai comes as a big round disc of deliciousness, usually around 30 cm in diameter. It is cut into large slices for all guests to enjoy.
The traditional vlaai is a fruit-based tart, often with a latticed pasty top. Cherries, apricots, apple – all sorts of soft fruit can be used as a filling. It may also be served with a decadent dollop of rich cream.
And then there are more unusual variations. The gooseberry topped with fluffy meringue combination is both tart and sweet.
Berry mouse and meringue is also a great combination.
The rice pudding vlaai, with cream and chocolate shavings for added decadence, will keep you satisfied for a week.
Tradition dictates that visitors are offered coffee and vlaai and it is polite to accept. Apparently it is also considered to be a little bit rude not to accept a second slice. It’s possible that Limburgians have a secret second stomach as it is genuinely impossible to eat two slices of vlaai in quick succession, scrumptious though it is.
BRAND: Wai Wai
FLAVOUR: Chilli Paste Tom Yum Flavour
No. OF SACHETS: Two – soup base and Tom Yum paste
A real winner this one – lovely flavour, bit of a tingle when eating and then wham – mighty spice in a creeps-up-on-you-slowly-yet-relentlessly way rather than the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am in your mouth approach. Top marks for ease of cooking, masses of taste and texture of noodles, also there’s a really nice lemongrass scent running through the whole affair that is a sheer joy. It’s only let down ever so slightly by the relatively small size of the portion and the slightly gritty residue that is inevitable with proper Tom Yum pastes.
Packaging is another sure fire winner from the Wai Wai marketing department. While not as insane as the sublime minced pork packaging we nevertheless have a coy lady in a bizarre sweater smiling innocently, accompanied by the noodle ‘money shot’ here departing from the boiled egg approach but flying the flag for the lime and big prawn combo. Top marks again for the mighty Wai Wai company but come on peeps, give us bigger portions!
*Retro noodle packet