Competition between Ramen stores starts off with a critical taste test09 August, 2012 by Mus
We have covered Ramen Champion before, when it first opened at its premises in Iluma. With a branch now open in Changi Airport and Iluma now being re-launched as Bugis+, it’s as a good time as any to start a new year of competition. On Tuesday, a collection of food critics and taste testers were gathered at Bugis+ to taste the new offerings at Ramen Champion, as well as to stage a mini-competition between the different outlets.
With the exit of tsukemen chain Tetsu, Ramen Champion welcomes Hideaki Aoyama’s Aoyama, and Tetsuya Tomiyama’s Taka no Tsume into the fray. After all 8 chefs were introduced, it was time for a little pomp in the occasion, with the chefs being given huge party poppers and bottles of champagne. After a short toast to Ramen Champion (and of course, Singapore’s independence), the prize for 2011’s Ultimate Ramen Champion (URC) was presented.
Taking a clear lead over the rest of the pack, Kosuke Yoshimura’s Ikkousha was crowned Ultimate Ramen Champion for 2011. Selling a whopping hundred thousand bowls of ramen over the year, Ikkousha eclipsed second place’s Bario, nearly doubling the latter’s number. Despite an unprepared address to the audience (‘This was unexpected’), Yoshimura attributed the victory to the support of consumers both local and Japanese, and hopes Ikkousha will continue making an impact.
To commemorate the start of the competition for the year, an impressive lineup of judges were gathered for a taste test. In a competition likened to the currently ongoing Olympics, the judges would pick from the assembled 8 ramen dishes the judges’ pick, based on criteria that amongst others included taste and presentation. With the judges including several executive chefs and the producer of Ramen Champion, it certainly was an award each of the chefs were gunning for.
Everyone present was given a short primer on eating ramen, with the MC explaining the characteristics of the 8 different chains. Given that the Ramen Champion stalls come from all over Japan, the regional differences can make each seem like a totally different dish. While some chefs prefer to emphasize the texture of the noodles themselves, others prefer instead to focus on the soup, all of which become clear once one has had a taste.
Here’s our take on what makes or breaks the ramen presented:
Taka no Tsume
Most locals are probably used to seeing char siu in their bowl of ramen. However, the first thing one notices about Taka no Tsume’s Ramen Deluxe is that there’s no such thing. The Sichuan-style broth is just spicy enough and the bowl is topped off with a thick chicken cutlet.
An initially thought was that this was a variation of the popular tantan-men offered in Tokyo, but a sip of the soup revealed that it was rather a Sichuan-style chicken and pork broth. Beware, this is probably the spicest bowl of noodles offered.
The defining feature of this ramen is definitely the chopped pieces of spice marinated chicken thigh cutlet tin place of the usual char siu offering given for ramen. The batter remained crispy despite the chicken being soaked in the broth and there was a nice abundance of stir fried vegetables.
Taishoken joins the battle with their unique take on tsukemen, a cold variation of their tsukemen, which is reserved for hot summers in Japan was offered, the only cold dish of the day.
As this was a dipping ramen, the soup and noodles where served separately along with small plates of condiments. The tsukemen’s thick chewy noodles was paired with a fish scented cold broth and spicy ground pork. Lemon was provided for patrons to add to their liking, the zesty taste was refreshing amidst the more heavy flavors that were presented by the other restaurants.
But while it was a cool refreshing bowl many still struggled with it. We theorized that because Singaporeans have gotten so used to the heat that we eat hot foods even in the heat, cold soup with a heavy fish base does not really sit well with the Singaporean palette. Not to mention, the notion of cold foods seems to only be restricted to hors d’oeuvres and traditional foods reserved for Chinese festivals.
A variation on the popular kyushu style pork bone broth ramen that is popular with Singaporeans, Hideaki Aoyama features thin straight noodles in a thick pork bone broth. The flavorful soup is a gravy like consistency with huge mounds of shredded green onions and boiled spinach.
Hideaki Aoyama’s entrance to URC with his Special Tonkotsu Ramen is impressionable. The noodles used have just the right weight to complement the crunchiness of the garnish well, and despite its thickness the soup is sufficiently thin enough for one to slurp it without feeling like you’re sucking on a milkshake.
One is greeted with a near overflowing bowl, characteristic of Bario’s ramen. It was surprising to see chef Iwasaki come by to personally explain how best to enjoy the ramen.
Perhaps the only shop to have not altered their ramen to suit the Singapore-based competition, their bowls are the same offerings as you would get from Japan. The soup is very flavorful, and definitely worth a try. However, its thick and fatty consistency makes it something you wouldn’t eat regularly.
As the only contender to serve Hokkaido style ramen, Gantetsu’s chewy noodles are served in a rich white miso soup with the aroma of ginger. It’s mildness is suitable for those looking for a lighter bowl of ramen. To attract more customers, Gantetsu’s King Charsiu Ramen offers a whooping 200g of pork, a large piece of seaweed and toppings enough to cover the whole bowl.
For people who have a habit of saving pieces of meat to eat separately, the pieces on this one are great; they’re sliced thinly, so there’s absolutely no guilt in eating some and saving others.
Ultimate Ramen Champion 2011’s winner Ikkousha serves up a Spicy Takana Ramen. With a light broth and thin noodles characteristic of Hakata ramen, it’s the easiest one to get through. With its light pork bone soup, this Takana ramen is the closest to what the local palate is used to.
It doesn’t hurt that Ikkousha’s ramen is really delicious; the consistency of the broth does not necessarily imply that it’s less flavorful, instead striking the right balance to enjoy it without feeling bloated by the end.
Known for their heavy use of shoyu and black peppers in their bowls of ramen but the most memorable part about Iroha’s King’s Ramen is the thick pieces of char siu accompanying the noodles. King Ramen serves a thicker than usual shoyu chicken soup base with some of the best char siu served.
An attraction for some, Iroha’s style of soup might be a little too peppery for other tastes; those who prefer chilli spiciness may not find Iroha to their liking.
The other new contender to Ultimate Ramen Champion this year, Riki is also the only other tsukemen on the list besides Taka no Tsume. Riki’s regular store can be found at Changi Airport’s Terminal 3 but they have taken advantage of the contest to come up with a tsukemen variation of their usual offering.
Riki serves the only hot tsukemen for the event. With thick noodles accompanied by a thick dipping sauce, it makes for a nice filling meal. A lot of effort must have been put into the making the thick dipping sauce as concentrated as it is. It pretty much tastes just like a hamburger, that’s how thick the sauce is.
After everything was sampled, it was time to announce the results. There were murmurs amongst those seated at the tables about who was going to win. A short informal survey around the immediate area showed that many liked Ikkousha, with its thin noodles and relatively light soup base. So it did not come as a surprise to many when it came to pass that the judges themselves picked Ikkousha as well.
With Bario coming in at second place with the judges’ scores, it seems mass opinion and critical judgement do go hand-in hand. As Yoshimura celebrated his victory, it’s clear that it meant a lot to him and the rest of the Ikkousha team; Singapore is the ramen chain’s first foray into Singapore, and to win an accolade twice in a day certainly provides a nice boost to one’s confidence.
Ramen Champion has proven itself to be a unique and exciting way to promote the introduction of ramen into Singapore. By putting the different flavors of Japanese ramen in one place, it allows consumers to easily sample the different varieties they would have to travel all over Japan for.
It will be interesting to see where URC goes from here, and to see if new additions Aoyama and Taka no Tsume will be able to wrest the crown away from Ikkousha.