We arrived late in Osaka from the Tottori prefecture, exhausted, but our Japanese colleague insisted that we still head to this shop for a taste of Hakata-style ramen. This colleague of mine is a foodie and so far, his recommendations had not been disappointing. In fact, they were excellent. Despite the late hour, the restaurant was still packed to the brim, a contrast to the quiet, dark street where it’s located. We were fortunate to have found seats at the communal dining table that resembled an old, big tree trunk. There were jars of condiments on that table – preserved vegetables, pickled ginger, soy sauce and chilli powder. On that cold, early autumn night, I waited eagerly and hungrily for my bowl of ramen, unknowing and uninformed of the ingredients and taste.
When I had my first taste of the tonkotsu broth there, at 一風堂 in 2003, I knew my life would be changed forever. The broth was white, but it was not from evaporated milk that we so conveniently pour into our fish soup noodle to enrich the flavour. Instead, the tonkotsu, in general, is the result of long simmering of pork bones and fatty cuts of meat. Served hot, the aroma from a combination of lard in the broth and garlic oil was heavenly. Topping the ramen were some crunchy slices of wood ear and melting soft pork belly. I said this exceptional noodle dish changed my life forever because until today, the aroma and taste still linger in my mind and I’ve never stopped craving for it. For me, the choice of broth is quite obvious whenever I drop by a ramen shop.
Perhaps too indulged in my first bowl of tonkotsu ramen, I’d forgotten to inquire how the kanji words of 一風堂 are pronounced. It has, for a long time, remained as the nameless, excellent ramen chain that I’ve been
proselytizing recommending to my friends and family back home.
一風堂 is pronounced as Ippudo, as I’d discovered recently when I visited their first shop at the Mandarin Gallery. By now, I’d tried more than a dozen tonkotsu broths in town; some better, mostly not. I was interested to compare the tastes; between now and my first experience in Osaka, eight years ago. The condiments offered in Osaka back then were not found here. And instead of the rustic, rather unkempt interior, this branch seemed to have been jazzed up with a touch of contemporary zen. I prefer the rustic design, actually. One thing remained – the required snaking queue.
I’ve been revisiting the Ippudo branches in Singapore rather frequently, not because of my now tamed addiction to their tonkotsu, but of requests from visiting friends from abroad. The perpetual queue at Mandarin Gallery is repulsive and at times, almost drove me to turn to Ootoya at Orchard Central, which could possibly guarantee a crowd as well. I’ve been enlightened by some websites to visit the UE Square branch. And since then, snaking queues were never again a problem for me.
Ippudo Shiro, which means white in Japanese, refers to the tonkotsu broth. Despite the difference in presentation (the bowls look strange but ergonomic now), essentially, the flavours and aroma were very much similar to what I had years ago. It was a good taste down memory lane. The strands of ramen were cooked to my desired texture - springy, but on the soft side. I guess in Ippudo, that kind of texture is termed medium.
What's new to me was the incorporation of Tao in the UE Square branch's name. Previously, I thought Tao was the name of another famous Japanese ramen joint and that this branch serves both ramen from Ippudo and Tao. And I've been telling my dining companions (all of them!) of this too, partially to impress them with my ramen knowledge.
Actually, Tao refers to a famous Japanese drum group! According to the website, IPPUDO TAO is a synergy of two Japanese traditions: ramen and drum performance and At IPPUDO TAO, one can enjoy TAO’s live performances via a huge screen while having ramen that have been created exclusively in the spirit of TAO. I'm still digesting the concept while burying my embarrassment in misinterpreting the restaurant's name.
I tried the Tao Aka (red in Japanese), which consisted of curlier egg noodles in a tonkotsu broth with the addition of spicy miso paste. Previous dining experiences had taught me to take spicy lightly (and sweetly) in Japanese restaurants but this particular paste was, though far from a habanero chilli, rather spicy. Although I still prefer the shiro, this serves as an interesting alternative, especially on a cold, rainy night, like now.
For me, it's hard to explain how good is a tonkotsu broth. It's a measure of density, richness, lightness, aroma, flavours, patience and skills. Although the last few years have seen ramen shops sprouting across the island, I've not had one version of tonkotsu that embodies all the said characteristics. I won't be surprised if some shops use powdered tonkotsu flavouring too.
I can't and won't say that Ippudo serves the best tonkotsu or Hakata-style ramen in town but this is definitely one of the very few outstanding ones.
Ippudo Singapore's website