For many of us, our first introduction to ramen probably came with those super-cheap instant packets that required nothing more than some boiled water and a dingy uni dorm room.
While ramen also began as cheap comfort food in Japan, it’s recently been elevated to a highly specialised dish that varies greatly from one area to another. In its home region of Sapporo, you might find a miso broth loaded with veggies; in Tokyo they use a lighter chicken broth and curly noodles; further south, in Hakata, they go for a gorgeously rich and milky pork bone broth. No matter the style, a good ramen will be comforting, flavourful and lip-smackingly delicious. I find it particularly hits the spot in these cool and gloomy rainy season months.
A proliferation of ramen shops has sprung up across Singapore in the last couple years, with many of Japan’s most popular brands trying to capture the hearts of this food-crazy nation. Takumen Ramen is the newest kid on the block, but what sets it apart is that rather than feature a single ramen style, it highlights six of Japan’s most popular and diverse varieties.
Takumen launched in Japan in 2010 as an “online ramen shop”; its noodle-mad founder visited ramen restaurants all over the country, selecting over 100 favourites to showcase on his site, where hungry Japanese diners can order ready-made dishes to have delivered to their door.
Takumen’s two Singapore locations – which just opened in November – are its first brick-and-mortar shops. “We feel Singaporeans tend to have a more discerning palate, and hold a greater appreciation for Japanese culture and cuisine [than anywhere else in Asia]”, founder Takuma Inoue explained.
The restaurant will feature a rotating slate of Japan’s most popular brands, each perfected and approved by its original chef before it can be served in Singapore. A common complaint I hear from Japanese friends in Singapore is that most Japanese restaurants here are actually staffed by locals; Takumen’s management is entirely Japanese, as are most of its cooks, which adds an air of authenticity to the proceedings.
The restaurant also has the clean, cosy feel of an authentic Japanese restaurant. Ice water is served with lemon to be extra refreshing. Little pots of fresh garlic and pepper sit alongside a container thoughtfully filled with hair bands “so women can slurp their ramen with gusto!”.
On the day I was invited to visit, there were five varieties on offer. (It’s not uncommon for the restaurant to sell out of a popular item, in this case the “Chibakara”, which features super-thick slabs of chashu sliced pork and rich, thick meat broth). I’m enough of a ramen aficionado that I didn’t mind slurping down five bowls of the stuff, particularly as each dish was entirely different from the one that preceded it.
I started off with the Hajime, twice named “Tokyo Ramen of the Year” in 2010 and 2011. The shimmering chicken-based broth was light in flavour, and there was a nice springiness to the noodles. This was the closest I’ve ever come to my grandmother’s comforting chicken noodle soup (a cure-all for the common cold!) in a Japanese restaurant.
Next up was the Sakuta-ya Tonkatsu Shoyu. Oh my goodness. This pork-based broth was thick as gravy (and tasted a bit like it, too, in the best possible way); it’s derived not just from pork bones, but from marrow as well. The dull brown broth topped with just pork, seaweed and spinach doesn’t look like much in photos, but I promise it’s a party in your mouth, mamas.
Third came the Bingiri Katsuura-style spicy Tantamen, which requires a plastic apron to protect you from the homemade chilli oil in this bright red broth that’s sure to splatter as you slurp up the deliciousness. This one tastes even hotter than it looks, with three kinds of peppers (including Sichuan chillies) and a broad bean chili paste. It’s meant to have a “numbing spiciness”, but sparkles with the range of flavours, including scallions and chunks of garlic. It definitely did clear my sinuses.
Next I tried the Do Miso, which blends both chicken and pork broths, and includes a slew of ingredients like shitake mushrooms, corn, cabbage bamboo shoots, mackerel and bonito. I personally don’t love corn in my ramen, and prefer pork to the fish-tinged flavour of the broth, but I did like the crunchy texture and loved the marinated runny egg. The Do Miso I tried featured the restaurant’s “Singapore version” of broth, which has less oil and salt. This lighter, healthier alternative is available with every dish at Takumen.
Finally came the classic Honda Shoten Tonkatsu Ramen Kurume (what a mouthful!). This is what I picture when I think of ramen: thick-but-not-too-thick milky pork broth, uplifting green onions, mouthwateringly tender pork chashu. Perhaps less daring than the Bingiri or Sakuta-ya, but deeply satisfying.
I visited Takumen’s main location along Circular Road at Boat Quay. With just 30 seats and two small tables outside, it fills up awfully quickly, particularly with its proximity to the Raffles Quay lunch crowd. The street is lined with Japanese restaurants these days (there’s even another ramen shop two doors down) – look for Takumen’s lovely assortment of ramen bowls in the window to find it, as it’s worth the hunt!
66 Circular Road, #01-01, Sngapore 049420
Tel: (+65) 6536 4875
Open: Mon to Thu 11:30am-3pm, 5:30-10:30pm; Fri 11:30am-3pm, 5:30-midnight; Sat 5:30pm-midnight; Sun and public holidays 11:30am-3pm.
Within The Public Izakaya by Hachi: 16 Enggor Street, #01-14/15/16 Altez, Singapore 079027
Tel: (+65) 6604 9622
Open: Mon to Fri 11:30am-3pm, 5pm -1am; Sat 5 pm-1am; Sun 5pm-10pm.