Going Tonkotsu Crazy

25 May

A couple of Christmases ago, I got the boy the gift of sushi lessons for us both. It was one of those gifts that we could enjoy together – which basically means I like presents that I get something out of too. Luckily, it works both ways. This has become somewhat of a tradition between us with him buying me things he knows we’ll both like (comedy tickets) and me dragging him to the symphony (which he has now come to love).

But the sushi lessons are one of those gifts that have really stuck with us. We went a bit sushi-making mad for a while but unlike a gift which is used once in the holidays and then put away for years (foot spa anyone?) this one kept on giving.

Since then, I’ve continued learning about Japanese cuisine and have found myself cooking dishes from this country at home more frequently. So, when I was recently asked to come down to the Japan Centre – a fantastic Japanese food store on the south end of Regent Street in London where I have gone for years to get my Japanese ingredients – to learn how to make Tonkotsu noodle soup, I jumped at the chance to add a new recipe to my repertoire.

Tonkotsu is a type of Ramen made with a rich pork bone broth rather than a more typical miso or chicken stock base. It is popular in the southern-most part of Japan: Kyushu.

Nariaki Kanazawa – the advertising and product PR manager – told me the dish has only become popular in more northern spots like Tokyo in recent years. It wasn’t until he went to university near Kyushu that he even discovered it.

“I was shocked. I didn’t know what they had given me. It wasn’t soya [miso] Ramen!” he said, laughing.

The dish is eaten any time of the day but is very popular with businessmen and late night drinkers who procure it from street stalls.

“It’s more commonly eaten by men because of the rich flavour and fatty meats,” he told me.

Rich flavour? Fatty meat? That sounded right up my street! Once Nariaki told me this, I was ready to get stuck in and headed straight behind the counter to see how it is assembled.

The spicy beef Tonkotsu soup I tried is made from a notebook page full of ingredients, which include: yuzu paste (a spicy, fermented sauce made from the Japanese yuzu orange), chilli sauce, sesame lemon sauce, white miso paste, egg noodles, a chicken and pork stock (to which the Tonkotsu – or creamy pork bone broth – is added at a rate of 10 parts stock to 1 part broth), wakame (edible seaweed), spring onions, bean sprouts, red ginger, fungus and BBQ pork. Now, if that’s not a cure for too much drinking, I don’t know what is!

The dish was steaming when it got to my table. But I couldn’t help but plow into it – noodle soup (in all its forms) is one of my long-time favourite foods.

And what a treat it was. The soup was delectably rich – and far preferable to a standard miso broth. It was creamy, slightly fatty and had a sweet edge from the miso paste that was diluted by the chilli bite. The saltiness of the seaweed and sharp tang of the ginger were welcome additions. So many parts of my palate were bursting at once that it would have looked like one of those light-up dance move games people play in arcades if anyone could have seen it under a telescope. The team at the Japan Centre had looked a bit dubious when I said I would have a large portion. I think I did myself proud.

It’s not only me that likes it, apparently. Nariaki told me they’ve increased soup sales from about 20 portions a lunch hour to 50 since the Tonkotsu appeared on the menu six months ago. Whether that was PR speak, I won’t know but I can imagine why someone would love it. I’m just glad to add something so pleasurable to my growing Japanese food recipe book!

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