The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G.K. Chesterton

Monday, 15 February 2010

Sapporo Ramen @ Shirakaba Sansou, Sapporo

Apparently Sapporo is famous for ramen (a Japanese wheat noodle with roots from China), and it is the one thing that almost everyone said we must eat on our trip to Hokkaido. There are more than a thousand ramen restaurants in Sapporo, so it would be quite apt to call it the city of ramen. There are different ramen varieties originating from different regions of Japan, and from Sapporo comes the Miso Ramen which is well-known all over Japan. Upon arrival in Sapporo city, it was around lunch time and we were hungry. After checking into our hotel, I asked the hotel concierge to recommend a good place to eat Sapporo ramen. He pointed to the 10th floor of a retail building called Esta near the train station (adjacent to the Sapporo station bus terminal) and suggested we try Shirakaba Sansou. We got to the building and discovered that the part of the 10th floor is taken up by the Sapporo Rāmen Republic, a ramen-themed food amusement park. There were many ramen eateries there, and we had to (embarrassingly) ask another shop's assistant for directions to Shirakaba Sansou (which we initially thought was a type of ramen dish, not a shop's name). There are apparently a few branches of this brand all around Sapporo and even outside of Hokkaido, and it sure was a popular choice as evident by the long queue of people waiting for a table. Even though it was past 2pm on a weekday, we waited for a good 20 minutes before we were seated.

One of the entrances into the Sapporo Ramen Kyouwakoku (Ramen Republic), and nearing the front of the queue at Shirakaba Sansou after waiting for more than 20 minutes:

Generally three soup bases were available: the traditional Shio Ramen (salt flavour), the standard Shoyu Ramen (soy sauce) and the Sapporo specialty, Miso Ramen. From those three flavours, you could request to add spices, upon which you would be asked how spicy you would like your soup on a scale of 1 (least spicy) to 3 (most spicy). Let me say now that the number 3 level of spiciness didn't even tingle our tongues. You could also order extras like more chashu ('Chinese' roast pork, but not anything like char siu), noodles, and rice (?!). There was a basket of ni tamago (boiled eggs) on each table, from which you could help yourself to as many eggs as you want, for free. The soup is already so rich that you don't really want to add to the cholesterol/fat level of the ramen with eggs too. We also got an order of Pao Gyoza (another dish of Chinese origins), which was round like a bun ("pao") rather than the usual elongated shape. I'm sure would have tasted good if I wasn't overwhelmed by the greasiness.

Basket of free boiled eggs! And our greasy gyoza:

We each got different soup bases for comparison: my sister got the Spicy Shoyu Ramen (number 3 spicy) with an extra order of pork; Rob ordered the number 1 recommended dish, the Miso Chashu Men; and I got the Spicy Miso Ramen (also at the spiciest level).

Honey's Spicy Shoyu Ramen and the side order of pork :

The noodles were firm-cooked (or al dente, as the Italians would say), springy and curly. The pork slices were tender and thankfully not too fatty. And three soup bases were rich, presumably made from a stock of pork bones, with a thin layer of oil floating on top. Each bowl was topped with green onions, kikurage (cloud ear mushroom), nori (seaweed) and daikon sprouts. The two 'spicy' ramen bowls were garnished with saffron threads, but were otherwise not spicy - not even a tingle. With three bowls to compare side-by-side, we all unanimously agreed that Rob's plain miso soup tasted the nicest. Serving size was huge, and I could barely eat more than half of my noodles before it got a little OTT. Even Honey, a fan of ramen, didn't finish her bowl of ramen; and Rob, whose tolerance for fat and rich stuff are much higher than mine, could barely finish my leftovers. We all agreed that perhaps the 'half' portion (only available in the Miso flavour) would have been plenty.

Rob's Miso Chashu Men (hands and chopsticks included to give an idea of the serving size) and my Spicy Miso Ramen :

The Japanese are very proud of their ramen, and there are countless of ramen fans out there, but for the life of me, I can't get myself to appreciate this noodle dish. It reminds me too much of the 2-minute instant variety which I haven't eaten for more than maybe 7 or 8 years. In almost 4 years of living in Japan, I had only ever eaten ramen two times before this visit, and all my ramen experiences have failed to leave a good impression on me. My sister is a big fan of ramen, and have thus far enjoyed all the ramen that have been recommended to her. I am sure that I am only a minority, and if you enjoy ramen, you will enjoy these ones here.

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