How much do you really love your favorite food? Enough to travel across town for it? Across the country? Across oceans? If it were to disappear from your life tomorrow, what lengths would you go to recreate it? This is the problem faced by Allen Hu. After years spent in Vancouver, Canada, soaking up the broth at one of the city’s artisan ramen shops, Kintaro Ramen, Mr. Hu found himself deeply missing the Japanese comfort food upon his return to Changzhou.
For all Changzhou’s fabulous wealth of noodles, finding a bowl of ramen that captured the spirit and flavors of the noodles he left on the other side of an ocean proved beyond challenging. Even frequent trips to Japan could only do so much to satisfy Mr. Hu’s ramen lust. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that he couldn’t be the only person in Changzhou looking for an authentic bowl of ramen. There had to be other fans of the urban Japanese staple somewhere in town. They just needed a ramen shop to appear, and they would as well. Loyal in his devotion, he named his new noodle dream Kintaro in honor of the Vancouver restaurant that inspired its birth.
The Ramen Road
Ramen, or 日式拉面 (Rìshì Lāmiàn or “Japanese-style pulled noodles”), have travelled a long and circuitous route to Kintaro’s kitchen from their humble origins… in China’s Inner Mongolia. When the noodles were brought to Japan by Chinese immigrants sometime around the turn of the 20th century, they represented an advanced innovation in noodle-making that hadn’t been seen before in the island nation. Thanks to the addition of kansui, a mineral-rich water, the noodles could be stretched longer and hold their structure better in soups than the native “soba.”
Originally served up in a simple clear broth from street carts and in Chinese restaurants, the Japanese were fond enough of the snack that they began customizing it with local additions and heartier broths, that they soon turned what was originally a simple warm meal accompaniment or between meal snack into a full-fledged meal. Despite these customizations, ramen was referred to as “Chinese-style Soba” until Momofuku Ando invented a way of flash-frying the noodles and packaged them up in disposable cups, changing the lives and diets of future broke college students for generations to come.
By the 1980s, ramen had become so ubiquitous in Japan that Japanese businessmen, obsessed with the dish, quit their jobs to take up ramen-making as a full-time art form, starting up artisanal ramen shops, devoted to crafting the perfect bowl of noodles. For a similar trend today, you might compare those ramen-preneurs to the hot young hipsters who quit their high-flying tech and finance jobs to start up microbreweries.
Much like microbreweries, trend-setting urban centers loved these boutique ramen shops. Small restaurants like Kintaro Ramen soon popped up in metropolises like Vancouver, thousands of miles from the land that had become associated with the noodle soup. That a man born in China would fall in love with a Japanese-infused Chinese invention in a noodle shop in Canada is probably used as an example to illustrate globalization in a textbook somewhere.
Catch a glimpse of the façade of Kintaro, and you know you’ve found something different from the typical eateries crowded in front of Hohai University’s west gate. Angular and simple with an emphasis on natural materials and an open kitchen, Kintaro’s minimalist style stands out.
Designing and renovating the restaurant took an exceedingly long time, thanks to Mr. Hu’s exacting requirements and attention to details. White maple used throughout the interior was imported from Canada. The red oak for the front entry came from the US. Kintaro’s massive front glass wall—shocking up close for its sheer size—had to be custom ordered from Shanghai. “It took ten men to lift it,” Mr. Hu reminisces. Each design decision came with an agonizing amount of work.
As you can imagine, there’s a lot riding on the bowls of noodles at Kintaro. Mr. Hu brought the same attitude he used on the interior design at Kintaro to its food, with a menu as spare as the store front. Little graces the single sheet of dishes aside from a handful of mostly traditional ramen bowls, a token rice dish, and gyoza. While the dishes themselves are limited, you can customize both the bite of your noodles and the leanness of your meat.
We only make 200 bowls of noodles each day. If we run out at 7:30, then we have to close.
“Everything served must look like the pictures on the menu,” Mr. Hu says, “It helps to ensure the quality.” Ingredient and food proportions are strictly regulated and monitored. “We only make 200 bowls of noodles each day. If we run out at 7:30, then we have to close.”
The process of making those two hundred bowls of noodles starts far in advance. The fresh pork for the house-made chashu (BBQ pork) used in several of Kintaro’s ramen varieties begins marinating around 4 days before it finally makes its appearance in a customer’s bowl. Everyday 80kg of bones are boiled for 12 hours to make the broth. Even the spring bamboo used to make menma (a type of fermented bamboo) is sent from a carefully selected village in Fujian to a small factory Mr. Hu set up to supply his restaurant with the ingredient after he failed to source just the right kind.
While many ingredients are sourced locally or made in-house from scratch to ensure freshness, a number of products are still imported directly from Japan when taste is on the line. Every three months, a Japanese ramen chef also flies to Changzhou to control quality and flavor, and provide continued training for the staff.
The result of all these preparations, attentions, and limitations is a bowl of noodles crafted to appear shockingly simple with a rich flavor that envelops you in a big, warm hug. Perhaps this is why Kintaro tends to overflow during the weekday lunch rush as college students and young professionals queue up past that massive glass wall. Mr. Hu, it would seem, isn’t the only person in Changzhou who would go to unusual pains for a beautiful and authentic bowl of Japanese-style ramen.
Photo by Theresa Boersma/Richard Fuoco | Translated by Zinia