Ramen to the Japanese is like what wonton noodles are to people in Hong Kong.
Lily Chen, founder of Tamashii Japanese Noodle (Tel: 2893-2699), is a hardcore ramen lover who has tasted many types in Japan. She is especially attracted to the warm feeling of the ramen culture.
"You will often find ramen carts under a bridge in Japan and commuters just pop in for a bowl of hot ramen after a long day of work on their way home," says Chen of the inspiration behind her cozy ramen shop on Sharp Street West in Causeway Bay, which is decorated like a classic ramen cart.
She found that the Japanese like their ramen very oily and salty, but people in Hong Kong prefer a healthier diet. So she asked the chef to create a special recipe for the tonkotsu (pork bone soup base) that is rich but not too heavy.
"Every morning, the chef will go to the wet market himself to shop for fresh pork bones for the base. He has an extremely high standard - any ramen that sits for over a minute before serving will be thrown out. He will make a new one so that everything is served fresh and perfect," Chen says.
Sometimes the store is closed on weekdays because the chef is not satisfied with the soup that day.
Try the original Tamashii (HK$69) to take a slurp of the smooth and creamy tonkotsu.
As the chef previously specialized in kaiseki, a multi-course dinner, he has also incorporated some kaiseki elements into the ramen.
In Tai Keku (HK$89), black squid sauce is added to the soup in addition to the usual ingredients such as soft boiled egg and char siu. Then fresh crab roe and gold foil is placed on top of the noodles.
The most popular ramen is Seilu (HK$99). Accented with a homemade spinach sauce and caviar, the ramen is only available at night. Just 30 bowls are served daily.
Charlie Chan, owner of Daruma Ramen House (Tel: 2565-6600), claims that they are the first, after the Ajisen "Q" Ramen chain store, to bring authentic Japanese ramen to Hong Kong and started the trend.
Their second store on Yiu Wah Street in Causeway Bay, which opened four months ago, is chic and relatively spacious. Daruma dolls are all over the restaurant - and even printed on their exclusive soda bottles. In Japan, people believe the dolls bring good luck and make wishes come true. "Diners can draw one eye of the Daruma doll after they make a wish and come back to draw another eye once their wishes come true," Chan says.
A few years back Chan and her sisters traveled frequently to Japan because of their fashion business.
Having tasted many different ramen there, they were eager to bring the most authentic taste home.
"We experimented with pork bones from many different countries. And finally we figured those from Holland made the best tonkotsu," says Chan, who hopes diners will be able to taste the same premium tonkotsu every time they visit the restaurant.
She says Daruma is popular among pregnant women and families because the kitchen uses all fresh ingredients and there are no preservatives.
The rich flavor of the tonkotsu is complemented by the vegetables used in its cooking.
Stir in the menbaiko (marinated pollock roe) before you taste the Tonkotsu Ramen (HK$88) to give your palate a more flavorful experience.
Fancy some spicy adventures? Go for the Spicy Ramen (HK$78), which is also a favorite of singer Eason Chan Yik-shun.
It is common to find tonkotsu soup base for Japanese ramen, but what about chicken soup base?
Located on Irving Street in Causeway Bay, Torihana (Tel: 2366-1332) is the only ramen place in Hong Kong that serves ramen with chicken broth.
"Our base is cooked mainly with chicken bones, especially chicken feet, which contains a high level of collagen. It's good for ladies who want beautiful skin," says head chef Hirata Yoichi.
Because of its rich collagen content, the soup is thicker than any homemade chicken soup and has a white, milky color. For those who are looking for alternatives from the classic tonkotsu, Torihana is definitely worth trying.
"The soup base is the soul of the ramen. Chicken soup is less oily and heavy than tonkotsu. Light but equally flavorful. The noodles used in Torihana are the curly, thick yellow ones, which can hold the soup better with its curls," Yoichi says.
Complete your experience with a chicken soup classic with all the toppings (HK$103), which contains both pork and chicken char siu.