The best(?) ramen in Tokyo.
“ Here, use the umbrella if it’s too hot, ” said the ramen shop owner, in his pristine white apron and shirt.
I was relieved because sweat was indeed dripping off my back. We were standing directly under the 35-degrees sun and I contemplated using the umbrellas even before he offered them.
As soon as he went back into the shop, a girl in front of us collapsed.
She was part of a Chinese family of four.
I wasn’t sure if she was the sister, or the girlfriend of the son, but she was suffering from a heat stroke.
Chika yelled towards the shop for some cold water and little less than 10 seconds later, everyone was surrounding the girl.
I thought if anything, we should give her more space.
After she recovered, the mother said, “ don’t worry, you will feel better when you have some ramen.”
And they continued queuing.
Unlike Melbourne, you don’t find a queue by accident in Tokyo.
It’s not like you turn up to a cafe, and go: bummer, there’s a line. Let’s put our names down.
The question is not ‘if’, but ‘where’.
You have to queue.
I picked Kagari because it was closest to our hotel.
Also it has a reputation of being the best, yet affordable and unique ramen joint in the heart of Ginza.
Once we walked through the door, I knew why it was affordable.
The shop could only sit eight people.
Eight skinny Japanese.
Our orders were taken during the queue so not long after we sat down, our dishes were served on the counter.
And I was at a lost of words.
I saw asparagus, cherry tomatoes, lotus root and baby corn.
I’ll say it again:
I saw asparagus, cherry tomatoes, lotus root and baby corn on my ramen.
None of those were traditionally Japanese.
None were traditionally ‘ramen’.
The soup was creamy and thick.
I could see on the menu it says tori paitan, which translates to ‘chicken white soup’, but I can’t figure out what was making it so rich.
Chicken fat? Egg yolks? Cream?
“Butter,” answered Chika.
And it was delicious.
Delicious because I’ve never eaten ramen like that before.
If anything, it felt like a noodle dish removed from the middle of a degustation course.
After the meal I did more research and found out that Kagari is in its own category. It is not shoyu, miso, or shio based.
It was quite a shock to our system.
We walked out of Kagari feeling … unsure of how to feel.
Perhaps it was the heat, I’d assume the dish would taste much better during winter.
Compared to Japanese netizens, we were not as mind-blown.
Maybe because I whispered to her half-way, “ this is like eating pasta,” and took some magic away.
But seriously, if you walk into a ramen restaurant in Melbourne and saw this dish. You’d flip out. People get really angry when you take away the charshu, the green onions, sesame seeds.
(Shop Ramen in Fitzroy comes to mind. Most ramen purists scoff at that place. King oyster mushrooms? Pork belly? Beef brisket? That’s not real ramen, that is blesphemy!)
And here I am, finding asparagus in my Tokyo ramen.
Chika was sitting at a couch two nights ago, and she said, “ maybe that ramen was really good after all. ”
For me, that was her seal of approval.
That’s the best compliment you can receive from a hakata tonkotsu purist.
And I understand where she’s coming from.
Since returning, my brain often wanders back to that buttery, umami corner, the crunch of young asparagus, glistening chicken fat floating on top, neutralised by the noodles.
All carved out by Kagari.
It has now acquired the majority of market share of ‘great chicken soup’ in my mind.
You’d think you can tell on the spot if a dish is good or not.
But when it comes to ramen, it is not as easy as you’d expect.