Tuesday, February 9, 2016

OISA Ramen: Tonkotsu, the Specialty of Fukuoka

"Ramen is not one thing; there are many, many different types."
--Chef David Chang

After an evening of enjoying some Irish whiskey, why not enjoy some Ramen as well? That was my logic last week, as I attended a special Ramen pop-up hosted by Chef Youji Iwakura of Snappy Ramen. The event was held at Snappy Sushi on Newbury Street and featured Moe Kuroki of OISA Ramen, a pop-up ramen shop. OISA Ramen, which has been around for over a year, holds one or two events a month, at various locations in the Boston area. I'd hadn't been to any of their previous ramen events and this sounded like an intriguing dinner.

At this event, there were four different seatings, each for 20 people, and each seating included three different items, including Edamame, an Eel Bun, and Tonkotsu Ramen. The first three seatings were $30 per person while the final seating, which I attended, was $35, but the Ramen was a little different, with hand-made noodles and extra pork. It was a fun and delicious evening, and a real pleasure to meet in person both Youji Iwakura and Moe Kuroki.

Chef Youji Iwakura (pictured above) prepared the first two items for our dinner, the Edamame and Eel Bun. Youji, who loves Sake, is personable and passionate, a skilled chef who has been dedicating much of his current labors to creating ramen.

That wonderful Eel Bun! This wasn't some small bun, barely filled with food. Instead, you got an Eel bun stuffed with Unagi, mixed greens, cucumber, tempura bits, and a couple sauces. Chef Iwakura originally made this dish about two years ago at Snappy Ramen in Davis Square when they still served sushi. A great way to start the meal, the bun was soft and fluffy and each bite was a delightful melange of flavors and textures, with meaty eel, crunchy tempura, and a savory sauce. Even if you are not a big fan of eel, this bun might change your mind.

Ramen Bunny Ninja?

Moe Kuroki (pictured above) is serious about her ramen but she isn't a serious person, preferring to embrace fun and silliness. Just check out the OISA Ramen Facebook page and you'll get a sense of her infectious personality. She also is energetic and passionate, humble and talented. It isn't a surprise that she has a growing following in the Boston area, seeking out her ramen.

Moe grew up in the Fukuoka Prefecture of Japan, the home of Tonkostu Ramen, which is made from a pork-bone broth. In the Boston area, Moe had difficulty finding tonkostu ramen so decided to create her own, which entailed several years of trial and error, testing and experimenting. In November 2014, Moe and her husband, Mike Betts (a chef who once worked at Clio), started OISA Ramen, a series of pop-up ramen events.

I asked Moe a few questions about her process of making the ramen for this event, and her initial comments for both the noodles and soup were similar, "It is made with love." I would have to agree that it comes from her deep passion for ramen. Without such passion, it's doubtful she would invest as much time and effort in making her ramen as is necessary. Moe went into some details on the process, starting with the noodles.

First, as the noodles are hand-made, it's time intensive though she is getting more efficient with time. and practice. She uses a small, motorized pasta maker and notes that the dough is not soft and tender like pasta dough, having only just enough water to bind it together. In addition, she kneads the dough by hand, a laborious process. Moe also makes her own Kansui, an alkaline solution that affects the texture of the noodles. She knows it's working properly when her noodles suddenly turn a bright, light yellow color. She aims to make noodles that are thin enough to slurp but also have a proper texture with a crunchy chew.

As for the soup, it too is a lengthy process, starting wth preparing the pork bones, which must be boiled and clean to eliminate any impurities which might make the soup taste bitter. Then, the broth takes all day for simmering and skimming. Within the soup, there will be two different types of flavored oil, mayu (burnt garlic oil) and her own infusion oil, both oils made with lard and acting as the fat in her soup. The tare, the basic essence of the soup, is soy sauce based, and it is adjusted dependent on the saltiness of the toppings.

Her ultimate goal is to create a harmonious balance between the toppings, soup and noodles. She also notes that her soup is on the lighter side though that is due to the buttery pork belly, which has been cooked very slowly so that the fat renders out.

My verdict? A stellar bowl of Ramen. The plentiful pork belly melted in my mouth, like pork fat butter, and easily fell apart against the edge of the spoon. The broth was savory and complex, with an intense umami element, a salty edge and some heat from a peppery topping. The flavors were deep and balanced and it wasn't too salty in the least. It was like a bowl of liquid pig. The thin noodles had a nice bite to them, a good textural element. I could have devoured a second bowl of this compelling ramen, especially accompanied with an umami-rich Sake, like a Kimoto/Yamahai.

This was my first experience with OISA Ramen but it won't be the last. Moe's passion for ramen is more than evident in the quality of the finished product, a result of much time and hard work. I highly recommend you check out future OISA Ramen events. Chef Iawakura's culinary skills were also clearly evident in the Eel Bun and I need to get to Snappy Ramen in the near future to taste some of the ramen dishes that he has created, such as Tsukemen.


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