In pursuit of noodle perfection: ramen in the UK

In pursuit of noodle perfection: ramen in the UK

by Esme Curtis28 July 2023

Ramen – hearty, comforting, slurpable and delicious. It's one of the world's great comfort foods and it's easier to find good ramen in the UK than ever before. Read on to find out more about what's behind the British ramen boom, and why noodles are at the heart of the story.

In pursuit of noodle perfection: ramen in the UK

Ramen – hearty, comforting, slurpable and delicious. It's one of the world's great comfort foods and it's easier to find good ramen in the UK than ever before. Read on to find out more about what's behind the British ramen boom, and why noodles are at the heart of the story.

Esme is the Recipe Editor at Great British Chefs. She particularly loves Chinese and Japanese food and owns far too many cookbooks.

Esme is the Recipe Editor at Great British Chefs. She particularly loves Chinese and Japanese food and owns far too many cookbooks.

Esme is the Recipe Editor at Great British Chefs. She particularly loves Chinese and Japanese food and owns far too many cookbooks.

Esme is the Recipe Editor at Great British Chefs. She particularly loves Chinese and Japanese food and owns far too many cookbooks.

It’s impossible to talk about ramen without talking about noodles. Not just because ramen is a noodle-based dish, but because the noodles are one of the only places where ramen has rules. In order for a dish to be ramen, it has to use the right noodles. Ramen can be topped with anything, seasoned with anything and even not have any soup. But, no matter what, ramen has to have ramen noodles.

Ramen noodles are made – with a few exceptions – using a concentrated alkaline solution called kansui. The kansui – as well as countless other factors – gives ramen noodles their distinctive taste, yellow-ish colour and texture. Fresh pasta restaurants and ramen shops have both become increasingly popular in the UK over the past few years, but ramen’s history and culture is, in many ways, almost the inverse of pasta’s. While pasta has existed in Italy for centuries, ramen only really became established in Japan after the Second World War. And while traditional pasta is associated with grandmotherly love and home-cooked meals, no Japanese person will have nostalgic memories of their obaachan rolling out ramen noodle dough.

Ramen noodles are not traditionally made at home for a few reasons. One key one is that ramen noodle dough is made with very little water. This makes it deliciously chewy and firm but also so tough it can break a hand-cranked machine designed for rolling out pasta. While chefs specialising in pasta, soba or udon all pride themselves on making noodles with as little machinery as possible, that’s simply not possible with ramen. This is not to say that other Japanese noodles – or, indeed, fresh pasta – are easy to roll out or shape by hand. Udon is similarly tough, and is often kneaded by foot. Soba dough is awkwardly brittle and fragile due to the lack of gluten in buckwheat flour. But, realistically, industrial machines are the only way to roll out modern-day ramen’s super low-hydration dough at scale, and the vast majority of ramen shops in Japan rely on factories to make their noodles.

This isn’t some dirty secret either. If you eat at any ramen shop in Japan you will likely see crates of noodles, clearly labelled with the manufacturer’s name, littered around the tiny noodle bar. While the making of the ramen noodle dough is typically outsourced, the recipe for the noodles is frequently developed in-house, and factories tailor their noodles to the requirements of each chef. So, even if multiple chefs use the same factory, their noodles will all be different. The process is semi-industrial, semi-artisanal, and an essential part of Japan’s ramen industry.

That said, the same finickiness that makes ramen noodles such a challenge also makes ramen a wonderful playground. There are many online communities devoted to the culinary extreme sport of trying to recreate restaurant-quality ramen in a home kitchen. Thanks to a combination of crowdsourced information, determination and skill, many have had great success. However, what is feasible for feeding four people, or even fourteen, is not feasible for feeding hundreds. The painstakingly-developed techniques required to make good ramen at home simply don’t scale up.

For years this has put aspiring ramen chefs outside of Japan in a tricky position. On a small scale, making your own noodles with a pasta machine is a viable if exhausting option, suitable for pop-ups and supper clubs. James Chant of Matsudai Ramen in Cardiff spoke to me about the challenges of trying to make ramen with just a pasta machine at home.

‘When we were doing our first pop-ups I was making them at home on a KitchenAid. We had 250 people coming for dinner and me and my wife would be in our dining room cranking out noodles for forty-eight hours non-stop. There was no way we could do it. It was an absolute nightmare.’

For chefs wanting to open a brick and mortar restaurant however, things are even trickier. Dried ramen noodles don’t have the right texture, but fresh noodles are highly perishable, so imported ramen noodles are often worse for wear by the time they arrive. Determined chefs have been going to great lengths to make good ramen in the UK without having access to noodle factories. Kanada-ya in London, for example, actually imported a ramen noodle-making machine from Japan and set it up in their kitchen, so that they could make factory-quality noodles onsite.

This is where Omar Rodriguez comes in, founder of Komugi noodle factory and, in the words of James Chant, ‘Always in pursuit of the perfect noodle.'

‘I really like dealing with restaurant owners, with chefs.’ Omar explained to me. ‘I realised that no one was making ramen noodles in the UK and then I was always into ramen and Japanese culture in general, so that’s how it happened.’ This humble summary hides the impressiveness of what Komugi has accomplished. The factory, based in Manchester, now sells noodles all across the UK to the country’s top ramen restaurants. Komugi noodles are sold at Matsudai Ramen, Supa-ya Ramen, Rainy City Ramen, House of Fu, New Wave Ramen, Ivan Orkin's British pop-ups and countless others. ‘We supply pretty much everyone.’ he admits, after some prodding.

As is the case in Japan though, Omar doesn’t just sell the same noodles to each chef. ‘We must have twenty plus recipes.’ Omar explained. ‘There are so many different styles of ramen noodles and also we do recipes that are specific to restaurants as well.’ Despite expanding rapidly – from a team of three including himself and his wife, to a team of thirteen – they can’t keep up with demand. ‘There was this general excitement when we opened, you know. We get new enquiries on a weekly basis. Right now we are at full capacity but we have new machinery coming in July/August.’

Omar’s interest in Japanese food started when he got a job at a sushi restaurant in Manchester. ‘From kitchen porter I made it all the way to executive chef. It took a few years but I got there eventually.’ Despite enjoying working with sushi, he was slowly drawn more and more to ramen. ‘It’s a little bit more open. I always felt that sushi was a little bit more restrictive in a way. Even though I love improving the craft, and the knife skills and I did it for years, it still didn’t feel a hundred per cent me.’

The idea to open a noodle factory came on a visit to Sichuan with his wife, who is from that region. ‘I hadn’t even mentioned it to my wife. It was one of those crazy ideas that you don’t want to say out loud because people aren’t going to believe you.’ Ramen has its roots in China, and the craft for making them spread from China to Japan in the twentieth century with Chinese migrants, and it was eating alkaline noodles in Sichuan which inspired Omar.

James Chant was one of the early champions of Omar's noodles, and Matsudai has an ethos of trying to make ramen as approachable as possible, without compromising on quality. As well as the challenges of making ramen, there is the challenge of marketing it.

Ramen has a lot of vocabulary, styles and ingredients that customers might not be familiar with. Ramen chefs have a difficult line to walk between trying to please ramen fans (themselves included), and trying to make sure everyone else doesn't feel intimidated. To counteract this Matsudai has a glossary on the menu to explain terms which might be unfamiliar to customers, and a light and airy space that is quite different from what you might think of when you picture a ramen shop. Ramen shops in Japan tend to be small, and a little cramped, and usually just have bar seating. In contrast, Matsudai has long sharing tables, big open windows and colourful art around the restaurant.

James Chant explained to me that part of this was intentional – and part of it was just him creating a space he liked. ‘I was thinking about approachability. It’s kind of my taste as well; my house looks a bit like my ramen restaurant. There’s a big colourful painting in the back corner and my wife did that. We wanted to have people around who weren’t going to be snotty about it, and we wanted to have people who would be friendly and welcoming, and we wanted the space to reflect that. I try and reflect that in everything we do without diluting the story of ramen too much.'

Sometimes making customers feel at home can mean doing something slightly unexpected. At the time of our interview, James Stuart, founder of Tomo no Ramen, didn’t have any pork-based ramen on his menu. Instead, the menu was focussed exclusively on varieties of chicken bone-based ramen, and had been for some time. ‘It’s an accessibility thing – we’re right on the border with Easton which has a huge Muslim population,' he explained. James has also developed several different vegan ramens, topped with tofu chashu, and even a kids’ ramen. However, despite his efforts, there can be culture clashes. Bowls will occasionally get sent back to the kitchen because customers think the chewy ramen noodles are undercooked for example.

Another important factor in ramen is creativity. As Omar pointed out, one of the most delightful aspects of ramen is that it’s ripe for experimentation. James explained, ‘Anything you can think of that makes a delicious rich soup can be ramen-ised. As long as you know how to get the intensity of flavour into a tare without changing the soup too much, the right oils, the right seasoning, you can make pretty much anything into ramen.’ But experimenting can be tricky while trying to keep things on a strict budget.

Despite Tomo no Ramen using locally milled flour and Hereford cross wagyu beef in some of their specials, there is still an unshakable expectation that ramen should be not just affordable but cheap. In Japan, for decades there has been an expectation that ramen should never cost more than ¥1000, or about £6. Even for a Michelin-starred ramen restaurant like Tsuta, in Tokyo, charging ¥3000 ( £15) for ramen topped with wagyu will still raise eyebrows. 'There’s often an attitude of "Oh it’s ramen? I don’t want to pay more than £10."' explains James. 'If this were a pasta restaurant it would be great. People would pay twenty-five quid,' he jokes.

While ramen in the UK is undeniably having something of a moment, it's still a long way from being as widely-embraced or revered as pasta. But a great deal has changed in the nearly 10 years between Kanada-Ya needing to import a machine from Japan in 2014 and today. Hopefully, in another 10 years, we'll have edged even closer to noodle perfection.