From Yokohama with love: The rise of 'home-style ramen' in KL

'Iekei ramen' (“home-style noodles”) from Yokohama is now available in Malaysia. — Pictures by CK Lim
'Iekei ramen' (“home-style noodles”) from Yokohama is now available in Malaysia. — Pictures by CK Lim

SHAH ALAM, Dec 1 — One of Japan’s major port cities, Yokohama is home to the largest Chinatown in the Land of the Rising Sun. No surprise, then, that it’s also a thriving commercial hub and a haven for Chinese-influenced Japanese food; there’s even a Cup Noodles Museum!

Yokohama feels like an eternity ago.

It has been over half a year since most of us have travelled abroad. Many of us who used to venture far and wide miss Japan: for its sakura, so magnificent in springtime Kyoto; a bracingly chilly winter in Hokkaido; and then there are the Tokyo cafés every coffee lover should experience.

But we don’t have to wait for borders to reopen to savour something quintessentially Yokohama — ramen, specifically the Yokohama variation known as iekei ramen (or “home-style noodles” in Japanese).

Every region or prefecture in Japan differs in the ramen they offer, be it the type of soup, toppings or even noodles. In Hakata, ramen typically comprises firm, thin noodles in a tonkotsu or pork bone broth. Ramen chefs in Kitakata, by contrast, use flat, curly noodles and a shoyu (soy sauce) broth.

According to Ichikakuya Malaysia’s manager Ho Eeyong, iekei ramen was developed by mixing tonkotsu soup with another soup based on shoyu. One could say it’s the best of both worlds.

She says, “That’s why the taste is more distinct. Another characteristic of iekei ramen is the medium-thick noodles and special toppings of quail eggs and spinach.”

Ichikakuya’s diners are a mix of Japanese expatriates and Malaysian ramen lovers.
Ichikakuya’s diners are a mix of Japanese expatriates and Malaysian ramen lovers.

Located in an office building in Shah Alam, Ichikakuya Malaysia — a local franchise of the original Japanese shop, first established in Tokyo in 2008 — stands apart from other ramen shops in the Klang Valley by focusing on iekei ramen.

Many of us are familiar with the pungent, garlic-infused pong of a heady tonkotsu broth or the sweeter flavour of a Sapporo style miso ramen. But iekei ramen is something new for most, unless you happen to hail from Yokohama or miss the port city’s many delicacies as much as I do.

The first bowl of iekei ramen was created by the Yokohama ramen shop Yoshimura-ya in 1974. Since then, it has become a bit of a Yokohama treasure (along with the aforementioned Cup Noodle Museum).

Plating and checking every bowl of ramen before it leaves the kitchen.
Plating and checking every bowl of ramen before it leaves the kitchen.

The draw here is the greater depth of flavour that comes with blending two types of broths to make its soup base. A layer of clear, golden chicken oil adds that finishing touch with an aromatic hit that distinguishes a ramen from other noodle dishes.

A great bowl of ramen is a most splendid thing.

Ichikakuya’s style of Yokohama ramen has certainly attracted its fair share of followers. Ho says, “Our customer base consists of Japanese expatriates and also many Malaysians who love ramen — office workers and families. Most of them got to know our shop through referrals from friends and word of mouth.”

These authentically Yokohama flavours are courtesy of Malaysian head chef Lee Chuen Quen who was trained in Japan. He makes deft work of standards such as their signature Yokohama Iekei ramen that comes with the requisite spinach, quail egg and large square of crispy nori seaweed.

Tsukemen is popular too, for those preferring to dip their noodles into a thicker broth-based gravy.
Tsukemen is popular too, for those preferring to dip their noodles into a thicker broth-based gravy.

Ah yes, a bowl from Yokohama, made with love.

Another favourite is their Red Iekei Ajitama Ramen, blessed with a spicy red broth base, a slice of chashu pork and, of course, a well marinated ajitama or seasoned egg. Tsukemen is popular too, for those preferring to dip their noodles into a thicker broth-based gravy.

Chef Lee has managed to differentiate two soup-less ramens — abura soba and mazesoba — though both names are interchangeable in some shops in Japan. Here at Ichikakuya Malaysia, their Abura Soba (literally “oil noodles” in Japanese) appears to be a broth-free take on their standard iekei ramen whereas the Mazesoba (or “mixed noodles”) benefits from more toppings, the better to toss together, like a savoury, noodle-forward salad.

Ichikakuya Malaysia’s manager Ho Eeyong (second from right), head chef Lee Chuen Quen (first from left) and their team.
Ichikakuya Malaysia’s manager Ho Eeyong (second from right), head chef Lee Chuen Quen (first from left) and their team.

Despite a regular and loyal clientele, Ichikakuya Malaysia has had to adjust their operations accordingly given the ongoing pandemic. Opening a couple of months before the movement control order (MCO) was first put in place in March also meant tweaking as they go along.

Ho explains, “During the MCO we started partnering with many delivery platforms to sustain our sales. However, due to the low margin from delivery services, we had to reduce our staff's working hours to keep the business afloat. But during MCO, we also managed to develop many different recipes which we are testing out with our customers now via a weekly menu.”

Since travel restrictions are still in place within the Klang Valley, one way customers can still enjoy their usual fix of ramen without dining in is through Ichikakuya’s delivery offerings. Those who do dine in enjoy more social distancing as the shop is more spacious than traditional ramen-yas in Japan, which are notoriously cramped.

Customers can enjoy some of the new recipes Ho mentioned such as their Vegetable Iekei Ramen — which, despite its name, isn’t meat-free but substitutes more leafy greens for noodles.

Adding final touches to a bowl of 'iekei ramen'
Adding final touches to a bowl of 'iekei ramen'

It’s a reminder on how Japanese view “vegetarian” fare — some places I visited in Japan still advertise vegetarian ramen albeit with a broth made with meat bones or bonito flakes.

Consider this a cultural lesson and an eye-opening one at that. Keto and low carb diet followers would probably approve of this inclusion in Ichikakuya’s already extensive ramen menu.

They also offer a lovely bowl of Vegetable Mazesoba, where meat is replaced with a variety of vegetables such as sautéed spinach, mushrooms and carrots. Perhaps more for the vegetarian inclined (there are still noodles to satisfy carb cravings) but not for pure vegans (a single raw egg yolk is required to make it a true mazesoba).

Vegetable Mazesoba, where meat is replaced with a variety of vegetables such as sautéed spinach, mushrooms and carrots.
Vegetable Mazesoba, where meat is replaced with a variety of vegetables such as sautéed spinach, mushrooms and carrots.

What, then, is iekei ramen? Apparently you can have it without the soup and you can have it without the noodles. Any definition has become blurred with every reinvention of this timeless classic.

Iekei ramen lies in the slurp and the chew, the steam and the rich grease, everything that brings you back to that port city, that Chinatown, so close to Tokyo yet an entire world apart.

It’s not quite Japan (honestly, what is?) but this hits the spot when you’re hankering for noodles and soup, chashu and egg, ramen the Yokohama way.

Ichikakuya 壱角家
Unit 1-3A, Level 1, Tower 3, The Podium, UOA Business Park, 1 Jalan Pengaturcara U1/51a, Kawasan Perindustrian Temasya, Shah Alam
Open Mon-Sat 11am-9pm (Sun closed)
Tel: 014-958 3884
Facebook: IchikakuyaMalaysia
Delivery: foodgardeninternational.beepit.com

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