Ramen is experiencing a boom and is quickly spreading across the globe while moving closer and closer to being Japan’s most popular food abroad. Within all the different types of ramen, the one that’s becoming most popular is Hakata ramen. If you’ve never heard of it, it's probably because you probably know it as ‘tonkotsu’, or pork bone broth.
What's the difference between Hakata ramen and tonkotsu? What makes this style so special? Where can we eat this? Let’s dive into this delicious regional ramen variety that has become a global sensation.
What is Hakata Ramen?
Hakata ramen, or Hakata-style ramen, is a regional ramen style from the Hakata ward of Fukuoka City, Fukuoka Prefecture. While there are several origin stories for how this ramen came about (which we’ll get into later), one thing is clear. Hakata did it so well and is so iconic that Hakata style and tonkotsu are often thought of as being one and the same. But what makes it different from other ramen styles?
What Makes Hakata Ramen Special?
The thing that everyone recognizes first about Hakata Ramen is the cloudy, creamy soup broth. To make this style of tonkotsu broth, pork bones are boiled at high temperatures and for long hours, breaking them down and creating a thicker, fattier, milkier broth than most other styles.
The quality and type of bone usually differ based on the shop and is usually a restaurant secret. The broth itself is often combined with soy sauce, salt or miso bases, so some people don't consider tonkotsu to be one of the "main" ramen types. However, the other bases are only mixed in in small amounts to let the pork bone broth really shine.
Some other features of Hakata style are thinner noodles and minimal toppings. The thinner noodles cook super quickly, so cooks can put out a fresh bowl faster. As far as toppings go, most shops only use cha-shu (char siu) pork, green onions, and wood ear mushrooms. Other shops might include boiled eggs or pickled ginger as added toppings. You can add even more pickled ginger as well as pickled and fried spicy mustard greens since they're usually sitting right in front of you as you eat.
Hakata style’s thinner noodles have one drawback. They get softer more quickly than other noodles if they sit in the soup for too long. So, while other styles offer large or extra-large noodle serving options, Hakata ramen shops have the kaedama (replacement noodles) system.
In this system, you eat all or most of the noodles in the soup, then order extra noodles that come hot in a second bowl. You just pour the noodles into the soup when you get them and enjoy. Many places also include a kind of ramen seasoning called ramen tare, to keep the soup flavorful if a bit of added moisture goes in with the noodles.
The Origin of Hakata Ramen
Hakata style’s origin seems to be a bit unclear, but they all make sense and share some common factors. Most people say that tonkotsu style was discovered in Kurume, where a type of tonkotsu was created. From there, it made its way to Hakata where it became what it is now.
Others say that it was developed by a cook looking to sell ramen, but made it his own by creating a cloudy pork-bone broth influenced by a traditional soup from the Ainu (indigenous people of northern Japan).
Even more people say that Hakata ramen was invented at the Nankin Senryo food stall, or yatai. The owner invented it and sold it to people who needed a quick hot meal, leading to a delicious soup with simple ingredients and a smaller serving size. He also may have created the kaedama system.
Across the different origin stories, the reason for the thin noodles is the same. Hakata is known as a business district, so these thinner, quick-cooking noodles were made with busy market vendors in mind.
Ramen Restaurant Recommendations
Ichiran has spread around the world from its start in Hakata and for good reason. It’s not just tasty, but they’re famous for the signature red sauce topping that adds a bit of spice to the ramen. It’s also very well known for its solo-friendly dining experience with individual booths for ramen enjoyers.
While not the top choice for ramen enthusiasts, it’s delicious and an experience you should have when visiting Japan, especially if you go to the original Hakata shop.
Ippudo is another worldwide sensation that has spread to several countries outside of Japan. Another Hakata native, this popular ramen shop is known for its regular bowl of Hakata ramen, its red version with a small amount of spicy red sauce, and their 1989 spicy tonkotsu ramen. Ippudo is also known for its limited-edition ramens that pop up only at certain locations.
Where it really sets itself apart is in its special sauce and its variation from shop to shop. Ippudo uses a bit of kaeshi, a special blend of soy sauces from the island of Kyushu (where Hakata is located). The recipe is only given to "kaeshi guardians" who are Ippudo ramen masters.
As far as variation goes, the head chefs at each location actually have the right to adjust the seasoning ratio based on their own tastes. That means that you get a slightly different soup at every Ippudo location.
Ippudo's famous red version looks similar to Ichiran, but is set apart with its signature flavor oil. Image via Instagram (@saporin_0109)
You may also know Hakata Ikkousha, another ramen chain from Hakata that has managed to go global with locations all over the world. While Ippudo and Ichiran are rightfully popular, Hakata Ikkousha is the international chain most popular with the locals in the area it was founded. Popular for its unique blended broth and the cha-shu pork marinated in their secret sauce, the main shop is a must visit if you’re in the area.
Nagahamaya is another popular shop and has a long history, having been around since 1952. With locations in Fukuoka and Tokyo, this shop hasn’t gone international, but is still thriving. They have a unique version of the tonkotsu broth that is both creamy and thick without being heavy. It’s light enough that some people even eat it for breakfast.
Hakata Shin-Shin is another popular ramen shop that is well-loved by locals and tourists to Fukuoka. This shop has six locations in Fukuoka, but it’s gaining popularity across the country with its cup ramen and instant noodles. The noodles and soup are well-known for being delicious, but the cha-shu, simmered in a special sauce, is soft and tasty. Plus, they have other tasty dishes like dumplings and fried rice thanks to their history as a food stall.
The city of Fukuoka actually recommends trying a yatai, or food stall. Food stalls have a long history in Japan, but Fukuoka is well-known for keeping this dwindling culture alive (despite their own restrictions on it). These food stalls have been around a long time and have taken all that time to perfect their recipes, making them the perfect places to get ramen and experience Japanese culture.
Have you ever tried Hakata ramen? How about any of the shops on this list? Let us know in the comments!