Yokohama is known for plenty of things including its bustling Chinatown and the gorgeous Minato Mirai area. However, when it comes to food, ramen is one of the biggest things that stand out. More specifically, the unique Yokohama ramen style known as Iekei. This delicious ramen has spread all across Japan, but occasionally draws the ire of ramen enthusiasts (or worse, ramen snobs).
Today, let’s learn all about this delicious Yokohama ramen style, what makes it so unique, and why some ramen heads look down on it.
What is Yokohama Iekei Ramen?
Yokohama Iekei Ramen is a regional variety of ramen hailing from Yokohama. Yokohama is often known for its long ramen history from its Chinatown, but Iekei is actually a recent invention from the 1970s that fuses two popular ramen styles: the Hakata and Tokyo styles. Hakata ramen is the iconic tonkotsu (pork bone) base ramen, while Tokyo is known for a shoyu (soy sauce) and chicken base soup.
Combining the usually creamy tonkotsu and the lighter chicken shoyu soups creates a deliciously rich combination that is sure to please. This richness is thanks to the use of chicken skin and chicken bones used in the broth’s cooking process. Most Iekei shops also utilize chicken oil to add extra depth and warmth to the ramen.
You may think the chicken oil would make this ramen oily, but instead it adds extra depth to the dish. Image via Instagram (@singajapanfoodie)
Some other qualities of this Yokohama ramen style include thick, flat noodles and relatively simple toppings. We’ll get more into that later though. For now, let’s look at how this delicious ramen came to be.
Where did this Yokohama ramen style come from?
Unlike some of the older ramen styles, Yokohama Iekei can be traced back to one person. That person is Yoshimura Minoru. Yoshimura was a truck driver who spent plenty of time on the road. During his time on the road, he got really into regional ramen styles. During his truck driving career, he must have tasted hundreds of ramen styles, until one day, he had a simple thought.
“What would happen if I combined Hakata tonkotsu ramen with Tokyo chicken shoyu ramen?”
This thought was enough to drive Yoshimura to quit his truck driving career and become a ramen chef. He did his apprenticeship at a popular diner-style ramen chain simply called “Ramen Shop”. This is pretty important, so keep this in mind for later.
Yoshimura’s apprenticeship at Ramen Shop taught him all about ramen, and more specifically, the ins and outs of tonkotsu ramen. After his apprenticeship, Yoshimura opened his own shop called Yoshimura-ya, making his original idea a reality in 1974. However, at that time, it wasn’t known as Iekei yet.
Yoshimura actually still reigns as one of the best places to eat Iekei ramen and often has a line. Image via Instagram (@ramenpharmacist)
What’s in the name?
Yoshimura-ya quickly gained popularity, and with that popularity, the shop also attracted students. Yoshimura is well known for the both the large amount of disciples he has taken on to learn his signature ramen style and how tough he is as a teacher. His students go on to open their own shops, each of these shops ending with the suffix ‘-ya’.
This ‘-ya’ is often written as the Japanese kanji ’家’, meaning ‘house’. This kanji can also be read as ‘ie’. Then there’s ‘kei’, meaning ‘style’. The shops that Yoshimura and his students opened eventually became known to the public as ‘Iekei’ or ‘house-style’ from the house of Yoshimura. His endorsed pupils, however, get the extra designation of ‘noren-wake’.
That being said, ‘Iekei’ doesn’t just refer to shops made by Yoshimura and his students anymore. Because the recipe and process for this style of Yokohama ramen has spread to other shops, 'Iekei' now refers to the general style of ramen.
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What makes this Yokohama Ramen Unique?
Ramen broth is often called 'Liquid Gold' in the ramen community. Iekei is probably the closest to actually being liquid gold. Image via Instagram (@ramen_fiendd)
Isn’t it a little strange that no one thought to combine Hakata-style and Tokyo-style? Well, it’s partially because, to many ramen lovers back in the day, it was either Hakata OR Tokyo. Never both. That’s one of the reasons why Yoshimura was able to capitalize on this undiscovered combination.
The broth is most commonly made by boiling and then pressure-cooking the pork bones. The chicken skin and bones is added later and boiled to finish off the soup. That’s how this Yokohama ramen style creates its own unique flavor that is easy to enjoy.
Of course, you can’t forget the chicken oil. As we mentioned, chicken oil is added to the broth for extra warmth and flavor depth, usually as a topping. Because of the way the chicken oil changes the flavor of the dish, you can often get extra chicken oil to create the exact flavor you want from the broth.
The type of noodle used in ramen is important because the right noodle will be a perfect vehicle for the flavorful soup. Image via Instagram (@policeofficerpowell)
This particular ramen style favors thicker, flatter, shorter noodles, the perfect vehicle for the soup. More specifically, Sakai Seimen is one of the top noodle makers for Yokohama Iekei. These noodles are said to be special because they actually don’t soak up as much water during the cooking process, so they have a better consistency and will be nice and hardy regardless of if you order your noodles softer or harder.
In fact, the hardiness is a big draw since Iekei was originally popular among blue collar workers who needed a hardy meal to make it through the work day.
If you’re looking to try these noodles out for yourself, you’re going to have to come to Japan and eat at Yoshimura-ya or at his students’ restaurants. The reason is that you actually need permission from Yoshimura himself just to get access to these noodles.
However, it’s not just the type of noodle that’s different. The cooking method is slightly different as well. While most ramen shops use a cylinder-shaped colander, most Iekei shops use a flat colander, commonly used for tsukemen (dipping ramen).
The supposed reason is that it allows water to be strained from the noodles while causing the least amount of damage to the noodles before they hit the soup. Some people also believe that it gives the noodles more room to cook than the cylinders.
Simple Toppings for Endless Customization
We already mentioned that this style of Yokohama ramen tends to have very simple toppings. Besides chicken oil, ingredients like chashu (char siu) pork, seaweed, and spinach are the most common. Eggs, cabbage, and mushrooms are also pretty common. These toppings pair well with the soup because they soak it up, allowing you to enjoy the broth in every bite.
However, that’s not the only reason for the simple toppings. Ramen Shop (again, the shop that trained Yoshimura) always had a lot of extra add-ins sitting on the counter in front of customers that were free to use. Iekei shops often do the same. Sure, they want you to enjoy the soup, but they encourage you to enjoy it your way.
By providing things like grated garlic, grated ginger, sesame seeds, chili paste, green onion paste, vinegar, pepper, cayenne pepper and more, you can change the flavor profile of the soup to fit your own tastes. Some restaurants will even provide guides of what toppings they recommend based on your preferences.
Others go a step further and provide a guide on how to change the flavor profile as you eat so that you can enjoy different flavors in one dining experience.
Rice might seem a bit over-the-top (and a bit heavy), but it works perfectly for those who need to stay full for a while. Image via Instagram (@yukio_f)
Ramen may seem plenty hearty already, but for truckers and blue-collar workers who needed to make it through the day, an added bowl of rice is just what they needed.
Rice is a great addition to the Yokohama Iekei experience and can be eaten in several ways. Some people will alternate between a mouthful of noodles and a mouthful of rice. Others will eat their noodles, order their rice, and put it into the remaining soup. This creates a delicious rice mixture that allows you to fill up while enjoying your soup to the last drop.
The Yokohama Ramen Controversy
With the worldwide boom of ramen, there are plenty of people nowadays who consider themselves "ramen-heads" and have developed their palate through the enjoyment of a variety of ramen styles. However, some ramen heads tend to look down on Iekei ramen. Why is that?
Well, this Yokohama ramen style is easy to mimic, and even when it’s not successful, it’s still pretty good. That being said, because a small number of Iekei shops can be kind of lazy, it drags down the perception of this style overall.
Second is the flavor profile. You see, compared to other styles, it doesn’t really have a complicated flavor and may be almost too simple. This makes sense given its roots as a blue-collar ramen style. However, this is being proven wrong by shops that are trying new things, like the flavor-changing guides mentioned above or with new techniques.
Yokohama Ramen Shop Recommendations
How can we talk about Yokohama ramen shops without mentioning the original? Yoshimura-ya is still popular to this day, often having a rather long line. However, the line goes by pretty quickly. Guests order before lining up and are often let into the store in groups of up to 15. The chef collects your preference for noodle hardness and serves the ramen. One group finishes their food, and a new group is shown in as everyone leaves. The process allows you to enjoy delicious ramen while still being quick and efficient.
Ramen Hiiki is another popular choice, known for its delicious soup! Image via Instagram (@ramen_fiendd)
Ramen Hiiki has become a very popular Iekei shop among more sophisticated ramen enthusiasts. Located in the Kamata area of Tokyo, this shop uses a slightly different technique that makes a world of difference in the flavor. Instead of creating the soup traditionally, they create a tonkotsu soup and a chicken soup, only mixing them just before opening. This soup is what elevates the ramen to a more refined experience. You can even choose between fattier pork belly or leaner pork loin for your protein.
Yokohama-ya is a popular traditional option for Yokohama ramen. What makes this particular shop so popular is the hardy serving size. This shop has a machine order system with a ‘Ramen with the works’ option, 全トッピングラーメン (zen-toppingu ramen) in Japanese. This option includes spinach, seaweed, soft boiled egg, green onions, and pork belly for a premium ramen experience.
Suzuki-ya is a beloved shop for Yokohama style ramen lovers and locals! Image via Instagram (@amazing.thailand.world)
One more popular shop is Suzuki-ya, founded back in the 90s. This shop sees frequent lines of people waiting for a bowl of deliciousness. This shop features a soup that is a little lighter than the average Iekei shop while still having plenty of flavor. It’s great if you want a bowl of ramen that isn’t too heavy.
That’s our guide to the iconic Yokohama ramen style that is Iekei. Have you ever tried Iekei? Any shops you want to try? Let us know in the comments!