I am a huge fan of ramen, and I believe that the spirit of a good bowl of ramen lies within its soup. The soup is the perfect harmony of ingredients at an excellent balance that went through countless alterations and adjustments. I judge every bowl of ramen by the soup, except one kind. There is one type of ramen that captured my heart the first time I tried it. Abura Soba (油そば), or “oil noodles”. It doesn’t sound all too appealing by the name, and it doesn’t even have soup. A bowl of ramen that is missing its spirit!? Ladies and gentlemen, today we are going soup-less!
Originated from the Kitatama district of Tokyo in the early 1950s, abura soba is recognized as a Tokyo gourmet. They are not as popular as normal ramen shops, but there are a few popular chains around Tokyo that specializes only in this type of noodles. Since there isn’t a soup that requires tens of hours to prepare, abura soba appears quite simple. A special sauce made with shouyu (soy sauce) and pork grease is prepared and placed at the bottom of the bowl. Hot thick noodles are then placed right on top of the rich sauce. Typical toppings on the noodles include green onion, boiled bamboo shoot, seaweed, minced garlic and chashu pork. Standard additional condiments include chili oil and vinegar.
There is a particular procedure to enjoying abura soba. In fact, it is so particular that many stores have a “how to enjoy abura soba” instruction at the table or posted on the wall, just in case it is your first time trying it out. Here are the basic steps:
1. Mix the noodles well with the rich sauce at the bottom.
2. Add in chili oil and vinegar.
3. Mix more.
4. (Optional) Add more chilli oil and vinegar to increase the flavour as you eat.
5. Enjoy while it is hot!
See? Actually not that complicated. It isn’t rocket science (instead, it is ramen science). Some stores even tell you how much vinegar and chili oil to put in, but ultimately that is up to your personal preference. The texture of abura soba after mixing feels greasy, hence the name oil noodles. The rich sauce covers the thick noodles so well that you can slurp the noodles up with guilt and satisfaction.
Speaking of science, whenever I eat abura soba, I feel like I am conducting a science experiment. As aforementioned in the optional step 4, many people increase and change up the flavour by adding more condiments into the bowl of noodles. Depends on the store, some places offer both rice vinegar and black vinegar. Many stores also have other condiments available, such as minced garlic, sesame, spicy preserved vegetables, red ginger, raw egg, green jalapeno sauce, doubanjiang (Chinese spicy bean paste). I lay out all the condiments on the table like a personal chemistry lab and experiment with different tastes as I eat my noodles.
My personal favourite is to add mayonnaises when I have just a bit left to finish up. It makes the texture creamy, covers up the garlic taste and adds sweetness to the bowl of noodles. Some places have it in the kitchen and some places charge 50 yen for it, but please do ask for it and give it a try!
If you are worried about the nutrition values of abura soba… well, first of all, it is rather difficult to care for nutrition when you are eating rich flavoured ramen. Other than that, abura soba actually has less sodium and fat compared to the greasier type of ramen (assuming that you finish up the soup too, which many do when the soup is delicious). Having that said though, I very rarely see any ladies in the shops for abura soba. It is stereotypically considered a “men’s” food with all the garlic and grease. As a side note, it probably is not the best meal choice for a date.
During my time in Japan, I realized that a lot of people, both foreigners and Japanese have never tried abura soba. In fact, they would look at me with a strange expression when I describe this soup-less greasy ramen with chili oil and vinegar to them. For that reason, abura soba became my go-to option whenever I wanted to take my friends to try something new in Japan. So far, none of my tens of friends were disappointed, and I hope you will give it a try and come back happy as well!
P.S. If you do take on my recommendation, leave a comment afterwards and let me know your thoughts!
Guest post by Jackson Lee.