In the more than 30 years that I’ve lived in Japan, I’ve eaten hundreds of bowls of ramen. Regardless of the weather, the visceral craving for a bowl of soupy, chewy ramen noodles creeps up on you, and cannot be satisfied with any other food. For ramen aficionados, this is a bit of an addiction. But I never expected that one of the most memorable bowls of ramen I’d encounter – and the only one that I’d ever eaten in its entirety, along with every drop of its clear chicken-based broth – would be inside the waiting room of a defunct used-car dealership.
Located in Tottori, Japan’s least-populated prefecture, Hot Air Ramen (formally named Tanreitori Ramen Hot Air) is the brainchild of Katsumi Yoshida, a mechanic and car salesman turned cook. In 2012, Yoshida, an amateur noodle enthusiast, added a tiny kitchen in an alcove of his small used-car dealership, placed some tables in the waiting room and began offering ramen to customers.
In 2015, he scaled down his auto shop and officially opened Hot Air Ramen to the public, so named for the famous hot springs in the area. And then last year, something rather unexpected happened: Hot Air Ramen was designated as a “Bib Gourmand” eatery (which designates a place that serves “exceptional good food at moderate prices”) in the Michelin Guide Kyoto – Osaka + Tottori 2019 edition.
Over ice-cold drinks in his makeshift 17-seat eatery, Yoshida reflected on his path to becoming a ramen master and how his 800-900 yen (£5.70-£6.40) bowls garnered Michelin attention.
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“As a young boy, maybe four or five years old, I used to go out to eat with my grandmother at the local shops,” he said. “I noticed that the same dishes tasted differently at each shop and that there was variation within the same shop on different days. But when the food was not good, I stopped picking up my chopsticks.”
As an elementary school student, Yoshida began watching cooking shows on television and imitating the techniques he saw. He bought and read cookbooks as a teenager, began to cook in earnest in his 20s and recalls being a huge fan of Iron Chef cooking legend Rokusaburo Michiba.
But what truly motivated Yoshida and led him on the path to opening a ramen shop was his quest for umami, the fifth taste in food; and his desire to create better festival food for his children. Festivals are held all over Japan in different seasons, and each small town has their own summer version, often with food carts selling fried foods, noodles and snow cones. Eleven years ago, Yoshida began perfecting his ramen recipe to serve at his town’s summer festival in Hamamura, and this led to the occasional group ramen event commissioned by friends.
When it came to developing what he believes is the perfect ramen method, Yoshida followed his instincts rather than relying on books or shows. As he explained, “When someone is asked, ‘Why do you use X ingredient?’ most people will answer, ‘Because we always have’.”
I am constantly refining the taste of my food
Yoshida has a different viewpoint. Like other chefs around the world, he believes that each ingredient has a purpose that contributes an essential component to the whole dish. But what’s unique in his approach is his obsession with temperature. Since temperature plays such a crucial part in building a perfect bowl of ramen – from the burning-hot broth to the slow braised pork belly to the boiled egg – Yoshida approaches each ingredient like a chemist, experimenting with minute fluctuations in temperature. He formulates a plan on how to extract the best taste from each ingredient and then works towards achieving that taste.
“The most important point to my approach is that I am constantly refining the taste of my food.”
Ramen is ubiquitous throughout Japan. It’s simple, affordable and accessible to people of all classes. But from the small kitchen of his car shop, Yoshida has succeeded in taking this traditional dish and transforming it in a truly original way. “It is not like the ramen that most people know,” he said, referring to that served at large chains. “My ramen has a light taste. Many people love it, but some people prefer the franchise taste. The taste they know.”
Rather than make two soups as is typical for ramen (one with chicken bones and one with Japanese dashi ingredients), Yoshida makes just one soup, using chicken bones, konbu (edible kelp), dried shiitake and niboshi (sun-dried small fish). He also adds dried chilli and garlic for the aroma they impart, and because they don’t add liquid to the soup, like onion would.
Yoshida’s ramen is light and bright, with no single ingredient overpowering the others. His chashu (rolled pork belly) is braised but still pink and is not heavily seasoned. He also adds a piece of sous-vide chicken that’s lightly marinated in soy sauce and mirin rice wine. His soft-boiled egg is flavoured with salt, rather than a soy sauce solution. After sliding the freshly cooked noodles into the hot broth that’s perfectly calibrated with its seasonings (including 3.5g of a salt combination made from Himalayan pink salt and Japanese sea salt), Yoshida adds the toppings: rolled pork belly, chicken breast, egg, kikurage (cloud ear fungus, for its jellyfish-like texture), arare (tiny, colourful, deep-fried mochi rice balls) and chopped negi (scallions).
Most ramen shops throughout Japan pack their bowls with rather generic noodles in a rich broth that, while delicious, makes it filling and hard to finish, at least for this writer. But at Hot Air, the ramen noodles, while not made in-house, are perhaps the best I have ever tasted. They are from Menya Teigaku, a famous noodle shop in Kyoto that crafts noodles using 30 different types of Japanese wheat. The pork, chicken, chicken bones and eggs are all sourced from around Tottori.
“This is essentially home cooking, so I use the ingredients we have,” Yoshida explained.
To her credit, Yoshida’s wife, Kaori, supported her husband’s decision to scale down his used-car dealership to pursue his passion for creating the perfect bowl of ramen. There was the inevitable stress involved with shifting his business paradigm, but he feels his two children (now in their teens) learned an essential life lesson through observing their father follow his dream.
“This is essentially home cooking
Hot Air Ramen’s customer base grew slowly at first. Yoshida had been writing a gourmet food blog since 2005, but in 2012, he began writing about the ramen shop on the blog and posting about it on Twitter and Facebook. A few local TV channels picked up the story, and as news spread, his customer base soon increased. And ever since his recent Michelin mention, Yoshida gets calls from national TV channels as well as magazines and newspapers with requests to feature his story.
At this point in time, Yoshida has no plans to open a traditional ramen shop with a counter and open kitchen, but you never know. He mused that his next venture will probably be selling ramen ingredient sets on the internet to supplement his business, but he currently has his hands full churning out 70 to 100 bowls of ramen per day, six days a week.
Hot Air Ramen draws lots of customers to Hamamura from the nearby cities of Okayama and Himeji. But ramen lovers from all over Japan come by car, train and even air.
“People come all the way from Okinawa to Hokkaido,” Yoshida said, citing Japan’s southern-most and northern-most islands.
Yoshida mused that he is thinking about tinkering with his ramen recipe, but then explained that he gave the soup a “tune up” three years ago and doesn’t think he can perfect it much more. The only car-related work he does now is for friends. Building and serving the perfect bowl of ramen has his full focus.
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