When I first heard about the tonkotsu ramen at Ichi Ban Boshi, my attention was immediately commandeered.
"Everyday they have this special noodle soup they make for lunchtime," a fellow foodie confided.
"They use a whole pot full of pork bones and simmer it for hours and hours and hours. The stock is simmered so long, it becomes rich with collagen, and..."
I lean in excitedly.
"...they only make 15 bowls of it a day.”
A limited-edition menu item? A gastronomic exclusive? The competitive foodie in me emerges with salivary glands in overdrive.
Tonkotsu means pork bone and is not to be confused with tonkatsu, which is crumbed and deep-fried pork fillet. Tonkotsu is alleged to have come about by accident when, in 1937, a chef forgot all about a pot of pork stock he was simmering. The pork bones broke down completely, adding a thick fatty viscosity to the soup and creating a new flavour sensation to the previous ramen variants of soy, salt and miso.
Today Fukuoka (in the northern past of Kyushu Island) is celebrated as the traditional home of tonkotsu, although this rich and fatty noodle soup is somewhat available throughout Japan.
It quickly became clear that this soup, tonkotsu ramen, must be mine. The fact that its availability at Ichi Ban Boshi is limited makes me want it even more. I'm not a sucker. I just like getting my own way.
So on the Big Day I make my way to Ichi Ban Boshi in the Galeries Victoria. I'm there at 11.40, determined to beat the lunchtime rush and any sneaky foodies who are going to deny me the sensory pleasure of my latest edible research project. If there are only 15 bowls of this stuff, damnit, I'm gonna be batter number one in the dining line-up.
I've glimpsed this busy noodle shop on my occasional visits to the giant Japanese-owned bookshop Kinokuniya, which is the only other tenant on this floor. Usually the place is packed with diners, but at this early hour, Ichi Ban Boshi is relatively empty with only half a dozen diners.
I am seated quickly at a foodcourt-style table with plastic laminate tabletop sitting on lightweight aluminium legs. It's bright and airy, with natural sunlight streaming in through the glassed wall facade and the abundance of white decor bounces both natural and artificial light throughout the eatery.
After a few minutes of pretending to look at the menu (I know exactly what I'm after) the demure and petite Japanese waitress comes to take my order.
"One tonkotsu ramen please," I request, trying to hide my excitement at the realisation of this latest edible quest.
"Umm... so sorry. Tonkotsu ramen not ready yet. Still cooking."
I am aghast. What? This wasn't part of the plan!
"Ok..." I ponder my options. "When will it be ready?" I enquire.
She goes to the kitchen and comes back. "About one hour," she says.
Ack. One hour! But I am determined. And so I apologise as I scrape back my chair and promise to come back in one hour. "I'm sorry. I really want the tonkotsu ramen," I explain.
I'm sure that puzzled bemusement flashes across her face but I don't care. I am a Foodie. I will have no gastronomic regrets if I can help it. What is but sixty minutes in a lifetime of potential gustatory disappointment?
So I head to the cookbooks and food section of Kinokuniya, eye on the watch, minutes slowly ticking past. After thirty minutes I head back over again and ask another waitress whether the tonkotsu is ready.
"In 15 minutes," she says, after a brief conferral with the chef in the kitchen.
Oh, I'm getting closer!
I head back to Kinokuniya and browse the outer area of display books. My increasing paranoia is playing on me now. What if a large group of 15 appears from nowhere, all intent on ordering and consuming the entire day's rations of tonkotsu? What if the waitress was lying to me, and it's been ready since 11am and they're ladling it out now to other diners as I wait, its precious supplies dwindling with each passing minute?
I present myself again to the entrance. By now it is 12.25pm and the inside is packed with diners. There is a queue of over a dozen people now and I nervously wait my turn.
I don't care about asking now whether the tonkotsu is ready yet or not. I am so close, it must be ready by now.
"One tonkotsu ramen please," I say, and to my relief, the waitress simply nods as she scribbles it onto her notepad.
And then finally, after another protracted wait as I nurse my green tea and complimentary glass of water, the tray of tonkotsu ramen is finally delivered at 12.53pm (oh the joys of digital camera time-stamping).
I half-expect a chorus of can can dancers to accompany my dish with its arrival. Perhaps a rousing display of acrobatic exuberance by a pyramid of cheerleaders with blinding pearly white smiles. Or even the ceremonious gong of an ancient Japanese bell to herald the departure of the first tonkotsu ramen of the day from the Ichi Ban Boshi kitchen.
But the waitress has already disappeared, and the two American tourists sitting next to me are probably wondering what's with the kook who keeps photographing everything in sight.
The bowl is not much to look at. There’s a small mound of ramen noodles visible in the yellowy slightly viscous-looking soup. A thin slice of pork. A handful of finely chopped scallions. And a delicate rectangle of toasted nori rests on top.
The first spoonful, though, is unlike any I've ever tasted.
The collagen taste is immediate. Not that I'm all that familiar with the taste of the infamous Hollywood lip-fattening product. But the soup is thick, fatty and leaves a lingering film on the tongue. It tastes like a concotion made entirely of blended bone marrow, that rich delicacy I delight in sucking with childish joy from the remnants of my osso bucco.
The thin slice of pork is a celebration of fat as well.
The pork is soft, tender and almost falls to pieces as I bite into it. The ribbon of fat adds another calorific hug with each mouthful.
I can almost feel my cholesterol levels rising with each successive slurp. The soup is so rich and fatty I can feel it coating my tongue, oozing down my throat and settling down on the comfortable sofa that is my expanding stomach.
The tiny dish of finely chopped pickled ginger offers some relief but really, I could have done with an entire kilo to cut through the grease.
I feel slightly queasy but also strangely nourished. My lips feel plumper already. But then so do my thighs, I think.
The slurping continues and before I know it…
I feel like I’ve consumed an entire day's calories in one sitting and for the rest of the afternoon I feel somewhat bloated with the sensation of over-excess.
But I've tried it. And sure, it was rich, but hey, so is foie gras. It was decadent, it was Japanese and (insert smugness here) I got one of the fifteen limited bowls of it!
The other day I chatted to R as I shared my latest gastronomic conquest.
"They only make 15 bowls a day," I explained. "You should've seen what I had to go through to finally get it," I boast.
"Oh yeah, the collagen soup," she said. "I’ve had that before. I just walked in one day and ordered it. It was great."
15 bowls of tonkotsu ramen are available each day at the Town Hall branch of Ichi Ban Boshi. Time of availability varies, but tends to be about 12.15pm-12.30pm.
Due to popular demand, the tonkotsu ramen is now also available at the Bondi Junction branch.
You can check out photos of Ichi Ban Boshi's various dishes here.
And for ramen noodle fans, check out the World Ramen site for your unadulterated slurping pleasure.
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Ichi Ban Boshi (menu)
Town Hall branch, Sydney
Level 2, The Galeries Victoria, 500 George Street, Sydney
Tel: 02 9262 7677
Open Monday to Sunday 11am - 9pm
Bondi Junction branch, Sydney
360 Oxford Street, Bondi Junction
Tel: 02 9369 3980
Monday to Friday 11am-3.30pm, then 5pm-9pm
Saturday to Sunday11am-9.30pm
Southport branch, Gold Coast Queensland
Shop 1 Cecil Hotel Complex, Scarborough Street, South Queensland
Tel: 07 5528 2112
Open Wednesday to Monday 11am-9pm (closed Tuesdays)
Related GrabYourFork posts:
Ichi Ban Boshi, Sydney (Feb08) and (Aug05)
Japanese ramen - Ajisen Ramen, Haymarket
Japanese ramen - Menya Japan Noodle Bar, Haymarket
Japanese ramen - Ramen Kan, Haymarket (Aug 05), (Nov 04)
Japanese ramen - Ryo's Noodles, Crows Nest (Mar08), (Aug07) and (Jul07)
Japanese ramen - Tokyo Ramen, Hornsby
Japanese ramen - Zenya Noodle Bar, Eastwood
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8/13/2005 11:59:00 p.m.