I haven’t eaten ramen since way back in the early 90s in my days as a JET in Kyushu. During my first few months in Japan, I would join my colleagues at the counter of the cramped ramen shop across the street from Bar Brown (still there, I wonder?), and attempt to head off the hangover with Japan’s ultimate post-drinking feed.
I had been a vegetarian for a good 6 or 7 years by this time, so how did I square chowing down on a pig’s graveyard in a bowl, with my culinary ethics?
Looking back, I can only imagine it was a strong case of denial. It wasn’t as though I was unaware of what ramen was made from, but somehow for several months I convinced myself that by ordering “miso” ramen without the pork slices, my conscience was clean. An unintended glimpse inside a giant stock pot filled with pig bones one night, ended that fleeting period of blissful “ignorance” and I haven’t eaten ramen since.
Not until the other day that is.
For the past few years, the ramen chain Kagetsu Arashi [花月嵐], mostly found in shopping mall food courts, has been offering a spring time vegetable ramen on it’s menu. 2012’s “Ramen NANA” went on sale on March 7 and is available until the middle of April.
Can it really be vegetarian? The posters boast in capital letters that there is no pork, fish or chicken used in the dish and it is “only vegetable”. To make sure I asked the server if that was really true, she in turn (I got the feeling that I may have been the first to order it at Aeon Mall in Gion) checked with the “chef”. Having found many a “surprise” in seemingly vegetarian options dining out in Japan, I triple checked, extracting assurances about the stock. The staff assured me that it was completely meat free.
This year’s veggie menu features three items, veggie ramen (¥740), veggie gyoza (¥180 for 3 pieces) and a veggie itameshi rice dish. I opted for the classic ramen and gyoza combination at the branch in the Aeon Mall Gion. Being in a food court, after ordering and paying at the counter, I was given a little numbered plastic thingy which buzzes when your order is ready.
Starting with the veggie ramen, the bowl was packed with vegetables such as daikon, lotus root and okra, and, basically, a bunch of salad. The broth smelt like ramen and definitely had an oily sheen.
Diving in, I was initially disappointed to find that the noodles were green rather than the standard yellow. I’m not super keen on green tea cha-soba, but it turns out that the color comes from added spirulina and doesn’t seem to affect the taste. The broth didn’t only smell rameny, but, as far as I can remember, tasted pretty rameny too. I imagine it is unlikely to convince meat-eating ramen lovers, but considering they are aiming at a lighter flavor that will appeal to the health and calorie conscious OL (the ramen weighs in at 411kcal), that is hardly surprising. It was more oily than the kind of food I usually eat, so I won’t be ordering it every day, but I imagine I will indulge once a week while it’s available.
The veggie gyoza were also really tasty. Greasy, but delicious. Another real treat for the vegetarian in Japan. They also have spirulina worked into the dumpling wrapping.
If you are a vegetarian who doesn’t mind eating in a food court, I highly recommend you give this a try. Firstly, because it’s pretty tasty and, secondly, to show that there is a demand for these kind of creative meat-free menu options. I think it will appeal to quite a lot of meat-eaters too, and would love to hear the carnivorous point of view in the comments below.
Now, if they only there was a branch in Nagarekawa…