[编辑 Editor 吕大人 英译 Translator 刘大人 摄影 Photographer 刘大人]
Few dishes are supposedly simpler than ramen. Originated in China, this soul food staple is little more than a bowl of soup noodles with toppings. To us, ramen also arouses intense passions, and noodle fans worldwide have debated endlessly on social media and food discussion boards about the merits of different restaurants and it’s infinite cooking styles.
When we mention ramen in Johor Bahru to any Japanese and local foodies, Tokyo Kibou-ken is the first place that comes to mind. Started in 1991 as a small restaurant of about 30 m² in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, Kibou-ken have had queues of over 200 people waited in line to enter this legendary restaurant.
A Japanese franchise with 34 outlets in Japan and this being the chain’s first overseas outlet, it again speaks volume about Johor’s growing F&B scene that Kibou-ken has chosen JB to enter the Malaysia market. Located within AEON Mall Tebrau City, its first store, one of half dozen ramen shops inside the Ramen Street on level 2, has received very positive feedback since opening its doors on March 2017.
A true labour of love
To the serious ramen eater like us, one quality is prized above almost any other. The hardest thing to achieve is consistency. Almost anyone can make a good bowl of ramen, but it’s an entirely different matter to reach the same quality, day-in and day-out. The challenge of maintaining flavour and textures can make or break a restaurant.
Enter Tomo-san, a native from Osaka and a certified “Soup Sommelier” (or Shantan-shi in Japanese), awarded only to those who pass a series of strict examination. Only qualified Shantan-shi can be in charge of Kibou-ken’s soup to bring out the optimal flavour, and this is why this ramen speciality shop keeps their standard so high.
While some overseas establishments who tweak their recipes for our Malaysian tastebuds, Kibou-ken lauds itself for serving ramen prepared according to its staunch no-MSG policy, fastidious in-house cooking strictures, flavour ethos and ingredients, even to the boiling point and selection of water (gasp)! Back in Japan, Kibou-ken’s broth and noodles are made exclusively with “soft water”, which many Japanese believe is the best choice for ramen soups. Due to its low levels of inorganic salts, soft water will effectively bring out the umami components, providing intense flavours and aromas. Soup made with soft water is also milder and smoother to the palate.
Supposedly the best ramen in town, Kibou-ken‘s reputation has spread near and far, from neighbouring Singapore to Segamat, where one of our hardcore fans regularly braved the two-hour drive every two weeks just to savour its taste. Despite its modest capacity of maximum 43 seats, Tomo-san is adamant about keeping everyone happy even at its peak, so feel free to make a pre-order in advance while shopping to your heart’s content, before returning “on time” to be seated and served!
As with many noodle soup dishes, ramen should be eaten in the first ten minutes of when it’s made, and piping hot is best. In Japan, whoever comes in would drain a bowl in 10-15 minutes. On the other hand, over 30 for a bowl of ramen is a little bit overboard, even if it goes against our instincts to eat slowly, count our bites, or be mindful about what’s going in our mouth. To partake, we have to resist the convenience of home delivery or takeaway, and our reward is this piping hot bowl, made freshly for us. When we are done, bask in the glory of our ramen coma and savour the lingering aftertaste, but be mindful of others who may be waiting for a seat to open up so they too can enjoy the ramen fix we just had.
The soul of ramen is in the broth
We wouldn’t necessarily call ourselves a soup person, but we found our craving for the liquid gold that comes in the form of slurp-worthy broth when it comes to ramen. Kibou-ken also offers two kinds of noodles: one thin and soft, for the standard ramen soup (tonkotsu and miso); the other thick and wheaty for the more savoury shoyu (soy sauce based) or shio (salt-based). And the best part? We get to choose our noodles firmness, from soft (60 seconds), normal (50 seconds), hard (40 seconds), very hard (30 seconds) to super hard (25 seconds). For our upcoming ramen dishes, we opt for “super hard” noodles that had a snappy firm texture which made it very enjoyable to slurp.
Also, be sure to slurp the noodles loudly to send your compliments to the chef. Pretty obnoxious elsewhere, but it is totally acceptable and a sign that we are enjoying our bowl of ramen. Indeed, slurping is so integral to ramen that most Japanese will think there’s something strange if they see people eating in silence.
Tonkotsu Ajitama Ramen
Of course, our first bowl of ramen had to be the Original Tonkotsu Ajitama Ramen. The rich, creamy and very satisfying broth was cooked for more than 10 hours over high heat and constant stirring. The ajitama (seasoned ramen egg) was spot on as well, with the sweet marinade permeating the entire egg while the yolk had a nice gooey, lava-like consistency. Combine with tender char siew slices, black fungus and scallions that infused the broth with a pleasantly faint aftertaste as well, overall, an excellent rendition of tonkotsu.
Tonkotsu Chashu Ramen
The carnivore in us was super satisfied with this bowl, as the Tonkotsu Chashu Ramen was surrounded by a generous portion of chashu that consist of lip-smacking goodness! Using leaner cuts to balance out the rich fattiness of the belly chashu in a perfect ratio of fat to lean meat, the pork was fork-tender, having been braised long and slow for 4 hours, elevating the dish instead of overpowering it.
PIRIKA Miso Ramen
When our bowl of PIRIKA Miso Ramen was served, we noticed little globs of fat floating around the surface of the soup. They add a ton of flavour, so please don’t scoop them out in the name of healthy eating. Topped with chilli oil for spice, seasoned ramen egg and sesame seeds for sweetness, plus thinly sliced chashu for savoriness, we would label this spicy miso version as the best all-rounder in this lot.
As all ramen was originally shio-flavoured, our bowl of Hakodate style Shio Ramen kept the tradition of making ramen soup flavoured with natural sea salt from Shikoku has remained unchanged even as new flavours and styles were introduced all over Japan. Unlike our previous bowls, the lightly-salted version also comes with a few seasoned bamboo shoots for that extra crunch.
Yaki Gyoza, Chahan & Tori No Karaage
While we do not advocate having side dishes that interrupt and slow down the eating of ramen, nor it’s a good option for long conversations, except maybe to share just a few bites with friends while waiting for the ramen bowls. The Yaki Gyoza, Chahan and Tori No Karaage are equally delicious and worthy on its own, without having to play sidekick to their superhero: ramen.
Thanks to Yoshiko-san, our travelling Japanese counterpart, we learnt the customary “kaedama’” as we ask for another serve of noodles to go with our leftover broth. Surely one serving isn’t enough! Alternatively, we can also enjoy the broth by adding rice into the leftover soup mixture to make delicious zousui (soupy rice). Ooishii ne!
With the ongoing irresistible promotion where we can get a side dish free of charge when we buy the main course (see above), we need no second invitation. So, if you find yourself at AEON Mall Tebrau City and craving a bowl of actually tasty ramen, you don’t have to travel to Japan to satisfy your craving anymore.
Tokyo Kibou-ken 希望軒
📍 Level 2, Aeon Mall Tebrau City, 1, Jalan Desa Tebrau, Taman Desa Tebrau, 81100 Johor Bahru, Johor
📞 +607-361 5537
🕙 Daily from 10:00am to 10:00pm
💻 Tokyo Kibou-ken Ramen