November 8, 2015
I’d been to Kyoto before. I knew it was a city beautifully riddled with Michelin stars. I’d done the elaborate three-hour long kaiseki meals. Tea ceremonies, okonomiyaki, Nishiki Market, lavish ryokan breakfasts.
“What else does this city of 1.5 million have to offer?” I thought to myself as I was hurled toward Japan’s ancient capital on the bullet train.
A City For Ramen Lovers
Amongst local and domestic travelers Kyoto is known for its ramen, which is especially beloved by the students attending the city’s more than 35 colleges and universities. There’s even an entire floor of ramen joints on the upper level of the Kyoto Station called Ramen Koji (Ramen Street) serving eight regional styles of the popular noodle soup.
Of course, Kyoto’s haute cuisine is worth every bit of praise that’s been bestowed upon it. But after a few days of it, I wanted something lighter.
A Liquid Avalanche Of Hell
I got that, all too literally, at Menbakaichidai Ramen, where the chef lights your entire bowl of ramen on fire. Not just a cute, low-flickering flambé-flame, but a liquid avalanche of heat poured aflame from a cast iron pot above your head into your bowl, requiring you to put down your camera, wear a protective apron, and pay close attention.
Children are forbidden from ordering it, and there are no vegetarian, vegan, or Muslim-friendly versions. The menus plastered on the walls are singed, and the laminated bar is warped from flames. This ramen is totalitarian.
I’d first heard about Menbakaichidai from a food blogger friend in Taiwan. It’s especially popular in Taipei and Hong Kong and during my visit, the small nine-seat counter in Kyoto’s Nacagyo neighborhood was full with four suited businesspeople from Hong Kong and three lads from Taiwan eager to slurp.
So Dangerous, It Requires Rules
There are four tables and a few non-flammable dishes on the menu, but if you want the fire ramen as I did, you have to sit at the counter and observe the rules. The good humored-chef, Masamichi Miyazawa, introduces himself to you, hands you an apron and shows you a laminated sign that reads:
Please do not take pictures when oil is being poured.
Stay seated no matter what.
Please do not touch the bowl, it’s covered with oil and may stain your clothes.
Please keep apron on while you eat to avoid staining your clothes.
The chef may look angry, but he is not. He was born this way.
The Final Countdown
After I had nodded that I understood, Miyazawa set a bowl of ramen in front of me. It was topped with a generous handful of green onions; a special certified Kyoto variety known for its intense sweetness.
The ramen’s base is made with a homemade soy sauce and a blend of stocks including chicken, pork, and nine types of seafood. In it are thin brown noodles and floating atop, delicate slices of tender, pre-simmered chashu, pork-belly imported from Mexico.
But the trick to lighting a bowl of soup on fire is oil. Miyazawa heats a vegetable oil flavored with green onions to a roiling 680 degrees fahrenheit before igniting it.
It may look like a pint of oil when it’s falling like a fiery waterfall from his pot into your bowl, but it’s really only two tablespoons. It combusts when it hits the liquid creating a flame that could singe eyebrows. But the combustion isn’t just for show, it slightly chars the chashu and green onions, giving it a very subtle smoky taste.
It was easily the best ramen I’ve had on my four visits to Japan —including two trips lasting for more than two months each. But it’s also a dish that’s unique to Kyoto, and a worthwhile blazing star that you won’t find listed in the Michelin guidebooks.