Chewing on Singapore's ramen obsession

With more than 100 ramen restaurants here, noodle lovers are spoilt for choice

Ramen. -- PHOTO: WEECHEOW
Ramen. -- PHOTO: WEECHEOW

Singapore diners old and young have an insatiable appetite for ramen. In fact, the Japanese one-dish wonder, which consists of noodles in piping hot broth and various toppings, has become increasingly popular here in the last two years.

Over the past two months alone, no fewer than five new-to-market brands have opened in Singapore. These add to the growing number of shops here. There are more than 115 islandwide, a SundayLife! check has found.

Ramen restaurants here serve everything from Hokkaido-style miso ramen to Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen served in a rich and creamy pork- based broth.

Newcomers include offshoots from Japan such as Chabuton at 313@Somerset and Sanpoutei Ramen in Holland Village.

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Ramen Champion, a chain of restaurants that features clusters of ramen stalls, also has new entrants at Bugis+. Among them are Menya Ryu and Shodai Koji. Other new players include Ramen Isshi at One Raffles Place and Ramen Mitsubachi at Orchard Plaza.

Chabuton, which opened last month, was founded by Japan-based Michelin-starred chef Yasuji Morizumi. The chain, which has been brought into Singapore by the Suki Restaurant Group, is hoping to make waves here after its successful foray into Bangkok, where it opened 14 outlets in four years.

Five-month-old Sanpoutei Ramen, another chain from Japan, has a shoyu based soup made with dried sardines or niboshi that is gaining popularity here. It opens its second shop at Shaw Centre at the end of this month.

Existing chains have also continued to expand in spite of increased competition.

Those that have expanded recently include Hakata Ikkousha, which opened a second outlet at Chijmes; Ramen Keisuke's sixth restaurant, at Parkway Parade; Shin-Sapporo Ramen's fourth outlet at Orchardgateway; and Ramen Kagetsu Arashi's third branch at The Cathay.

Mr Keisuke Takada, 45, founder of the Ramen Keisuke chain, which has five ramen restaurants and a gyoza shop here, estimates that there are about 300 ramen restaurants in Singapore - including Japanese restaurants that serve ramen among other dishes - and believes monthly revenue for the ramen industry is easily $24 million.

Each of his restaurants sells an average of 300 bowls of ramen a day.

Having observed the ramen scene here for the past four years, he knows the habits of Singaporean diners.

He says: "The ramen noodles in Singapore have to be shorter in length because diners like to put the noodles in their spoon and not slurp it up from the bowl like the Japanese. They prefer thin and softer noodles, and the most popular soup base here is tonkotsu."

Mr Russell Yu, 27, director of restaurant group Iki Concepts, which owns ramen restaurant Uma Uma! at Forum The Shopping Mall, adds: "The major difference between Singapore's ramen culture and Japan's is that ramen outlets here are treated more like sit-down restaurants with larger menus being expected. In Japan, ramen is traditionally a fast and convenient food."

Because of the differences, restaurateurs say it is not enough to just have classic ramen items on the menu. To stand out, operators constantly introduce new ramen dishes.

Uma Uma!, for example, rolled out mazesoba (a dry version of ramen), as well as yusheng ramen for Chinese New Year and white truffle ramen during truffle season.

The Ippudo ramen chain, which opened in Singapore in 2009 to much fanfare, regularly offers chef specials and new seasonal ramen.

Now, the chain sells up to 1,400 bowls of ramen a day across its four outlets, which vary in size and opening hours.

For instance, the Westgate outlet is half the size of its Mandarin Gallery outlet and Ippudo Express at Asia Square is open only on weekdays.

Last year, two of its largest outlets together sold 800 bowls a day, says Ippudo Singapore's general manager Satoshi Matsuoka.

The noodles, restaurateurs say, are here to stay, especially when chains are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to grow and expand their presence here. Hakata Ikkousha has plans to open 10 outlets in the next two years, mainly in suburban malls.

Indeed, ramen here has become as ubiquitous as sushi and the dish is finding its way into hawker centres.

This is despite Singapore's sweltering heat, which leaves diners perspiring after slurping up ramen. In Japan, hot ramen is comfort food in the cooler climate.

Still, savvy young hawkers here are holding their own when it comes to serving ramen-styled creations.

Mr Gwern Khoo, 33, owner of Singapore-style ramen stall A Noodle Story, says: "When we started A Noodle Story just over a year ago, the ramen craze was already on the uptrend in Singapore, with many popular Japanese ramen chains popping up. We chose to offer something different. Since Singaporeans love mee pok tah (dry), we created a dry version of ramen to suit local tastebuds."

He sells up to 200 bowls a day at his stall in Amoy Street Food Centre. His dry ramen includes ingredients such as wontons and melt-in-your-mouth char siew.

Brothers Cai Weili and Weisheng, who used to run ramen stall Homebaked Dough in a coffeeshop at Tanjong Pagar Plaza, are looking to expand their business.

They closed the stall in April and are planning to open a 50-seat restaurant called Brothers Ramen by the end of the year.

Mr Cai Weili, 29, says: "Diners here prefer the rich tonkotsu soup base, but we hope more will start to appreciate other light soup bases which can be made with chicken, seafood and vegetables. We want to keep our ramen as simple as possible."

However, over the years, there have been some casualties.

Ramen shops that have entered and bowed out of the market for reasons that may include location and market appeal, include Marukin Ramen and Noodle House Ken.

The queues that form at ramen shops here attest to the popularity of the dish.

Some diners say they have it once a month, while others have it more often.

Mr David Hu, 28, an investment specialist in private banking, eats ramen monthly and is particular about having a robust tonkotsu broth with his ramen.

He says: "The broth has to be rich and creamy with strong flavours, but not be too oily.

"There may be a lot of ramen shops to choose from, but they have to keep up their quality. I get recommendations from friends and am willing to try new outlets."

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