Tuck into a steaming bowl of ramen in Vancouver. (Photo: Alamy)
Vancouver is famous for its multicultural cuisine: Whether you’re in the mood for the mouth-numbing heat of Szechuan, the latest Japanese-Corsican fusion fare, or sampling the seafood bounty of the Pacific Northwest, you’ll be spoiled for choice.
But what most visitors to the city don’t realize is that Vancouver is home to some of North America’s finest ramen shops. The best are found in the “ramen triangle” of the West End district.
According to Christina Tsang, a local food blogger and expert in Asian food, the concentration stems from the area’s popularity among Japanese and other international students — and because ramen is notoriously cheap, filling and familiar. “Vancouverites also fell in love with these hearty noodles,” she says. “As a result, the number of noodle shops grew in the area, and the West End became the top destination for ramen in the city.”
Many ramen shops use a heavy tonkotsu pork broth, but in Vancouver you have the choice of creamy chicken, miso and light vegetarian, too. Canada currently has no ramen-noodle supplier, which means that most shops get theirs frozen from California — truly not a bad thing, as you’ll taste for yourself — however, some shops make their own in-house.
For example, at Marutama Ra-Men they make 500 4.4-ounce balls of noodles daily. The noodles then rest for 24-hours before being slurped up the next day. No preservatives. No waste. Everything freshly made and freshly consumed.
But with more than a dozen shops in a few short blocks serving up bowl after bowl of steaming, savory ramen, it’s easy for a newcomer to become overwhelmed by choice.
More than that, once you get past the queues (yes, you’ll find lines outside the most popular shops most days at busy times), what about ramen etiquette? To slurp or not to slurp? That is the question. Fortunately, Christina has you covered.
Are you expected to slurp your noodles?
Slurping is expected in Japan, as it helps cool down the hot noodles and prevents you from burning your mouth. However, if you grew up in North America or Europe, this may feel very uncomfortable.
Many in Vancouver forgo the noisy slurping, instead consuming a noodle or two at a time with their spoons hovering underneath the noodles to catch anything that slips out and to prevent splashing.
Should you use the spoon and chopsticks together?
If you have very good chopstick skills, one can grab a few strands of noodles with your chopsticks, and using your spoon for support, twirl your chopsticks so that a neat, easy-to-eat ball of noodle forms at the tip of your utensil. The technique is similar to twirling Italian pasta with a fork and spoon.
What about the peeled, soft-boiled egg typically served with ramen?
If you get a whole egg, gently split it in half with your chopsticks so that you can see the glistening yolk and have more manageable bites.
You’re not a Vancouverite till you’ve shared your ramen on social media. Any advice on getting the best shot?
If you are taking pictures for Instagram or Facebook, I would take them as quickly as possible since the noodles will become mushy fast in the hot soup, which will ruin the dish.
And finally …
In the end, the staff at the Ramen shops want you to be happy with your meal, and everybody in the restaurant is too busy with their own [ramen] to notice what you are doing. So whether you slurp or don’t, or even need to ask for a fork, don’t worry!
Five of the West End’s Best Spots
The Ramenman: A small local shop pushing the envelope of traditional ramen by deploying advanced cooking techniques like sous vide to create a tender char-sui slice of pork or chicken, choosing to aerate their chicken soup, and serving innovative toppings such as burdock and clams.
Hokkaido Ramen Santouka: A Japanese chain from Hokkaido that consistently churns out delicious bowls of noodles featuring a smooth, milky-white, pork-bone tonkotsu broth. Be sure to try their special melt-in-your-mouth toro niku chashu.
Kintaro: The original West End ramen shop. This local institution still has people lining up for their stick-to-your-ribs hearty bowls of noodles. Kintaro is famous for their rich miso ramen.
Motomachi: The more refined sister of Kintaro. They use premium ingredients to create balanced bowls of ramen, such as their purported toxin-cleansing, pitch-black Bamboo Charcoal Dark Miso ramen.
Marutama: Hailing from Japan, Marutama differentiates itself by serving house-made ramen noodles bathed in a chicken soup that your grandmother would be proud of. The shop also produces the best ramen egg in the city.