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Choosing a bottle of sake can be quite a daunting prospect. Bottles come in all shapes and sizes, each decorated with graceful but indecipherable kanji. A good place to start though is to focus on quality. Gekkeikan Hourin Junmai Daiginjyo, for example, has won Monde Selection’s gold medal for five years in a row. But before we drink, let’s break down that name. Gekkeikan is the name of the brewery (one of Japan’s most prestigious, with a history going back 400 years). Hourin is the brand name of this particular sake, and Junmai Daiginjyo describes its exact type, or ‘special designation’. A sake’s quality is down to how extensively the rice used in its production has been ‘polished’ to remove the bran and leave the all important inner starch. This will then turn to sugar and ferment to produce alcohol. Other factors governing the quality include how much extra alcohol is added, how long it is left to mature and even the kind of wood used for the barrels it is stored in. Junmai Daiginjyo is a premium sake with nothing added, made from just rice and water. It is worth bearing this in mind when you drink it and marvel at the complexity of flavour achieved from just these two ingredients. It has a fruity aroma, a mild, sweet and layered taste but nevertheless at 15 per cent also has quite a kick to it. This sake goes well with a light meal, fish or chicken, or can be enjoyed equally well just on its own. Kanpai! Gekkeikan Hourin Junmai Daiginjo 300ml £10.50, 720ml 36.90, 1.8L £76.70 Japan Centre * price may be subject to change

14 ZOOM JAPAN number 3 july-august 2012

RESTAURANT Oodles of noodles at



here is a scene in the quirky 80s film comedy ‘Tampopo’, where an old ramen master teaches his young pupil the correct way to eat noodle

soup. “First you must observe it in its entirety,” explains the aged teacher, “and then caress the noodles with your chopsticks to show affection”. He then instructs his student never to begin with the focal point of the dish, the slices of pork belly known as chashu, but instead to place them to one side, whispering: “see you again soon”! Of course, it’s not necessary to visit the cinema to appreciate a good bowl of ramen, but watching this film does give an idea of how deep the world of this deceptively simple dish can be. Every neighbourhood in Japan seems to have a legendary local ramen restaurant, recommended through word of mouth and with a queue of hungry diners outside. Now at last London may have its own. Ittenbari opened in Soho in March this year. It is partnered with Ryukishin, a small chain of ramen restaurants founded by celebrity chef Matsubara Tatsuji in Sakai, a tough industrial area of Osaka. There are four basic varieties of ramen: shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), tonkotsu (pork) and miso (bean paste). At Ittenbari the speciality of the house is shio ramen, the hardest of the four to perfect because of its delicate flavour. Ramen is filling and tasty, but also fast. This is because most of the work goes in to the preparation beforehand. At Ittenbari the soup base and the stock are cooked separately for six hours and flavoured with mussels, prawns, scallops, gobo (burdock root) and a long list of other ingredients. Many of these, such as a special kind of sea

salt, are sourced directly from Japan. The dish is finally put together in an open kitchen at the front of the restaurant. Noodles are cooked for exactly 70 seconds (60 if you prefer them hard boiled), added to 360cc of soup stock and topped with spring onions, bamboo shoots, specially prepared boiled egg and the all-important chashu. We tried the shio and shoyu ramen (same base soup but with different stock) and both were delicious and hearty with the shoyu having a stronger taste and the shio a lighter, clearer broth. The seafood flavours, nurtured over those many hours of cooking, are balanced wonderfully and once the noodles, pork and other toppings are gone you can’t resist lifting the bowl and slurping down the last of the soup. We also enjoyed the katsu curry, breaded deep fried pork cutlets, crispy on the outside but moist and succulent within, served with curry sauce, rice and pickles. Ramen restaurants are always relaxed, lively places and Ittenbari is no exception. Ramen is a dish you can’t help but making noise when eating and it goes perfectly with a glass of cold beer and a plate of gyoza (grilled dumplings), although it’s perhaps best not to start talking to your food, even if you are an ancient ramen master! Alexis Brown

REFERENCE ITTENBARI 84 Brewer Street, London W1F 9UB phone 020 7287 1318,

Alexis Brown

Raise your glass to Japan’s brewers

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