“I’m going for that Best Ramen in the World title,” exclaims Jake Nicolson, chef at St Kilda’s Circa restaurant. It’s an ambitious declaration, particularly given the kind of devotion a really good ramen can inspire.
While ramen is generally associated with Japan, the noodles from which the dish gets its name were first introduced to Japanese cuisine by the Chinese. Nevertheless, it’s an incredibly popular dish all over Japan. Ingredients differ from region to region, but its basic configuration always consists of broth, noodles and something delicious floating on top.
The variety Australian diners would be most familiar with, of course, would be the Tokyo style, with its chashu pork, seaweed wafer, boiled egg and weird little fishcake. At Circa, Nicolson tries to represent those well-known ingredients with some top-quality local produce. “We try to represent all the traditional elements of a ramen using native ingredients,” he explains. “Typically in Japan a ramen is just going to be a cheeseburger or deep-pan pizza. It’s meant to be chucked together, but we want to be serving the best ramen in the world.”
For Nicolson’s ‘New Tokyo’ ramen, he uses a roast chicken and soy broth with wild barramundi cooked over Circa’s wood-fired Robata grill and sea lettuces. Other dishes include an inventive variation featuring spicy free-range pork from McIvor Farms, black king prawns from Queensland, silken tofu and house-made kimchi. “It’s not particularly traditional, but I’ve chosen the best of the ingredients we have around the kitchen,” Nicolson says. “We make our own scallop and king prawn sausage, using Rottnest Island scallops and the Queensland black tiger prawns to make a ginger and spring onion cake.”
And, instead of the weird little processed fish cakes with the fluoro-pink swirl, Nicolson’s been making his own. “You’re not going to see something so fabricated on the Circa menu!” he laughs.
The chef has also been experimenting with making his own noodles too. “I think it takes a lot of time and energy to be able to completely make your own noodles all the time, but that’s something I’m going to master [too],” he adds.
At present, Nicolson and his team are making soba noodles using buckwheat flour soaked in lemon juice. They soak it overnight, roll it by hand and slice it into noodles. “Fresh noodles are far superior than dried noodles,” he says. “They’re able to soak more liquid up, they slurp better and they’re nice and spongy.”
Also important to a good ramen is the quality of the broth. Circa’s kitchens have a stock pot on the go almost continuously, using roasted chicken wings, shitake, garlic, peppercorns, soy sauce along with things like mirin, seaweed and ginger. “After six to eight hours all the flavours really start coming out,” says Nicolson.
To accompany a great ramen, a savoury white wine does the trick, though there’s little better than matching your noodles with a beer. “Ramens originate from the areas where massive amounts of beer are produced, like Sapporo. You could definitely crack a cold one,” suggests Nicolson. “It’s about getting full quickly – you’re slurping, you’re having a beer as well. It doesn’t have to be a fine dining experience.”
In keeping with tradition, Nicolson’s putting forward the age-old challenge: if you can finish the thing, the kitchen will top up your ramen free. “I can barely finish it. If anyone else can for $20 bucks, I’d be surprised,” he says. “Traditionally they’d offer a top-up on the side, and if anyone can pop the first one down, I’d be more than happy to top it up.”
Circa is featuring two ramen dishes on its winter lunch menu.