BUSAN, South Korea – When I was a university student, I must have eaten 2.9 metric tons of instant ramen noodles. Those wavy yellow bricks of chicken-flavored Ramen Pride were so cheap they were almost free; so easy an impaired college freshman could make them; and so fast they were the ideal 3 a.m. cure for the munchies, when it matters not what you eat, but that you eat it really, really soon.
Their quick and easy preparation and low price made instant ramen a hit from Helsinki to Honolulu. The Japanese love instant ramen too, so much so that they voted it the greatest Japanese invention of the 20th century; a remarkable accolade considering they also gave the world CD players and underwear vending machines.
Our neighbors to the east do, however, still cherish the original ramen dishes that inspired the imitation: fresh handmade noodles, in a savory broth simmered for hours or sometimes days, topped with anything from beef to bamboo shoots. Almost every region in Japan has its own delightful take on ramen – from the hearty Tonkotsu ramen of Kyushu to the popular Hakata ramen of Fukuoka – and wherever you are, you’re never very far from a ramen joint. Despite the immense popularity of instant ramen, original Japanese ramen is still a go-out-to-eat affair, with diners paying from 10 to 100 dollars a bowl. I recently visited a sit-down ramen shop in Jangsan called Hotaru to see what the fuss was about.
I walk in through the back door and find myself practically standing in the tiny kitchen next to the owner, Mr. Jung, who is hovering over a steaming pot of broth; the smell of it fills the air and makes me suddenly hungry. He welcomes us and ushers our party into the small dining area, the walls of which are scrawled from top to bottom with graffiti: drunken professions of eternal love, good wishes for high schoolers soon to graduate, and musings on life, beer and noodles. Bottles of sake line the shelves above the tables, which seat about ten comfortably, fifteen in a pinch. A colorful samurai glares from a tapestry hanging next to the menu board.
The menu lists several charcoal-roasted skewers (mushroom, beef, chicken, ginko nut) priced from 3,000 to 7,000 won, and a variety of tipples to wash them down: bottles of Kirin and Asahi for 6,500 won and a few varieties of both warm and cold sake (Namachozo, Taruzake, and Tokkuri) priced from 10,000 won and up.
All well and good, but the ramen is the main event. “I love ramen,” says Mr. Jung, “making ramen and eating ramen.” He spent nine years living and cooking in Tokyo, and his passion for ramen is evident in the details: he uses imported miso and soy sauce from Japan, and strives to recreate the Tokyo styles he loves as authentically as possible. He dishes up two styles of ramen: Tonkotsu Shoyu and Tonkotsu Miso. They share the same basic ingredients and the same pork bone broth, which he cooks for ten hours and jazzes with some garlic, ginger and onions. They differ in that the former is enriched with soy sauce, the latter with miso.
Hotaru has a wide selection of dishes and Kirin in the bottle to wash it down
We order the Miso, which soon rolls out in a large bowl with a small wooden ladle. The portion is ample; a fair value at 7,000 won. It gives off the same lovely aroma that greeted me at the door, and contains a tuft of bean sprouts, half a boiled egg, a slice of pork that melts in my mouth, and long, slightly chewy noodles, which Mr. Jung informs me are made fresh daily by a Japanese local. The broth has a creamy, silky texture – I can almost chew it, and I linger over it long after I dispatch the noodles. I chase it with a bottle of cold Kirin beer, and this immediately strikes me as the smartest thing I’ve done all week.
I go back two days later with my wife to find Hotaru packed with all of fourteen souls and a harried young server who never stops weaving between tables shuttling bottles of beer and plates of anju to small huddles of jovial regulars. This time it’s Tonkatsu Shoyu ramen for me and the Miso for my wife. The Shoyu is savory but thinner and more subtle. If the Miso had been a home run, the Shoyu is a stand-up double: solid and respectable, but not a score. I find myself reaching over the table halfway through to help my wife drive the Miso home.
“Hotaru” means “firefly” in Japanese, and like its namesake, this little creature of the evening (open from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.) is suffused with the glow of good food cooked with passion. Seating is limited, so you may end up waiting a bit. Though if you had wanted your noodles instantly, you wouldn’t have come.
One of Hotaru's many ramen dishes
To get there: Walk north from Jangsan Station exit 4. Cross the first major intersection, keep going, The road curves right, take a left at the next light and Hotaru’s on the left.