Soup-less ramen sparks new gourmet trend

NAGOYA - A soup-less ramen noodle dish called Taiwan maze-soba has become a new gourmet boom. Originally representing Nagoya, the dish is now becoming a favourite across Japan.

A number of restaurants nationwide have added the soup-less spicy ramen to their menu. After growing beyond the status of mere local specialty, Taiwan maze-soba is expected to be served overseas sometime within this year.

The dish uses thick noodles topped with ground meat. Chili pepper, egg yolks, chopped nira (Chinese chives), green onion and garlic are added and mixed together in the bowl before the dish is eaten.

It was created by Naoto Niiyama, the 36-year-old owner of Menya Hanabi in Nakagawa Ward, Nagoya.

When he opened his ramen restaurant six years ago, he made a topping of spicy ground meat for Taiwan ramen. The dish is so called as it was invented by a local restaurant owner from Taiwan four decades ago.

However, Niiyama's spicy minced meat topping did not go well with the soup that he was serving at that time.

A female part-time employee suggested that he simply pour the ground meat over the noodles. It was delicious beyond his expectation, and Niiyama spent two months perfecting the soup-less noodle that he serves now.

Word spread of the delicious new noodle dish, and Niiyama opened a series of new branches specifically promoting Taiwan maze-soba as their signature menu item.

In December, the Hanabi-affiliated restaurant Menya Haruka opened in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, and it now sees long lines of people at lunchtime.

Restaurants serving soup-less ramen have opened one after another, first in Nayoga then in Tokyo and now in many other parts of the nation.

Taiwan maze-soba is the fruit of Niiyama's tireless efforts, but the creator says, "I'm happy [with the trend] if it boosts this noodle as a new type of ramen altogether."

Niiyama plans to open a restaurant in Seoul sometime this year, and to branch out into China. The noodle will be named Nagoya maze-soba overseas, in the hope that "those who taste the ramen come to the city to taste the original."

Hantsu Endo, a food journalist who wrote the book "Zenkoku Gotochi Men Kiko" (Travelogue of local noodles around Japan), said Tokyoites love the thick, sweet taste of Nagoya food.

"Spicy-sweet ground meat brings out the noodle's flavor, and that's probably the reason for its popularity," he said. "Taiwan maze-soba can be said to be an advanced ramen. I'm sure it'll be a big hit in other Asian nations."

In addition to the main shop in Nakagawa Ward, Hanabi has six branches, including one in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo.