The progress of what was simply street food with noodles and tasty soup, whether it is referred to as ramen in this contemporary age, or called shina soba until the 1950s, is a fascinating journey of cultural fusion, care for ingredients and continuing innovation. Soba can be unique to what we know as Japanese cuisine, but the ramen is said to be a Japanese way of saying la mian in Mandarin, literally meaning hand pulled noodles. Depending on which part of Asia you visit, there are various versions of such hand made noodles, apart from the Indian sub-continent and the Middle East. The mainland Chinese form of such a dish was already cooked in thick and starchy concoctions of gravy.
Today this thickness in noodle soup dishes was confronted by me at the Gumshara Ramen stall in the often crowded but unassuming food court at the end of Dixon Street, Sydney Chinatown, bordering with Goulburn Street. Never have I seen such gooey richness and concentrated so-called soup accompanying noodles. There were the usual half hard boiled eggs with outstanding yolks, Nori seaweed garnish and compulsory pork portions. I had looked forward to the version I finally had - not just with tonkotsu broth but with the special magic of fish based stock. It was a revelation - the Japanese had combined the best flavours of the sea with the rewarding essence of the versatile bovine. It may not be to everyone's preference, but I liked most of it, although the bowl I had was really rich, though I would never ask for a dilution of such broth.
A food court with mostly, if not all, Asian dishes usually has people usually sitting tightly together savouring what they love best - and in Australia, this means anything from Indonesian padang rice to Hainan chicken and Korean bim bap. At times the best food can be found hidden amidst the noise, the clutter and such crowdedness. What would happen if Gumshara had equity backed funding and moved to a fancy setting? Would the taste be commensurate with what is to be paid? At around ten dollars a bowl, this may be the best bargain in Japanese ramen in Sydney. Noodles are made from basic ingredients like salt, water, wheat flour and alkaline mineral water. The proof is in the soup, the recipe behind it and how the soups are made hour after hour. Whether it contains natural flavouring stuff like skipjack tuna flakes or pork ribs, the proportions do count in the outcomes of the final product.
Gumshara is also noted for its rather obvious chunky offerings of pork ribs on the bone, braised sufficiently to provide opportunities for crunchiness and texture. The other alternative, also popular with many other competitors of Gumshara, is the cha shu or sliced barbecued or braised pork, some with red coloured rinds. I avoid the lactate fermented bamboo shoots but do have a soft spot for those season boiled eggs. Freshly made ramen puts us off the instant varieties and these are often at the opposite ends of the spectrum for satisfying gratification and quality finesse. The bowl I consumed looked to me comparable to Takayama ramen - but Gumshara has produced its own feel of a rather delicate dish.
So what makes Gumshara different from others? Is it the more buttery and collagen laden broth? The name itself evokes concentration or franticness by one's self and not being recognisant of the people or surroundings around. Is this an effect once one dives into the Gumshara soup? Is the food much more oily than one expects from Japanese cuisine, mostly due to the liberal utilisation of the flavours from pork bone and ribs? I reckon each has to decide for him or herself and not be taken by the hype but immerse in reality. I would return to Gumshara but maybe more on an early morning or mid-afternoon. And ramen is always perfect for a nippy winter's day.