For decades, the international perception of ramen was that it was something for lazy college students to buy in bulk for when they wanted a quick, hot meal, with only minimal thought given to flavor or presentation. And while ramen does sometimes take that form, assuming it’s all like that is sort of like basing your whole image of pizza on microwavable frozen varieties.
Thankfully, there’s a ramen renaissance going on, as the rest of the world is getting onboard with just how delicious Japan’s favorite noodle dish can be. In response, some restaurants in Japan are adapting to make their food more accessible to foreign visitors, such as this restaurant in Tokyo that serves halal ramen.
Among the dietary rules that devout Muslims follow, the most well-known to those outside the faith are prohibitions against eating pork and drinking alcohol. That’s just the tip of the halal iceberg, though, as there are also regulations about how ingredients must be handled and prepared, and even what sort of utensils and kitchen equipment can be used as part of the cooking process.
All of this is in stark contrast to Japanese gastronomy, which aside from a long-past period where eating meat was frowned upon tends to take a pretty liberal attitude about what’s acceptable to chow down on. So when we heard about a halal-certified ramen restaurant called Naritaya in Asakusa, one of the most traditional parts of Tokyo, we decided to check it out.
From the outside, Naritaya, which is located in the Sensoji Nishisando shopping arcade that leads to the neighborhood’s famous Sensoji Temple, looks like any other old-school ramen joint. The same goes for the interior, with its row of wooden benches lined up in front of a counter. On your way inside, though, you might notice this seal of certification from the Japan Islamic Trust beside the door.
Like at many ramen restaurants, customers purchase a food ticket from a vending machine, then hand it over to the chef. We decided to go with the most basic menu item, called simply “ramen,” which was priced at a reasonable 700 yen (US$6).
Having never had halal ramen before, we weren’t entirely sure what to expect, but the bowl our server placed in front of us didn’t look remarkably different from what you’d find at a restaurant that gives no concerns to Islamic cooking practices. Aside from the broad noodles, we could spot nori seaweed, green onions, bean sprouts, spinach, a boiled egg, and the seasoned bamboo shoots called menma in Japanese.
What was unique, however, was that instead of chashu, the thin-sliced pork that’s customarily included with ramen, there was a strip of grilled chicken, which turned out to be both fragrant and delicious.
The broth didn’t disappoint either. Obviously, there’s no pork stock tonkotsu on the menu at Naritaya. Instead, the broth is made from bonito and kombu (kelp). The resulting taste is refreshing and light, but still with plenty of palate-pleasing potency. Actually, it’s pretty similar to what you’ll find in some of Tokyo’s more old-fashioned ramen restaurants.
The flavor is so well-rounded that we can’t imagine anyone not enjoying it. Being one of, if not the, only halal ramen restaurants in Tokyo, though, means that its especially popular with Muslim diners, and the staff told us that 80 percent of their customers are Islamic. In turn, that’s why in addition to more seating on the second floor, Naritaya also has a prayer room that patrons can use.
▼ There’s even an arrow on the ceiling pointing the way to Mecca.
It’s just one more aspect of Naritaya’s international outlook, which is also the basis for its posted English explanations of all the different ways to customize your noodles.
So if you find your stomach rumbling after a day of seeing the sights in Asakusa and/or Ramadan fasting, stop on by.
Naritaya / 成田屋
Address: Toyko-to, Taito-ku, Asakusa 2-7-13
Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday/Sunday
[ Read in Japanese ]