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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Fans go rah rah over ramen

The number of outlets specialising in the Japanese noodles continues to grow and some have come up with their own unique flavours
The Sunday Times - May 20, 2012
By: Rebecca Lynne Tan
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Fans go rah rah over ramen Tsukemen, dry ramen served with a dipping broth such as this one from Marukin, is getting more common here. -- PHOTO: MARUKIN

Oodles of noodles in hot, robust broth. Singaporeans, it seems, cannot get enough of ramen.

There are no fewer than 30 boutique eateries and restaurants specialising in it.

This number excludes the multiple outlets that chain operators run, which range between two and 22. It also excludes the myriad Japanese restaurants that serve different styles of ramen in addition to other Japanese fare.

In the last six months alone, at least five ramen eateries have opened.

They are month-old new entrant Menya Musashi at Raffles City Shopping Centre; a fourth Daikokuya outlet in Roberston Quay in March; and three shops which opened last December - a second Ramen Champion, which consists of six individual ramen stalls, at Changi Airport Terminal 3; new ramen restaurant Marukin Ramen at Scotts Square; and a fifth outlet for RamenPlay at I12 Katong.

But with more shops in the market now, operators expect some to fare less well.

A spokesman for Ippudo, which has outlets in Mandarin Gallery and UE Square, says: 'There are many ramen outlets in Singapore these days, so we expect a bit of consolidation in the market, with Singaporeans backing their favourites and discarding the others.'

One of the earlier specialist ramen eateries to open here was West, a Kyushu-based Japanese chain which opened a noodle restaurant in 1983 at Far East Plaza in Scotts Road. It has since closed.

Since then, more specialist ramen chains have opened to fuel the demand for the dish.

Some of the older chains in the market are the 22-outlet ramen chain Ajisen, which opened in 1997, and two-outlet Beppu Menkan Japanese Noodle Restaurant, which opened a year later. They say they decided to set up shop here because ramen was not widely available at the time. The trend grew over the last decade, with many new entrants opening in the mid-2000s.

Chains that now have three or more outlets in Singapore include Men-Ichi Ramen, Marutama Ra-Men, Ajisen, RamenPlay and Daikokuya.

A bowl of ramen usually costs about $12 to $17, and business is growing.

Mr Lim Pee Cheng, 66, owner of Men-Tei Ramen in Robinson Road, has seen business increase by 10 per cent a year since he opened 51/2 years ago.

Mr Winston Sim, 41, owner of 21/2-year-old restaurant The Ramen Stall in Short Street, has also seen a jump. In the first year, he says, he had about 50 customers a day. That doubled in the second year, and now, he serves between 250 and 400 customers a day.

Competition may be fierce but the chains continue to expand. The owners of single-outlet ramen eateries The Ramen Stall and 21/2-year-old Ramen Monster in Velocity @ Novena Square say they are on the lookout for suitable locations to open second outlets.

RamenPlay, by The BreadTalk Group, plans to open three to five more eateries by the first quarter of next year, while Ramen Santouka, which has outlets at The Central and Cuppage Terrace, has plans for another two.

Men-Ichi by Japanese restaurant group RE&S, with outlets at nex mall, Northpoint and Jurong Point, is looking at another one or two a year, subject to factors such as rental and space availability.

Other chains such as Marutama also do not rule out the possibility of expanding.

Asked if the market still had room for growth, Mr Ang Kiam Meng, 50, chief executive of the Jumbo Group of Restaurants, which owns ramen shop Yoshimaru in Holland Village, says: 'Yes, there is still room. Diners are constantly seeking new dining experiences and as long as we remain diner-centric, we will be able to cultivate loyalty.'

He is currently also looking out for a space for his next Yoshimaru outlet.

Others cite the business models of chicken rice and bak chor mee stalls. They are a dime a dozen but are still sustainable. Operators do not think the ramen market is saturated yet, adding that the trend is still growing, given the popularity of Japanese cuisine.

Mr Yeo Kian Tiong, 38, owner of Ramen Monster, says: 'Noodles are part of our culture and ramen will not be another bubble-tea fad. It is here to stay.'

Singapore's hot climate does not put off ramen fans either. Ramen shops say the dish's appeal is ubiquitous as noodles are an intrinsic part of local culture.

Mr Seiki Takahashi, 50, chief executive of global food and beverage developer PJ Partners, which runs Marukin, says: 'I believe it is the comfort that a good warm bowl of noodles in slow-cooked broth brings you. It is like soul food.'

Most also insist that they keep their recipes authentic - boiling soups for between six and 30 hours, and using imported flour to make the noodles.

In Japan, the soup is often very thick and salty, and comes with a layer of oil which serves to keep the ramen and broth hot in cold weather.

Here, while the recipes may remain authentic, some have reduced the oil and salt content to suit local tastebuds.

Others have also come up with versions just for the local market.

Yoshimaru, for example, launched a spicy yuzu ramen at the beginning of this month. The recipe was developed by its team in Japan after receiving feedback on taste preferences here.

Beppu Menkan has also introduced toppings such as fried chicken and salmon terrayaki to their ramen after requests from patrons.

Queues outside ramen stalls are common at certain outlets during peak meal hours. But diners say they are willing to wait in line, as long as the ramen is worth it. They also have no qualms about eating steaming bowls of it in hot weather.

Bank executive Gillian Gan, 25, who goes to various ramen stalls for her fix at least once a week, says: 'I don't mind queuing for good food and most of the ramen restaurants are air-conditioned.'

Student Joshua Ong, 16, adds: 'It is noodles in soup, there is nothing strange about liking that, especially when we are Asian.

'Who cares if it is hot outside? If I can eat pig's organ soup at a hawker centre, I can definitely eat a bowl of hot ramen.'

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