Katsuura Tantanmen: A Rare, Spicy Species
In this week's Ramen Beast Newsletter we take you on a trip to the remote coastal fishing town of Katsuura to experience one of Japan's spiciest sub-varieties of ramen: Katsuura Tantanmen.
This is a style that was invented in the 1950s to warm the bellies of commercial fisherman and local ama (海女)— the female free-divers who traditionally swam nearly nude in the region's frigid coastal waters, gathering valuable uni and shellfish from the ocean floor. The style basically only exists in this one small town — Katsuura, Chiba — where almost everyone eats it. The bowls come blanketed in piping hot chili oil, with diced onions, fried pork and and a pile of negi submerged in the magma. In the tiny, sleepy city of Katsuura, there are nearly 50 shops dedicated to serving variations of this single dish.
Below we'll share the story of how this crazy-spicy ramen variety came into being, as well as some video snapshots from our friend Victor, who tagged along for a recent daytrip to Katsuura. The village sits on the eastern side of Chiba’s Boso Peninsula, about two hours from Tokyo.
If you’re new here, this is the Ramen Beast Newsletter — stories and food lore from Japan’s ramen subculture.
►But first, a riff from Patrick
There are lots of analogies for ramen culture. For example, it's no surprise that many ramen heads also happen to be hardcore sneaker heads. The similarities run deep: The street culture roots, the collector's obsession, the bragging rights over rare discoveries, the long lineups outside shops, the one-off collabs between famous chefs, limited seasonal releases, and so on.
Maybe because my brother-in-law happens to be an ornithologist, I often find myself thinking how bird watching is another good analog — especially for picturing the roiling diversity of the ramen world itself. Ramen blankets the Japanese archipelago. There are hearty, dominant ramen styles that have proliferated everywhere, as well as exotic rarities that exist only in remote regions of the country. Each style, or species, emerged to meet the unique conditions of its environment and moment —accessibility of ingredients, the traditional lifestyles of the people living there, sometimes even just the weather (Hokkaido’s Sapporo Miso Ramen is undoubtedly best in the cold). And once a popular new style emerges, it's often picked up somewhere else in the country where it evolves in a totally new and unpredictable direction. Every ramen style has its evolutionary niche, or reason for being. The styles that survive and flourish are those that Japanese people simply enjoy eating (and the ones that chefs can make money from — i.e., selection pressures). More than most food scenes, ramen feels like a teeming natural phenomenon.
For years, Abram and I have been talking about doing a Ramen Beast book. Lately, we've been thinking if we did it right, it would probably resemble an old school bird guide, describing countless varieties and subspecies, with colorful photos of bowls and maps where you can discover them across the Japanese island chain — The Ramen Beast Field Guide to Japan (email us if you would actually buy this — it would be a daunting undertaking).
Katsuura Tantanmen is the perfect example for this naturalist's thesis of ramen hunting. It's a style that was invented to meet extreme circumstances, with its particulars basically thrown together by accident — and yet, something colorful and amazing emerged.
[ABOVE: The first shop we visited on our drive to Katsuura was Matsunoya. Locals and tourists looking for a more authentic, old school Katsuura tantanmen experience often arrive here. Matsunoya has been operating out of the same dingy mom n' pop premises for many years. Matsunoya's soup — hidden beneath the chili oil — is said to be one of the best in the whole area. It's made from chicken and katsuobushi, and only one big vat is prepared per day, so once the soup sells out, the shop closes. Unlike most ramen shops, most of the cooking here is done by elder women, and the menu includes homestyle favorites such as excellent gyoza, cha-han on the side, or a light tanmen for those who can't handle the heat of the signature tantanmen. A family friendly local favorite. We were in and out within 25 minutes and ready for our next bowl down the road.]
Before we can get to the ramen, a little background on the area will probably be helpful in understanding how such a unique style flourished in this obscure location. Katsuura City is located on the eastern coast of Chiba Prefecture's Boso Peninsula, which juts out into the Pacific to the southeast of Tokyo. This relatively small town – home to about 16,000 people today — hugs a large fishing port. Like so many parts of Japan, the sea is life in this region. The Katsuura port is famous for its huge annual catch of katsuo, or skipjack tuna, which is shipped off to drier southern climates where it's simmered, smoked, fermented and dried into umami-packed katsuobushi. For much of its history, Katsuura's lifeblood was provided by the village's katsuo fishermen and its lady ama divers.
Today, fishing remains a thriving industry in Katsuura, but the ama have been replaced by surfers and beachgoers. Aside from the port, the city generates most of its livelihood as a seaside tourist destination, attracting Tokyoites with big waves, pleasant beaches — and its dozens of Katsuura tantanmen shops.
How Katsuura Tantanmen came into being
In 1954, restaurant Ezawa was a typical teishokuya, or Japanese diner, serving simple meals at affordable prices. The shop master, Ezawa-san, somehow caught wind of the growing popularity in Tokyo of Chinese dandanmian.
A spicy noodle dish that emerged in China's Sichuan Provence, dandanmian is traditionally a soupless but heavily sauced street food dish that comes packed with chili oil, Sichuan peppercorns, minced pork and pickled vegetables. Once it made its way to Hong Kong, a soup-based version appeared, while other varieties began incorporating qi mahjong (creamy sesame paste) mixed into the soup, which balances the spice to an extent. The sesame paste became a staple of tantanmen, the refined version of dandanmian that took root in Japan after the dish's arrival in the early 20th century with Chinese immigrants and laborers.
As legend has it, Ezawa-san got the idea of adding a Chinese dandanmian to his menu, thinking it would be the perfect dish — hearty, heartwarming — for his hungry, ocean faring customer base. Ezawa-san didn't really know how to make dandanmian, though; and some of the typical ingredients, such as qi mahjong and Sichuan peppercorns weren't easily available in Katsuura. So he just went about inventing his own best approximation. He used a traditional shoyu ramen soup base, infused with some of the locally produced katsuo bonito flakes, and loaded it with spicy rayu chili oil. Fried minced pork and diced negi, typical dandanmian elements, made their way into the dish, but so did chopped, locally grown tamanegi (sweet white onion).
As he envisioned, the spiciness and warmth of the dish struck a chord with the fisherman and ama who came in for lunch after their morning shifts out in the ocean. The dashi from the locally prized katsuo kept the dish feeling like home, while the rayu and spiciness gave customers the experience of a new and exciting food import. Almost immediately, his spicy concoction was a hit and became Ezawa's namesake dish. Ezawa-san eventually abandoned his diverse diner menu and transitioned into a full-time Tantanmen shop.
[VIDEO ABOVE: Today, Ezawa is run by the original founder’s grandson and the shop has relocated from its original location to the main road connecting Katsuura and Tokyo. As the originator of the Katsuura style, the shop is a foodie landmark, attracting a steady line during all hours of operation. Although it’s relentlessly busy, the staff are highly efficient. They’ll take your name and phone number and call you when your seats are almost ready. With about 40 minutes to kill, we looked on Google Maps for things to do nearby and spotted something pinned as “Jiin - Place of Worship.” Intrigued, we wandered up into the nearby hills to check it out. It turned out to be a decrepit Shinto shrine, one of the countless such religious sites that no longer have enough active patrons to be maintained. Soon the call came and we were pulled back from the feudal past back down into Ezawa, where we ate our second wildly spicy bowl of the day. The thumbnail above shows our orders, mild on the left, medium in the middle, and extra spicy at right (that one was Cody)].
As you might expect, the Katsuura Tantanmen lacks the creaminess of a typical Japanese tantanmen, and the soup is rather thin as a result. A typical shoyu ramen soup replaces the sesame paste while still implementing the spicy rayu chili oil. Broth can differ from shop to shop, but it's primarily a chicken and/or pork stock with a traditional Japanese dashi pulled from various dried fish incorporated afterwards. Garlic, white onions and minced pork are sauteed with the Rayu chili oil and added to the bowl. Noodles are carefully placed within the combined soup and can vary from fat to thin, firm to soft, based on the shop. Typically you’ll see more traditional Chinese-style yellow egg noodles, as that's more authentic to the dish served in the 1950s. A large mound of thinly sliced negi tops the finished bowl, which is served immediately after the toppings are done frying to ensure the soup is piping hot. Rayu chili oil coats the surface encapsulating the delicious soup and heat below, promising a scorched tongue for the overzealous customer.
Every shop will instruct you to mix the soup thoroughly before taking your first sip. The ramen is far from emulsified and the thick layer of the chili oil is begging for a good mix to get all the flavors incorporated into one bite. Spice levels can be adjusted at most shops — from almost no bite to insanely hot — but medium spiciness is the level recommended by Ezawa in order to taste the dish as it was invented. Toppings such as pork chashu, corn, wakame seaweed, butter and menma bamboo shoots are available at some of the Katsuura Tantanmen shops, but Ezawa's pared back original version is a good place to start.
A protected species
With a population of just 16,000 people, it's unlikely that Katsuura could possibly sustain the nearly 50 Katsuura Tantanmen shops scattered throughout the small city. Most, if not all, of these shops flourish due to the fact that the dish has become a well-known domestic tourist attraction. Since 2005, Japan has hosted a national cooking competition for chefs working in the category that's known locally as "B-kyu gourmet cuisine," or "B-class" food — basically, comfort food: reasonably priced, home-style dishes prepared with high-quality, locally sourced ingredients. The annual "B-1 Grand Prix" cooking tournament pits Japan's 47 prefectures against each other to present their best local meal, and a judging panel decides which dish reigns supreme. The competition has been a massive popular success, with the winning city usually seeing a huge influx of visitors from all around the country coming to try the prize-winning local specialty.
After Katsuura took the top prize at the B-1 Grand Prix in 2015, even more Katsuura Tantanmen shops began opening in the area to capitalize on the tourist boom. In an effort to maintain quality control, the name Katsuura Tantanmen became a registered trademark owned by the Katsutan Sendan organization, an association of long-standing shops. Today, if any shop lists “Katsuura Tantanmen” as a menu item in Japan, you can be assured that they went through a thorough vetting process before being allowed to use the moniker. One of the reasons why the style is seldom seen outside of the city, apart from a few very rare examples, is because the organization has elected to keep the trademark tied to Katsuura to help the community reap the benefits of their Grand Prix popularity. Even the ingredients themselves, from the rayu chili oil to the katsuobushi and the niboshi dried sardines used in the soup are sourced from local purveyors located on the market street just beside the main port. Through a self-sustaining and cooperative approach, Katsuura's local tantanmen masters have protected their historic ramen dish and ensured that it remains in its natural habitat. Ramen hunters and food lovers will be trekking there for years to come.
The final shop we visited in Katsuura appealed to us for two reasons: It has one of the best views of any ramen shop we’ve ever visited, looking out over one of Katsuura’s popular surf beaches. Second, it promised to offer one of the most bizarre ramen hybrids we’d ever come across. Katsuura Taishoken, as the name suggests, is a shop with direct lineage to Higashi Ikebukuro Taishoken, home to the late, great Kazuo Yamagishi, the world renowned inventor of tsukemen. Taishoken-style tsukemen is an iconic variety of ramen intimately interwoven into the history of Tokyo — a world away from the sleepy rural fishing town of Katsuura, with its strangely spicy take on tantanmen. It turns out the founder of this shop trained under Yamagishi-san in Tokyo before returning to Katsuura where he decided to attempt to blend the Taishoken techniques and recipes he had learned in the capital with his hometown’s spicy specialty. Surprisingly, it sort of works: The light, niboshi-heavy Taishoken dipping soup comes layered with Katsuura’s tingling, spicy rayu chili oil, plus all of the potent garnish (garlic, minced pork, onion and negi). It’s also undeniably weird — the retro Tokyo flavors mixing with the aggressive spice of a fisherman’s street food. One cold beer (for those of us not driving) and we were cruising back towards Tokyo as the sun went down.
- Edited by Patrick Brzeski, produced collectively by the Ramen Beast team.