House of Ramen

It’s a staple of a U.S. college student’s diet in the form of yellow Maggi-mee packages. But for the Japanese, ramen is more of an art form. 

Shoyu ramen (Siv Channa)
Shoyu ramen (Siv Channa)

At Bekkan Ramen in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district, its 57-year-old Hong Kong-born proprietor, Francis So, stays true to Japanese tradition with his own creation of the popular dish.

Mr. So received training in noodle-flinging—the intricate display where a chef flings a lump of dough through the air to create the thin strips that make noodles—in Tokyo, where he lived for six years attending school.

The clientele at his ramen house today, which opened in October 2010 on Street 334, is about 30 percent Japanese, he said. And like in Japan, this small noodle house adorned in Japanese screens and kitsch “No Smoking” signs, allows customers to watch the cooks prepare their meal.

“When working in a ramen shop in Japan, for everything, they demand it to be perfect. Every time for everything, they ask for no more, no less,” Mr. So said at his restaurant in a recent interview.

For example, the noodles must be steeped in boiling hot water for exactly a minute and 30 seconds before they are strained; a timer is set once the noodles are submerged and beeps incessantly when the time is up. The soup-—often an intricate mix of Japanese sauces and fresh ingredients, such as cabbage, leeks and seaweed-—can simmer for up to four to six hours, depending on the type of broth one desires.

Mr. So’s Japanese clientele favor the shoyu ramen, which has a soup that is soy-sauce based.

Unlike the other ramen items on Bekkan’s menu whose soups are darker, the shoyu ramen soup is a clear amber color.

Producing this particular soup requires steeping chicken and pork bones in water for four to five hours over a strong fire, while adding in other fresh ingredients and, most importantly, Japanese soy sauce. The dish, which takes about 10 minutes to prepare once the broth is ready, comes in a generous serving beautifully accented with spring onions, seaweed and bamboo shoots.

“After you’ve eaten everything on the menu, you’ll always come back to the shoyu,” Mr. So said.

His other menu items should not be ignored though. There is the tonkotsu ramen, which has more of a pork flavor and is heavier in quality. Bathed in a smooth soup with a rich, milky consistency, thin slices of pork are delicately positioned on the dish’s surface. The tonkotsu ramen simply bursts with flavor.

Another Japanese favorite is the miso ramen, which is cooked in a similar manner as the tonkotsu, except this time, using miso soup reduction. Rich in sesame taste, the miso ramen is a good alternative to the tonkotsu if one is looking for a lighter culinary experience.

While Mr. So is the first to say that ramen is his specialty and should be the one thing a customer eats when visiting his noodle house, the tea eggs that he serves as a side dish is also phenomenal. These eggs are boiled for exactly five minutes, leaving the yolk inside still soft and creamy. They are then dipped into a special soy sauce mix that has had pork boiled in it for three hours. The tea eggs, with their herbaceous and salty lining, serve as a perfect compliment to a piping hot bowl of noodles.

Declaring that “Asians like noodles,” Mr. So said that ramen is in its own class of this category, as it is made with a different type of wheat and, at least at his shop, there are no artificial flavors to hamper the true taste of it.

“I cannot live without noodles. Even if I don’t open my shop, I would still make it for myself every day,” Mr. So said.

The exterior of Bekkan Ramen might make it easy to miss, but stepping inside will bring to mind a small noodle house in Tokyo. Its dishes will undoubtedly turn a casual patron into a devoted noodle-slurper, as the Japanese do when showing their appreciation for good ramen. Bekkan Ramen is opened everyday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. during lunch, and again from 6 to 9:30 p.m. for dinner.

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