Fall 2013. My friend Shuhei Kitagawa and I were sitting in a cafe at the University of Washington, talking Japanese food. Shuhei was a college student at the time, on exchange from Waseda University in Tokyo, where he was studying economics. “Next time you’re in Tokyo,” he said, “you should try my favorite ramen place. It’s called Menchin.”
“What style of ramen is it? Shoyu? Tonkotsu?”
He shook his head. “Abura soba. It’s like ramen without broth.”
“Oh, you mean like tsukemen? Where they serve the broth on the side and you dip the noodles in it?”
“No, it’s not tsukemen.” Shuhei could sense my skepticism. What I was picturing looked more like a kitchen error than an actual dish. “Just try it.”
That winter, I went to Tokyo. I rode the Toden Arakawa line, one of the city’s last remaining streetcars, through urban backyards and side streets, sweating along with the rest of the passengers on the heated tram in our winter coats. Finally, I got off at Waseda University, Shuhei’s alma mater, and made my way to Menchintei (often called Menchin for short).
I ordered the regular abura soba (600 yen, about $5.30) plus an onsen tamago (100 yen), which is similar to a sous vide egg, although they were traditionally cooked in sub-boiling hot spring (onsen) water. Because this is a place that serves ravenous college students, you can get a slightly larger serving of noodles for free, or increasingly gut-busting quantities topping out at four times the noodles for an extra 400 yen. (Menchintei’s website tries really hard to pitch abura soba as health food.)
The noodles came topped with menma (bamboo shoots), a slice of chashu pork, shredded nori, and the soft egg. It looked exactly as Shuhei described: like a bowl of ramen prepared by a stoned college student who forgot to make the soup. Or like something you’d whip up for a picky kid: “Here’s some noodles and a hunk of meat. Eat.”
Once I stirred it up, however, I discovered the secret at the bottom of the bowl: a spoonful each of shoyu tare (soy sauce-flavored seasoning base) and fat. The tare, fat, and egg coat the noodles, giving them a carbonara-like silkiness. The counter also offered a lineup of optional toppings: squeeze bottles of vinegar and chili oil, a sesame grinder, chili paste, and black pepper.
In short, abura soba is ramen with a great editor. Most versions of ramen involve a trio of liquid elements: fat (often lard), tare (a concentrated seasoning base), and broth. This is the three-legged stool. Leave out the fat or tare and you just have shitty ramen. Leave out the broth, however, and something odd and beautiful happens. Ramen broth carries flavors, but it also masks them. Take it away, and the result is a bit like yakisoba—only slicker, smoother, and more concentrated, with the punch of soy sauce and vinegar.
As I walked around the perimeter of the Waseda campus on a rainy Friday last October, I saw no fewer than ten shops advertising the stuff. They’re easy to spot, because “abura soba” literally translates to “oil noodles,” and every abura soba shop puts up a big signboard with the character for “oil”:
Abura soba has become so closely identified with the university that I saw an event flyer in a shop window that read 油そばを喰わぬもの、早大生にあらず, which is an absurdly poetic way of saying, “There are no Waseda University students who don’t eat abura soba.” This is barely an exaggeration, according to Souta Nishimuta, president of the Waseda Ramen Club. “Waseda students call abura soba our soul food,” he says, and its popularity is no mystery. “Because the broth is the most expensive component of ramen, if you lose the soup you can keep the price point down.” Instead of $10 for a bowl of ramen in soup, you can get abura soba made with high-quality ingredients and a massive bolus of noodles for $6. At the university’s culture festival in November, the ramen club set up an abura soba stand and quickly sold 2,500 bowls.
The Waseda area was perhaps destined to become abura soba central. There are several other universities in the area, and in addition, college students come here from other neighborhoods to participate in intercollege circles, clubs any student can join regardless of which university they attend, explains Nishimuta. “So it’s a gathering place for students from all over Tokyo—or, looking at it from another perspective, it’s a gathering place for abura soba consumers.”
One of the most popular abura soba restaurants near Waseda is called Musashino Abura Gakkai, which means “Musashino Oil Research Institute.” Musashino is the area of western Tokyo where abura soba was born. It’s not a dish with an ancient heritage; it originated at a shop called Chinchintei in the 1960s, but didn’t become well-known or trendy until the 1990s. It’s also known as mazesoba (“mixed noodles”), aesoba or aemen (“noodles with dressing”), and shirunashi (“without soup”).
Since the rise of abura soba, other shops have taken it to ludicrous extremes. One recent hit, a restaurant called Roast Beef Abura Soba Beefst (there are conflicting reports as to whether this is pronounced to rhyme with “beast” or as “beef street”) in Shinjuku, tops its noodles with slices of rare roast beef and actually offers a carbonara variation with cheese and a fresh wasabi cream sauce base instead of soy sauce. Another, the Junk Garage chain, junks up its mazesoba with a heap of garlic, raw egg, crispy noodles, and mayo.
But I’m partial to the original, with its soft-cooked egg and immoderate applications of vinegar and chili oil. So is Shuhei Kitagawa—now a Waseda graduate, but still partial to Menchintei. “The first time I had abura soba was my freshman year, after English class. My English teacher, an American, said Menchin was delicious, so we went. The first time I ate it, I didn’t think it was very tasty. But after that I went again, and I thought, wow, this is delicious. After that I started going three to five times a week.” He’s down to a once-a-week habit now, although he also frequents another abura soba shop, Kasugatei, near his office.
Unfortunately, I live about 4500 miles from Waseda. But my addiction is still easy to feed, because abura soba is the only style of ramen that’s easy to make at home. No long boiling of pork bones—just store-bought frozen noodles (I’m partial to Sun Noodle brand), a seasoning base that comes together in minutes, a spoonful of oil, and whatever toppings you like.
Every time I’ve made ramen at home in the past, it’s either been a multi-day affair to rival a French Laundry Cookbook recipe or a mediocre compromise made with simplified (or worse, canned) broth. But when I make abura soba, it takes 10 minutes and the result transports me right back to Menchin—especially if I happen to be wearing a ragged college sweatshirt. I begin with this recipe from the blog Cherry on my Sundae. A fried egg is every bit as satisfying as a sous vide one, and if I don’t have homemade chashu pork on hand, I’ll gleefully substitute Chinese roast pork, shredded rotisserie chicken, or even no meat. (And I’ve made it with plain old refined peanut oil instead of lard and it was still great.)
When I got back from Tokyo, I went for coffee with my friend Yuko, who grew up in Wakayama, Japan, but has lived in Seattle for many years. Yuko asked me what I ate, and one dish leapt to mind. “I went to a couple of great abura soba places,” I told her. “One near Waseda University, and one—”
“Excuse me, what is abura soba?”
“Oh, it’s like ramen but without the soup. It’s just tare, fat, noodles and toppings. Usually you add vinegar and chile oil to taste and stir it all together.”
The topic drifted, but about two minutes later, Yuko said, “Hang on a minute, I’m still thinking about this abura soba thing. Is it the same as tsukemen?”