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Local gourmet noodles the star of Fukuoka stalls

(The streets of Fukuoka light up with colorful food stalls)

FUKUOKA -- Come nightfall, the streets of Fukuoka light up with colorful food stalls, frustrating foodies who want to try all the various takes on the local favorite.
Fukuoka's fleet of yatai are considered to be the largest single collection of street stalls dishing out local cuisine in the nation.
It was just a few years ago that "yaki-ramen (pan-fried ramen noodles)," a local favorite spawned in this neighborhood, made the jump from a hometown specialty to a nationwide favorite. In these times when more and more people are exploring the world of "B-class local gourmet dishes" -- cheap, simple and yummy local Japanese temptations, yaki-ramen has risen to star status.
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The origin of yaki-ramen goes back 43 years. It was invented by a husband and wife team, Susumu Koganemaru, 78, and Kazuko, 76. They run a popular stall called "Kokin chan" in the busy Tenjin central district of Fukuoka, which always has a long line.
"One of our regulars complained that it was too hot for ramen during the summer," Koganemaru explained on the decision to throw noodles on the skillet. He thought slurping the hot broth made the heat worse. So he came up with a new dish that focused on the noodles.
Koganemaru precooked ramen noodles till they were slightly soft and tender; then stir-fried the noodles with vegetables and pork on the grill.

He ladled tonkotsu broth onto to the noodles and finished it with a drizzle of fruit-based sauce. The noodles glistened in a dark-colored sauce, like ordinary yakisoba (stir-fried noodles). But the texture was wonderfully and distinctively different. Soon other stalls and izakayas (Japanese style pubs) were putting yaki-ramen on their menus.
For a long time yaki-ramen remained well-known to all the locals but not to most outsiders. Foodies had to go to Fukuoka to taste it. But all that changed in 2006. Yaki-ramen made its nationwide debut when Nagatanien Co., a major manufacturer of condiments and instant food, put out a new packaged noodle product calling it "Hakata Yatai-fu Yaki-ramen (Yaki-ramen Hakata food stall style). "

Keiko Ouchi, 33, was in charge of developing the product at Nagatanien. She recalls that the product marketing and planning department was having a difficult time trying to come up with a noodle product for the spring/summer season.
Ouchi tried the Internet seeking inspiration from "gotochi ramen," local specialty ramen noodles nationwide. When she found yaki-ramen, she knew this could be it. Her first thought was: "The idea of saute'ing the noodles is novel and the naming is pretty unique."
However, she had no inkling whatsoever of what it would taste like. So off she went to Fukuoka. Teaming with a Nagatanien colleague from the company's Hakata branch, she went around tasting yaki-ramen at 10 or so stalls on a single night.

Ouchi said: "Every yatai stall had its own unique taste. Every place its own character. So I knew that we could do our own 'Nagatanien' version." The team aimed for a no-hassle dish that could be cooked up with a frying pan, incorporating vegetables in a delicious way. Sales for the first fiscal year easily doubled the target. Yaki-ramen became a regular product at Nagatanien, going on sale from March through August each year.
(Yaki-ramen / 焼きラーメン)

Yaki-ramen has become a staple at souvenir shops in Fukuoka. Sometimes, the noodles show up in restaurants in Tokyo. Koganemaru, who made it all happen, mused: "Isn't that something? It makes me so happy. I better not forget my original intentions -- I am going to try keep on serving the tastiest yaki-ramen around."

Actually, the number of food stalls in Hakata, Fukuoka's commercial district, is shrinking. During its heyday, there were more than 400 stalls lining the streets. At last count, in August this year, there were 155. Prompted by voices that question business being carried out on public streets, ever since the 1990s, both the Fukuoka prefectural police and the city of Fukuoka has moved toward limiting newcomers. Permits issued to stall holders are only valid for one generation only; inheriting is not allowed.
On Sept. 16, the city of Fukuoka launched a "study group to seek co-existence with yatai." Tomohiko Usui, a planning division official for the city government, but better known as "yatai chief," said food stalls are an integral part of Fukuoka.
"I want to listen to what various people have to say as we work on this issue," said Usui, 26.
Yaki-ramen was born from the friendly closeness that can only happen at a tiny food stall counter. Fukuoka's yatai culture is still alive and kicking. The vibes can be felt among its forest of tall buildings.

By TS on Oct 17, 2011
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Author:T. SATOH