Japan’s first ramen chain, Ippudo, goes vegan


TOKYO – Ippudo redefined the dining experience tonkotsu ramen. When the restaurant chain was founded in 1985, it came up with a rich and flavorful tonkotsu broth recipe – a sublime milky white pork bone soup.

The wood-themed interiors of the chain stores create a warm and relaxing atmosphere. Jazz played in the background adds an air of sophistication. The ramen is served in elegant Arita porcelain bowls. The idea is to dispel the image of tonkotsu ramen as a smelly, unrefined dish. The strategy has paid off, attracting many women to its stores.

Now Ippudo is cooking up another ramen revolution. She has developed a tonkotsu dish that does not contain pork or other animal products.

The difficult project began when Hidenobu Tomita, sales manager at Chikaranomoto, the Fukuoka-based company that operates the chain, overheard a store manager complaining that some customers couldn’t find a dish of ramen they could eat in. due to religious or dietary restrictions.

In recent years, ramen has made its way into many countries beyond Japan. The country was experiencing a tourism boom before the COVID pandemic hit, but many potential Ippudo customers were unable to take advantage of their offers because the chain specializes in tonkotsu.

Hidenobu Tomita led Ippudo’s efforts to create plant-based “tonkotsu” ramen.

To reach people who don’t eat pork, the chain has started working on a vegetarian recipe. The project team was encouraged by a market research in Japan which showed an increasing demand for vegan food. In addition, some of the chain’s foreign restaurants were already serving ramen dishes in vegetable broth. The team considered using seafood but abandoned the idea in favor of plant-based dishes.

Unsurprisingly, creating a herbal soup to taste like Ippudo’s famous tonkotsu broth was the hardest part. Tomita enlisted the help of Fuji Oil, a Japanese processor. By trial and error, they concocted a soy milk-based soup flavored with mushrooms and kombu seaweed for richness and flavor. Ippudo says the herbal soup is probably the closest approximation to real tonkotsu.

The next challenge was to find a replacement for chashu – slices of braised pork belly that usually cover tonkotsu ramen. This is made from scratch from a paste of red beans. Vegan noodles are made without eggs. After three years of struggle, Ippudo’s vegetarian ramen was finally ready to serve.

In February, 45 Ippudo restaurants in Japan began offering a limited number of plant-based ramen dishes. They were an instant hit.

“While my husband frequents Ippudo, my kids and I are vegans and we’ve never been before. This is the first time our whole family has eaten at Ippudo,” said a satisfied customer.

Chihiro Miyazaki launched Soranoiro, a chain of ramen restaurants specializing in plant-based noodles.

Plant-based ramen is appealing to health-conscious and environmentally conscious customers, according to the chain. “We have been very happy to hear from satisfied customers as our mission is to provide them with the best ramen eating experience,” said Tomita. The chain plans to transform a restaurant in central Tokyo into a store dedicated to plant-based noodles. He’s also working on new varieties of vegan ramen.

Ippudo even plans to help other ramen restaurants come up with their own vegan dishes. “Plant-based ramen has an important role to play” in improving the overall sustainability of the industry, said Tomita.

“Our estimates show that the Japanese plant-based food market will grow at an average annual rate of 27% in the coming years,” said Hajime Mizukami, who oversees health and food sector research. at TPC Marketing Research.

The figure, released in May last year, was intended to offer advice to the retail industry based on projections of sales of plant-based food products in supermarkets and other stores. But the same trend can be seen in the restaurant industry, according to the Osaka-based market research specialist. “Plant-based ramen has the potential to win the hearts and minds of health-conscious and beauty-conscious consumers, as well as people who have avoided ramen for religious and dietary reasons,” Mizukami said.

Soranoiro’s signature Veggie Soba ramen is a favorite at his Tokyo Station restaurant.

Plant-based foods are spreading around the world. Growing concerns about the health of the planet are bad news for the livestock industry, which emits huge amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. An increasing number of people are opting for vegetarianism and veganism and avoiding animal fats for environmental, health or other reasons. Demand for vegetarian and vegan food is not as strong in Japan as it is in other wealthy countries, but companies are flocking to the market amid a “growing wave of interest in healthy, low-calorie and low-calorie diets. low in sugar, ”Mizukami said.

A smaller ramen chain, Soranoiro, has developed a strong following by offering vegetarian and vegan ramen dishes to health-conscious consumers.

Founded in 2011, Soranoiro manages four restaurants in Tokyo. His Veggie Soba is made entirely from vegetables. It has a creamy broth flavored with the delicate sweetness of carrots. Its thick and elastic homemade noodles are orange in color because the paprika is kneaded into the dough. It adorns some of its ramen dishes with colorful and flavorful accents like tomato and sweet potato.

Soranoiro founder Chihiro Miyazaki, who has spent nearly a decade making ramen for Ippudo, is another ramen visionary who hopes to breathe new life into the industry.

After the pandemic in Japan, Miyazaki opened a bakery next to the Soranoiro flagship store in Tokyo. A popular menu item is yakisoba bread – tasty stir-fried noodles stuffed in a hot dog bun. In addition to being a tasty accompaniment to bread, it helps reduce waste.

Mugen’s Shiifudo Restaurant offers ramen served in mackerel broth.

All of the menu items reflect a commitment to sustainability, but Miyazaki is no crusader. “It is natural to try to offer varied choices to customers while reducing food waste. I have never tried to be particularly committed to the SDGs,” he said, referring to the development goals. sustainable development of the United Nations. Sustainability is just an underlying assumption in its business strategy, Miyazaki added.

A new ramen restaurant that opened in Tokyo’s Kanda district in May is built on the concept of turning food waste into a competitive advantage. Shiifudo Restaurant – a play on the word “seafood” – offers menus that include seafood-based broths such as mackerel, salmon and squid. Most of the fish used to make the soup are deemed unfit for sale for size and other reasons by wholesalers and would otherwise be wasted.

Mugen, the shop operator based in Tokyo, also uses the fish in his Japanese-style pubs and sushi restaurants. The president of the company, Masahiro Uchiyama, said that operating different types of restaurants can help reduce food waste of all kinds. The strategy not only reduces wastage of marine resources, but also helps Mugen forge closer ties with fish wholesalers, Uchiyama said.

These restaurant chains emphasize how contributing to the health of people and the planet can also be beneficial for the bottom line.

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