Michelle Widjaja once had 12 different bowls of mazesoba in one day. But her dedication to this broth-less ramen style didn't stop there; she also studied noodle-making in Osaka, Japan, and returned to Sydney to master this dish on her pasta-rolling machine.
"It was painful," she admits. The setting only allowed for fettuccine- and spaghetti-sized strands, so cranking out ramen-thick quantities was a real challenge. It's why she sought out a special noodle-making appliance for the IIKO Mazesoba eatery she's co-founded in Sydney's Darling Square, despite its hefty $20,000 price tag.
It's been worth it, though, as controlling the thickness, water content and chewiness of each springy noodle strand is key to presenting a satisfying bowl of this soup-free ramen.
IIKO Mazesoba is the first Sydney eatery dedicated to this broth-free but sauce-heavy dish. The name mazesoba translates in Japanese to "mixed noodles" and the idea is to stir the toppings and condiments (chilli oil, vinegar, runny egg, nori, etc) through the ramen as quickly as possible so the flavours coat the strands like a thick, multi-flavoured sauce.
Although Widjaja first tried this dish in Tokyo, it was actually her time working in Indonesia – where mazesoba chains have done well - that inspired her to bring the concept to Australia. "I saw the trend and I thought, 'there's no place here [in Sydney] that does it yet'."
"I saw the trend and I thought, 'there's no place here that does it yet.'
Mazesoba is known to be invented by a Taiwanese ramen shop owner in Nagoya, west of Tokyo. He combined dan dan noodles with dry ramen and the idea took off. "For a long time in Japan, they called it the Taiwan mazesoba," says Widjaja. "But that dish doesn't actually exist in Taiwan."
She plays with flavours on IIKO Mazesoba's menu, too. Widjaja offers a traditional version with chashu (Japanese pork belly that's been braised for four hours), and a spicier option with pork mince, "which is a Japanese twist on Chinese dan dan noodles". There's a chicken karaage mazesoba plus a secret fried chicken curry version.
The grilled prawn and slow-roasted tomato noodle bowl pays tribute to a Tokyo ramen shop she visited recently (which specialised in prawn broths), while the pesto and Parmesan in the same dish draws on Italian cuisine. For "a Japanese version of carbonara", mix the hot noodles and runny egg through the cheese mazesoba for a creamy, rich effect. There's also an excellent vegan mazesoba, packed with soy-braised mushrooms, corn, garlic oil and slow-roasted tomatoes – that one was inspired by New York's Ivan Ramen.
Every mazesoba serve gets an extra flavour hit from the additional chilli oil and kombu vinegar that you're meant to drizzle through your noodles. The key is to coat the toppings and condiments evenly by stirring the ramen thoroughly and quickly to avoid a big gloopy sauce-pool at the bottom of the bowl. "If you don't mix it, your last bite will be super salty," says Widjaja.
To open IIKO Mazesoba, Widjaja ran a crowdfunding campaign to help fund the hefty $20,000 noodle-making machine. To entice people, she produced rewards for supporters: like super-cute ramen socks, mazesoba pins and hats featuring IIKO Mazesoba's mascot: a shiba dog (after all, the restaurant's name "iiko" means a "good child" in Japanese and is typically said to pets).
To help promote the crowdfunding initiative, she enlisted the services (and star power) of Flynn the Shiba, a local dog with an Instagram following.
As a thank you, she recently hosted a party for him and eight of his dog friends at IIKO Mazesoba. Flynn himself is the epitome of a "good boy": when his owner attempts to sneeze, Flynn will actually fetch a tissue and offer it to her.
So what's next for IIKO Mazesoba? Well, Widjaja hopes to sell the merchandise in-store and introduce waste-free dishes.
"When we make our chashu, a lot of the pork fat goes to the top." So she skims it and turns it into a chashu-fat sponge cake. "I don't want to throw away that precious fat. I could do something with it," she says, noting the dessert has a nice smoky profile.
The fat could also be used in a caramel – an idea that Widjaja, who trained as a pastry chef, is up for.
"Even the noodle offcuts, we fry it and it becomes a snack for everyone. We might start selling it," she says.
Future plans also include dragging Widjaja's kakigori machine from home and using it to create shaved ice desserts in hojicha-tea or strawberry-cheesecake flavours.
She also wants to create a multigrain version of the noodles and tinker with aged ramen. She also has a wedding on the horizon.
"It's already booked," she says, and adds she doesn't foresee IIKO Mazesoba's demanding schedule holding up her plans.
"I'm optimistic," she says.
86 Hay Street, Haymarket NSW, (02) 9188 8534
Daily 11.30 am – 2.30pm, 5.30pm – 10pm
Dorayaki are a classic Japanese sweet treat, found everywhere from traditional sweet vendors to convenience stores. Essentially a hotcake sandwich, this version is filled with a rich and earthy combination of cream, chocolate and red bean paste.