• The Sake Manly chef cooks his mum's quick vegetable miso ramen. (Kenji Watabe)Source: Kenji Watabe
Ramen is Japanese soul food, according to chef Kenji Watabe who grew up eating his mum’s simple recipe.
By
Pilar Mitchell

31 Jul 2020 - 8:51 AM  UPDATED 31 Jul 2020 - 8:51 AM

Five o'clock in the evening is a time of day that comes to Kenji Watabe's mind when he thinks of home. By then, a school-aged Watabe, his older sister and parents would have arrived home from their day and his mum would have been in the kitchen cooking dinner.

"I would be watching TV and I could smell from the kitchen, a very warm, lovely smell, so I always went to the kitchen and talked to my mum," the Sake Manly ramen chef tells SBS Food.

"She let me help her cut vegetables. Whatever she needed I tried to help."

Watabe's education in traditional Japanese cooking came from his mum on those weekday nights and from his dad on the weekends.

"My dad liked to cook too. Every Sunday when he had a day off he would always cook the whole day from morning to night, a big meal for us," he says.

"He liked to make dumplings and his own dumpling skin, and he made nimono which is a vegetable and beef stew slow-cooked in one pot."

Watabe is from Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido,  Japan's northernmost island. "In winter it snows a lot, it's very cold," he says. "People love eating hot noodle soup like ramen.

"Ramen is Japanese soul food. It makes people's inner body warm, their stomach is full and they feel satisfied."

Kenji and his mum Kumiko play in the snow in Sapporo.

The restaurant version is similar to what Watabe cooks at Sake: soy or miso broth slowly simmered over eight hours and topped with hand-rolled, braised chashu. "At home ramen is once–a–week food. It's really quick, easy ramen. Vegetable miso soup in one saucepan, another pan to cook noodles and mix together."

Another popular Sapporo dish is lamb. In the early 20th century, the Japanese government established sheep farms to increase the country's wool production capacity. As trade liberalisation drove down the price of wool, farming became uneconomical. In Hokkaido, sheep farmers began raising sheep for meat rather than wool.

"Sapporo is famous for lamb. You marinade it one day or two days and barbecue for everyone. My family had the barbecue outside in our backyard and on Sunday for dinner, we ate a lot of lamb."

"Ramen is Japanese soul food. It makes people's inner body warm, their stomach is full and they feel satisfied."

Those early years shaped Watabe's love for cooking and his desire to become a chef. But when he finished school in the 90s, he had better prospects in office work. "I went to university, studied economics, and in the middle, I lost my dream. In Japan, it was quite hard to get a job so I decided to become an office worker and get a better salary.

"I never worked in an office though. While I was studying, I worked in a ramen shop as a casual chef and then I was back to my way, becoming a chef.”

Watabe quickly realised that a cooking career in Japan would be a difficult road. "In Japan, it's quite hard, you work long hours for low salary," he says. "I heard from my friends about working holiday visa to come to Australia and I realised many Australians are interested in Japanese culture and food. I thought I would become a chef in Australia."

He worked for hospitality giant Merivale, and at the Ocean Room, but meeting Raita Noda of the Chef's Kitchen, a Japanese restaurant that seats eight people for a chef's menu in Surry Hills, was life-changing.

"My turning point was meeting Raita Noda. He was my big boss. He taught me a lot of skills, and about Japanese food culture."

When Watabe's visa was about to expire, Noda sponsored him to stay. "I didn't want to go back to Japan."

But even in his adopted country, the memories of cooking with his mum are vivid and he says cooking when he was younger has formed the person he has become.

"I loved cooking when I was a little child. Now even though I cook in a restaurant and also at home, it's still my favourite hobby. I love to cook."

Love the story? Follow the author here: Instagram @cultofclothes.

Photographs by Kenji Watabe


Home-style spicy vegetable miso ramen

Serves 2

Ingredients 

  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil (for frying)
  • 2 tsp garlic, grated
  • 2 tsp ginger, grated
  • 200 g pork mince
  • 2 cups of mixed, chopped vegetables (I use bean sprouts, cabbage, carrot, onion, shallots and corn kernels)
  • 70 g white miso
  • 700 ml water
  • 1 tsp chilli powder 
  • 10 ml chilli oil 
  • 50 g doubanjiang (chilli bean paste)
  • 300 g ramen noodles (thick, curly, egg noodles available in Asian grocery stores) 
  • 20 ml sesame oil 
  • Salt and pepper, sugar and soy sauce, for seasoning
  1. Heat vegetable oil in a saucepan. Add garlic, ginger and doubanjiang and cook until aromatic (about 1 minute).
  2. Add pork mince, stir to combine, and cook on high until cooked through.
  3. Add vegetables, stir through miso, and cook for about 1 minute.
  4. Add water, chilli powder, chilli oil and bring to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 5 minutes, or until vegetables are cooked through. Taste for seasoning and adjust with salt and pepper, sugar and soy sauce, as required.
  5. Fill a separate saucepan with water and bring to the boil. Add noodles and cook for about 2 minutes, or according to packet instructions.
  6. Drain noodles and divide between two serving bowls. Top with ramen broth and vegetables.
  7. Drizzle each bowl of ramen with sesame oil and serve immediately.

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