The Surprising History Of Nagoya’s Spicy “Taiwan” Ramen

The Surprising History Of Nagoya’s Spicy “Taiwan” Ramen

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Taiwan ramen
Picture: まちゃー / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
It may not actually be from Taiwan, but Nagoya's "Taiwan ramen" is quickly becoming one of the region's most famous dishes.

Unless you live in Nagoya or regularly visit the central Japanese metropolis, you’ve likely never heard of Taiwan ramen (台湾ラーメン). Even Japanese people are surprised to learn what Nagoya’s most popular regional ramen is. A spicy noodle dish, it stands in stark contrast to Nagoya’s other popular dishes like misokatsu and tebasaki.

And the kicker? It’s not even from Taiwan.

What gives?

Coming To Nagoya

Although I had visited Nagoya when I was studying at Oita University, my first real taste (to use a pun) of the area came when I met the woman who would soon become my wife. Nagoya born and bred, she still lived in her hometown, so I often made the trip from Tokyo to see her on the weekends. A

long the way, I learned about Nagoya’s fantastic food culture, which rivals that of nearby Osaka. With its focus on a dark and rich local variety of miso called hatcho miso, this red miso (in contrast to the more typical white miso) is a base ingredient in a number of dishes, including misonikomi udon.

After getting married and moving to Nagoya myself, I did some exploring. I was keen to try some local ramen. Having lived in both Tokyo, the ramen capital of Japan, and Kyushu, where tonkotsu is king, I had developed a taste for kotteri (こってり) ramen, or ramen with a rich soup. I assumed that because Nagoya was known for its miso, the favorite local ramen would have a thick miso base.

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But while there are a number of restaurants that do a mean miso ramen, it turns out that it’s not the regional specialty.

For that, I’d have to stop thinking Nagoya and start thinking Taiwan.

You Want Taiwan Ramen

Taiwan ramen
Picture by the author

“You want Taiwan ramen,” my wife explained to me when I complained that I couldn’t figure out what Nagoya ramen was.

“It’s from Taiwan?” I asked, incredulously.

After being assured that it was not, I set out to find a place in my neighborhood that served it. A 20-minute bike ride away and I was sitting at a counter with a bowl of Taiwan ramen in front of me.

The first thing I noticed was how red it was, with chili powder covering the bean sprouts and chives, and Chinese chili oil floating on the top of the soup. Underneath the vegetables was ground meat, impregnated with more chili powder. The noodles under it all were kinky and springy.

Together, it made for a tasty if spicy ramen experience. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting. This was much closer to the kind of noodle soup you find at Chinese restaurants in Japan rather than your usual ramen.

I wanted to know more. So I asked an expert, someone who knows both Nagoya and Chinese food. I asked my father-in-law.

Ramen Hasegawa

Fujimoto Shoji, my father-in-law, has been cooking Chinese food professionally since he was a teenager and has owned his own restaurant, Ramen Hasegawa Sakae-ten, for more than 20 years. Located in the busy shopping district of Sakae in downtown Nagoya, the restaurant serves up a variety of Chinese-inspired dishes.

One of their most popular menu items is Taiwan ramen. In fact, at lunchtime, it’s part of almost every order.

The appeal of Taiwan ramen, according to Shoji, is the combination of the spiciness and the soy sauce-base soup. Ramen Hasegawa’s Taiwan ramen is particularly emblematic of this, with a full soup presence that balances the heat well. What sets it —and all Taiwan ramen variations—apart from other Chinese-style noodle soups, though, is the spicy minced meat. This is the key element of the dish, the part that helps it stand apart in a crowded menu.

I asked Shoji when he first tried Taiwan ramen. “I was 21 years old,” he remembered. “I went randomly to Misen to eat it. I thought it was spicy and delicious.”

Misen. I know that name. It’s a Chinese restaurant chain in Nagoya.

He looked me in the eye. “Misen, of course, created Taiwan ramen.”

Misen, Of Course

Taiwan ramen
Picture: Kappaの旦那 / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

The first Misen opened in Nagoya’s Imaike area in 1962. Specializing in Taiwanese cuisine, the restaurant was popular with locals from the start.

Around the turn of the 1970s, the owner, Kuo Ming You, began experimenting with a recipe that combined elements of tantsumen, a noodle dish from his native Taiwan, and spicy chili powder. Originally made for his employees as makanai (賄い), the meal for workers at a restaurant, his regular customers began to take notice and order it as well.

As for the name, it was simply a throwaway term for a non-menu item. Kuo Ming You was Taiwanese. It looked like ramen. So “Taiwan ramen” stuck.

And then something special happened that would propel Kuo Ming You’s hidden menu item into the limelight.

In the latter half of the 1980s, Japan went through one of its periodic health food booms. This time, it was gekikara (激辛), or super spicy, food. “Spicy food promotes weight loss! Spicy food gives you stamina!” crowed the news reports.

According to a 2021 article in the Japan Times about the recent, fourth(!) gekikara boom, the first one was triggered by the debut of Koikeya Co.’s Karamucho hot chili potato chips. “Gekikara became a buzzword,” the article explained.

The trend spread around the country. Suddenly, spicy dishes, which had previously languished at the bottoms of menus (or in the case of Misen, entirely off the menu), now rose to the top. Taiwan ramen became a huge seller. By 1999, when an article appeared on the runaway ramen in Convention Nagoya, a local trade magazine, helpfully reposted on Misen’s homepage, about half of all orders at Misen were for Taiwan ramen.

It wasn’t just Misen filling bowls of Taiwan ramen either. Former employees, trained in Misen’s kitchens, would set out on their own and open new Taiwan ramen restaurants. Other, local ramen joints added it to their bills of fare alongside more traditional staples like miso and shoyu ramen.

The next generation, like Fujimoto Shoji, eventually opened restaurants serving their own, unique take on the dish. According to a 2000 article in the Chunichi Shimbun newspaper (also reprinted on the restaurant’s website), out of the 380 registered ramen restaurants in Nagoya, more than half were serving Taiwan ramen. And that was just within Nagoya city limits.

You could also get Taiwan ramen throughout the prefecture of Aichi and into neighboring ones like Gifu. It had become a phenomenon.

The Ingredients

Order a bowl of Taiwan ramen and what can you expect?

As I mentioned, there are some minor differences between restaurants. But the star of a bowl of Taiwan ramen is the ground pork. Known as Taiwan mince, it’s mixed with garlic and togarashi chili powder.

Along with the Taiwan mince, you’ll also usually get bean sprouts, chives, and leeks, with chopped red chilis on top. The soy sauce-based chicken soup may also be mixed with rayu (ラー油) Chinese chili oil, depending on how spicy you like it.

Spice Is The Key

Japanese food is rarely hot. Restaurants claiming to be “spicy” often disappoint non-Japanese customers. Spice fiends, take note, as Taiwan ramen is actually pretty fiery.

An article on Taiwan ramen on the blog Centrip, written by a Taiwanese national, says, “Japanese people don’t often eat spicy food, so the hotness displayed on the menu is often thought of to be much lower, but the level of hotness (of Taiwan ramen) is nothing to laugh at! Taiwan ramen is hot enough to make you sweat and cry.”

Misen’s regular version, which is marked with three chili peppers on the menu, is no joke. Although my mouth likes spicy food, my stomach does not, so I usually ask the chef to tone down the spiciness.

At Misen, they offer a toned-down version: “American Taiwan ramen”, which they identify with one, lonely chili pepper. I’m not positive, but I think this association of American with watered-down comes from the “American” coffee you can get at coffee shops in Japan.

You may be tempted to ask the chef to add some extra fire. However, you really should try Taiwan ramen with its spice level at that recommended by the restaurant. In the 2000 Chunichi article, Kuo Mie, the wife of the restaurant’s founder, explained it well. “The whole point of Taiwan ramen is the proper balance between the soup and heat. If it’s just hot, you won’t fully understand the deliciousness of the soup. And that would be a shame.”

Suited To Nagoyans

Taiwan ramen
Picture by the author

While the gekikara boom helped spread the word of Taiwan ramen, it alone didn’t sustain the dish’s popularity. Booms are notoriously short-lived. No, it was Nagoya’s food culture itself that helped ensure Taiwan ramen would stick around for the long haul.

I’m from California where many of the Chinese restaurants serve Hong Kong-style cuisine. Japan is different though. Here, Taiwanese food dominates. This is true in Nagoya as well.

I asked my father-in-law how Taiwan ramen differed other, typical food from Taiwan. His answer: “This is Nagoya’s take on Taiwanese food.” What he meant was that the flavors are more suited to the tastes of Nagoyans.

It’s true that Taiwan prefers less intense flavors. Although Sichuan cuisine is popular in Taiwan, for example, restaurants usually tone down the intense heat of the original dishes for the local palette.

Nagoya, however, went in the opposite direction. Mitsuo Makino, the then head of Aichi Prefecture’s Chinese Restaurant Association, made the association between the kind of food Nagoyans naturally favor and Taiwan ramen in the same Chunichi story.

“People from Nagoya like strong flavors. They eat hatcho miso and use tamari instead of regular soy sauce. Just as they eat misonikomi udon as a regular, everyday meal, they don’t feel any discomfort accepting Taiwan ramen.”

Taiwan Ramen Is Just The Start

Thanks to the enduring popularity of Taiwan ramen in Nagoya and around Aichi, your spicy Taiwan options aren’t limited to just the original menu item. There are plenty of additional ramen varieties out there too.

On my father-in-law’s menu, you can find shio (salt) and miso Taiwan ramen. Other places will even do a soupless Taiwan ramen.

Mazesoba Taiwan is gaining in popularity too, combining two trends into one. Don’t feel like going all the way to a restaurant? You can find instant Taiwan ramen at local supermarkets.

Taiwan has also jumped the ramen fence and infiltrated other dishes. Taiwan yakisoba is another option available at Ramen Hasegawa. You can also find Taiwan curry (lots of Taiwan mince plus chili oil) and even Taiwan ankake spaghetti, a spectacular meeting of Nagoya food flavors.

Think Nagoya When You Eat Taiwan

If you’re anxious to try Taiwan ramen, the best place is, of course, Nagoya. Maybe I’m biased but I prefer my father-in-law’s place.

For the most authentic experience though, it has to be Misen. There are shops all around the city, including the original Imaike location. There’s even one in Nagoya Station if you’re just passing through.

The rest of Japan has yet to catch on to Taiwan ramen like it has other regional ramens like Sapporo and Hakata. But maybe you can find one in your area. A quick Google search reveals a few places in the greater Tokyo area, including branches of Misen.

Like Oita-style toriten, Taiwan ramen is a popular local dish that really deserves a bigger audience. My father-in-law thinks so too.

“I want to see it become popular all over Japan. I want people to think of Nagoya when they eat it.”

Sources

Consumers seek solace in super spicy foods. Japan Times

由来と人気の秘密は? Misen homepage

台湾ラーメンこそ「名古屋ラーメン」って本当? Misen homepage

Taiwan ramen is Nagoyan cuisine? Here are 4 must-eat so-called Taiwan foods in Nagoya, tried and tested by a Taiwan native! Centrip Japan

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