Japan is no stranger to combinations of sweet and savory flavors. After all, this is the country that came up with sakuramochi: a sweet rice cake stuffed with red bean paste and wrapped in a cherry leaf that’s been pickled in salt. And then of course there’s the famous tamagoyaki dish: a rolled omelette made with soy sauce and sugar. Given all of that, the existence of a chocolate-flavored ramen shouldn’t really come as a surprise. And yet it does because… really? Ramen with chocolate?
First, a little background: between now and February 14, the popular ramen chain store Korakuen is rolling out a limited-edition noodle dish in honor of Valentine’s Day, when Japanese women give gifts of chocolate to the men in their lives. So the dish definitely makes sense thematically but how does it taste? I decided to find out.
Life is Like a Bowl of Chocolate Ramen
The advertisements described the chocolate ramen as noodles in a soy sauce-based soup mixed with cacao oil, with an additional chocolate bar thrown into the mix. If nothing else, I was at least expecting the dish to smell pleasant, but that wasn’t my first impression. First of all, I didn’t get the chocolate bar in the soup, only a small chocolate snack on a separate plate. Second, the aroma just wasn’t doing it for me. It was like one nostril was getting hints of cacao and the other of savory ramen, creating this weird clash instead of pleasant olfactory harmony.
Then came the time for the tasting. Once again, I was severely underwhelmed. The cacao oil did not mix well with the ramen stock, sinking to the bottom. This left the top layer mainly plain broth with just the faintest hint of chocolate. Seeing as the noodles and all the other ingredients aren’t cooked in the soup and therefore did not absorb any of the cacao oil flavors, the very first bites and slurps of the chocolate ramen were uninspiring. But as you keep on eating, the flavors start to seep in.
Thick as Chocolate Soup
As you go deeper into the soup where the oil has actually mixed with the soup, you finally get what you were promised: a marriage of sweet and savory flavors. Once you get to it, the combination pairs nicely. The cacao oil gives a slight creamier taste to the noodles and brings out the natural flavors of the dish’s other ingredients, especially the fatty pork.
The strangest part is that none of it really tastes like chocolate. The cacao adds a mix of sweetness and bitterness to the dish, but it never overpowers anything. It’s more like an enhancement of all the natural ramen flavors brought on by a surprise ingredient that your tastebuds might have trouble identifying at first.
It takes a while for the chocolate ramen to get going but it’s ultimately worth it. Chances are you’ve never had anything like it, and what may surprise you more is that it’s actually tasty. Who knew? Ramen and chocolate can work.
Good to the Last Drop
If you want to taste-test it yourself, visit a Korakuen restaurant before Valentine’s Day and prepare to pay ¥561 for the experience. Or, if there aren’t any Korakuen places nearby, you can look for other ramen eateries serving a version of this dish. Surprisingly, Korakuen wasn’t the first one to come up with the idea. One of the first chocolate ramen restaurants in Japan was Mensho Tokyo, which didn’t shock anyone seeing as the store was already pushing the boundaries of traditional ramen by using lamb meat in their dishes. So when they came out with their choco hitsuji (chocolate lamb) in 2016, most people’s reaction was “Yeah, that sounds like something that Mensho would do.” (What is surprising, though, is that the Mensho Tokyo store is located in Tokyo’s Korakuen area. There’s a coincidence for you.)
The response to Mensho’s sweet and savory ramen was largely positive, which is why they’ve continued the tradition to this day, also adding a chocolate tantanmen to their limited-edition Valentine’s Day menu. Does Mensho’s or Korakuen’s ramen rise beyond a mere novelty dish, though, is a question you’ll have to answer yourself by going out and trying it. You have until February 14.
If chocolate ramen isn’t enough to satisfy your sweet tooth this Valentine’s Day, check out our review of the new Chocolate Dunkel beer.