Pakomen (排骨拉麺): The Comfort Food of Japanese Prime Ministers

Tonkotsu ramen broth

Origami, Capitol Hotel Tokyu

This dish of spare rib ramen—that the Japanese call pakomen (and if you read the kanji, it would be called pai gu la mian in Mandarin)—leapt out at me when I first studied the menu at the Capitol Hotel Tokyu’s all-day dining restaurant, Origami, on our most recent trip to Tokyo. It is part of the hotel’s old time favourites menu that consists of beloved dishes that that had been served at the old Capitol Tokyu Hotel for decades. As it turned out, pakomen was one of eight varieties of ramen that had been served at the Capitol Tokyu. It was the most popular, and the one dish that purportedly every Japanese prime minister has enjoyed. (Given that the hotel overlooks the prime minister’s office, this is highly conceivable). The popularity of Capitol Tokyu’s pakomen was so overwhelming that it continued to be served even when the hotel ceased to operate, right through the close to four years of construction it underwent before the new Capitol Hotel Tokyu was unveiled in 2010! A bestseller, it’s equally popular at lunchtime as it is after a night of drinking (Origami’s last order is at 11.30pm). I was totally intrigued.

I must confess that at first glance, pakomen looks simple. Even plain. But when you taste the perfectly fried pork loin (which has been dusted with potato starch to give it an appealingly crisp yet chewy crust) with a mouthful of springy, al dente noodle sitting in a sip of that beautifully balanced pork and chicken broth, you rapidly realise how incredibly complex the dish is. Origami’s pakomen is the work of a true master.

Origami chef, Capitol Hotel Tokyu

Fortunately, my unbridled enthusiasm for pakomen scored me an audience with chef Koichi Sasaki who heads Origami’s kitchen. He revealed that for him, how the pork is marinated and fried, the depth of flavour in the broth, as well as the springiness of the cooked noodle are the keys to a great pakomen. The Capitol Hotel Tokyu-style pakomen, chef Sasaki explained, has pork loin marinated with soy, sugar and sake. And it is dusted with potato starch seasoned with curry powder before it’s fried. His broth, which is made fresh daily, consists of pork and chicken bones as well as chicken bouillon, leeks, garlic and ginger simmered for eight hours. It is carefully balanced so that the dish when eaten in its entirety tastes light.

Tonkotsu ramen broth

“Everyone drinks up the soup,” he told me with evident pride. According to chef Sasaki, traditional ramen is constructed such that it is at its peak within the first 10 to 15 minutes of it being served. In other words, it should be savoured swiftly. But for the Capitol Hotel Tokyu, he has noodles especially made so that the they remain al dente for much longer, making it possible for foreigners to savour the dish slowly if they are unaccustomed to using chopsticks. Such is the attention to detail of a great chef and an equally great hotel.

I was so taken by the Capitol Hotel Tokyu’s pakomen, that I sought to create a version of it at home. My recipe is below. Once you see how long it takes to prepare the broth, you’ll realise how truly besotted with it I am. It is by no means a reproduction of the original, but it nevertheless hits the spot.

pakomen inspired by Capitol Hotel Tokyu

About Su-Lyn Tan

Su-Lyn is Aun's better half and for many years, the secret Editor behind this blog known to readers simply as S. Su-Lyn is an obsessive cook and critical eater whose two favourite pastimes are spending time with her three kids and spending time in the kitchen. She looks forward to combining the two in the years to come.