When the temperature soars as it has during the past few days, when even walking outside is unpleasant, the last thing you want to eat is a big steaming bowl of ramen with thick slabs of pork glinting with grease. Accordingly, most ramen fans give up the noodle soup for at least three months out of the year as a sort of hot-weather penance. They don’t need to.
Hiyashi chuka is a splendid bowl of ramen, cooked al dente and served cold. It’s topped with a summery series of ingredients, julienned and precisely arranged over the top. The repertoire varies, but often includes cucumber, omelet, kelp, apple, carrot, pickled ginger, and baked ham or poached chicken, though vegetarian versions are also common. Hiyashi chukka is seasoned with a nose-clearing dab of yellow horseradish mustard and a sweet soy-vinegar solution know as tare. Blessedly, the dish is nearly greaseless.
It ends up looking like Korean bi bim bop, but every bite is a refreshing adventure. The dish was invented in the city of Sendai, a port city 100 miles north of Tokyo. It is unlike anything else in the ramen repertoire and the ingredients suggest international influences. Hiyashi chuka saw its heyday in New York in the 80s and 90s, when every Japanese restaurant in town served it during the summer, and further adapted it with ingredients that sometimes included tomato, avocado, and other flourishes.
Notable versions can be found at Sapporo, a long-running Times Square noodle shop, and what was the unrelated Sapporo East that’s now Beronberon. Nevertheless, the popularity of hiyashi chuka has waned, as the massive number of ramen bars have sought to master perfect versions of conventional hot ramen. Somehow, hiyashi chuka can’t find its place in the new line-up.
The East Village remains a hotbed of cold ramen and the best version today is found at Rai Rai Ken, founded in 2000 as an anchor of Little Tokyo and its one of its first ramen shops. I won’t list the ingredients, because it includes most of those mentioned above, all awash in the standard tart-sweet cold broth. Note that a second sauce option is available featuring sesame oil if you want your noodles oilier. Chicken is also an option. For summer’s heat, this is one of the city’s most refreshing dishes.
Two other bowls of cold ramen
The newly remodeled Ramen Setagaya (you won’t recognize it), long one of the East Village’s cheapest and best ramen slingers, has developed a cold version with a shellfish broth, littered with small clams but still sporting a gooey egg and slab of very lean pork. With its slightly bitter, non-sweet flavor, the broth is particularly revivifying.
Thank goodness Ivan Orkin didn’t call it poke ramen, because that’s what his tuna sashimi ramen at Ivan Ramen really is: a series of ahi slabs in a lime-driven cold broth, with rye noodles, roasted tomatoes, and a haystack of watercress. The tomatoes are particularly flavorful and the overall effect is quite satisfying — especially if you ask for a saucer of chile oil or wasabi and soy sauce on the side for dipping the tuna.