More than sushi, okonomiyaki, or any other recognizably Japanese food, ramen is arguably the most popular food in Japan. It's inexpensive, you can find it virtually anywhere in Japan, and everybody seems to have their own take on it.
As you might have guessed from my Ramen Survival Guide, between all of the different broths, styles, and toppings, you can find a ton of different varieties of ramen in noodle shops in Japan.
For most people, that variety is enough; but some ramen shops go completely off the map to push the limits of ramen and entice customers with novelty dishes. Strange toppings and unusual broths help noodle shops stand out from an increasingly saturated market.
The strangest thing of all? Most of these strange dishes are actually really, really good. Here are some of the strangest ramen dishes that Japanese noodle shops have cooked up in recent years:
Unsurprisingly, Japan makes notoriously bad Mexican food, so I was a little apprehensive when I first heard about the tequila ramen at Kouno noodle shop (麺や河野). But against all odds, the Tokyo restaurant's concoction of lime, a shot of tequila, and cilantro work well together.
Maybe it shouldn't be surprising that the combination tastes good—after all, Vietnamese phở also uses lime and cilantro as garnish, so maybe throwing in some tequila isn't that radical after all.
Japanese fast food chain Lotteria is notorious for cooking up some strange, strange hamburgers; past hits have included the oversized shrimp burger named in honor of Japanese comedian Sugi-chan, and a nine patty burger to celebrate an anime movie.
More recently, Lotteria teamed up with ramen restaurant Menya Musashi to create a ramen burger. A batch of ramen is fried up in the shape of a patty, then pork and mayonnaise or added before it's placed between two buns.
Not quite the traditional way that you see ramen served, but more or less par for the course for Lotteria.
Ice Cream Ramen, Colorful Broth
If you're looking for strange ramen, look no farther than Tokyo ramen shop Kikuya (菊や). Kikuya offers unusual ramen dishes in all varieties, using all sorts of ingredients and tricks to interest even the most dyed-in-the-wool ramen eater.
For one, there's the color selection:
At Kikuya, you can get ramen with broth of virtually any color, including purple, red, and sky blue. While it looks pretty unnatural, the colorful broth is anything but; the color comes from natural ingredients like red cabbage, and clever mixing.
Kikuya also offers a ramen dish topped with an ice cream cone slide down the middle. According to ramen lore, a child came into the shop on a hot day and asked for ice cream, joking with the chef that an ice cream ramen would be ideal.
Being the genius that he is, the owner decided to turn this joke into a reality. Before long, Kikuya's ice cream ramen became its signature dish.
The strange menu at Kikuya is way too long to go through in full here—between the colorful broth, ice cream ramen, and other oddities like cheese (think Kraft singles) ramen, cocoa ramen, and battery (think alkaline) ramen, you could spend weeks sampling Kikuya's unorthodox offerings.
Pineapple and Strawberry Ramen
Ramen is a very savory dish; you don't grab a bowl of ramen when you've got the hankering for something sweet. Because of that (and the fact that you don't find too much fruit in ramen to begin with), the sometimes sweet dishes from Tokyo ramen shop Papapapapine (パパパパパイン) are a little surprising.
Papapapapine's most famous dish is its pineapple ramen, which comes complete with chunks of pineapple and a pineapple-based broth. You can see Papapapapine's pride in its specialty dish from the pineapple-shaped lantern hanging outside of the shop, its pineapple-yellow counters, and the ceramic pineapples adorning the restaurant.
Aside from its signature dish, Papapapapine also offers a strawberry ramen, aptly named Susususustrawberry. Like the pineapple ramen, Susususustrawberry has chunks of fruit floating in the soup, and the broth is strawberry-based with a little cream.
You can add condensed milk to taste, for a combination that seems more like a dessert than a meal. Despite the unorthodox combinations, reports are that both dishes are actually pretty good.
Ivan Orkin is a New Yorker who's famous around the world for being one of the few gaijin to open a successful ramen business (アイバンラーメン AKA Ivan Ramen) in the fiercely competitive Japanese market.
While being a gaijin has been more than enough to make Ivan Ramen stand out, Orkin's uses some unusual. In addition to using rye, an unorthodox ingredient by Japanese standards, to make the noodles themselves, a few years back Orkin created his own take on taco rice—taco ramen.
Taco rice is actually a pretty common dish in Japan, but it's unusual for ramen to be used as a substitute for rice, and Orkin, an American from New York City, adds his own American touch to the dish.
In addition to the house-made noodles that Ivan Ramen has become known for, the taco ramen has lettuce, tomato, and beef with taco seasoning. No broth whatsoever, nor any of the typical toppings you'd see on your average bowl of ramen.
It was a seasonal special a few years ago, so you won't be able to get it anymore; which is unfortunate, because it sounds delicious (and would probably go well with the tequila ramen).
Ramen has changed a lot over the last century as it's come to almost dominate Japan's culinary landscape. New techniques and approaches, like miso and double soup ramen, have become commonplace.
So while you probably won't find chunks of pineapple in purple broth in your typical ramen shop anytime soon, I think that it's great that ramen chefs across Japan continue to dream up new dishes that push the boundaries of ramen.