How much do I love my eyebrows? I asked myself, as I sat down at the brand new Menbaka Fire Ramen counter. I mean, did I really need them? Eyebrows are pretty much just decorative, aren’t they?
If you’ve been to the original Menbaka in Kyoto or seen pictures or videos of the famous dish, in which your bowl of ramen is anointed with flaming green onion oil and a towering column of fire blazes up in front of your face, the same last-minute thought might pop into your head.
By this time, however, it’s too late to back out, as the chef will have given you a very specific set of instructions including, “Don’t leave your seat”, “Don’t scream” and “Don’t run away”.
Of course, if you’re here in the first place, you’re clearly a thrill-seeker. Or a pyromaniac.
Menbaka’s founder, ramen master Masamichi Miyazawa, is neither of those. He just really, really loves green onions.
When he conceptualised the dish 36 years ago, he wasn’t looking for theatrics or even a fire element, he told me. He simply wanted to find the best way to bring out the flavour of Kyoto’s famous “kujo negi” green onions.
Adding flaming negi oil to the green onion-topped ramen gives the already-flavourful broth an intense smokiness that makes the vegetable taste even sweeter and fresher.
It took him half a year to perfect the dish, and in the process, he singed off his hair and collected burn marks all over his arms, he said with a laugh.
Eating the ramen, though, actually comes with an extremely low element of danger, even if the fire looks dramatic, he said.
In the 36 years that Menbaka has been operating in Kyoto, there hasn’t been a single mishap. In fact, “The most dangerous thing that could happen is diners falling off their chairs in surprise,” he quipped.
Here in the Singapore restaurant, the first outside of Kyoto, extensive safety measures are in place. There’s a state-of-the-art exhaust that whisks the flames away after a couple of seconds. The counter is wide so that diners are at least one metre away from the fire. And the use of phones for recording purposes isn’t allowed at the counter, just in case people reach too close to the fire in their eagerness to capture the perfect shot.
Of course, the staff know that you came here to get that video, so they’re happy to get footage for you – there’s a row of selfie sticks behind the counter, where they’ll position your phone.
It was Master Miyazawa’s son, Shin Miyazawa, who came up with this idea. Formerly working in luxury real estate in Tokyo, he entered his father’s business and moved the restaurant into the social media age.
His dad wasn’t quite taken with the idea at first, Shin said, so he seized his chance when his father was in the hospital for a minor procedure, and installed the selfie sticks. That was when tourists began to propel the ramen-ya to international fame.
The father-and-son duo managed to travel to Singapore for the launch of their first overseas outlet.
So, what’s the fire ramen experience really like?
First, they set the stage with some jaunty music. Then, Master Miyazawa poured a small amount of flaming negi oil into my bowl, setting it alight. A bright, roaring plume immediately blazed to life. It was hot – my eyes teared up a little – and, for that brief moment in time, hypnotically mesmerising.
When the flame died down, I snapped back into my body as all the staff members applauded, closing the curtains on that little bit of theatre.
Were they applauding the chef’s prowess or my bravery? I’d like to think it was both.
So, I’ll never get to tell my grandkids how I lost my eyebrows in the great battle of Fire Ramen – but I did get to slurp up a hot, dirty, smoky bowl of ramen and an intense green onion experience like no other.
Menbaka opens on Nov 24 at 3.40pm at Cineleisure Orchard #05-03.