How a Noodle Factory in Kalihi Fueled America’s Ramen Boom
Nine of the top 10 ramen restaurants named by The New York Times—and all but one of the 56 ramen shops in Honolulu—use Sun Noodle.
Photo: Olivier Koning
Hidehito Uki, founder of Sun Noodle.
Sun Noodle did not start America’s ramen revolution. But it certainly seems that way, when nine of the top 10 ramen restaurants named by The New York Times—and all but one of the 56 ramen shops in Honolulu—use Sun Noodle.
Not bad for a little factory from Kalihi. Thirty-three years ago, Hidehito Uki founded Sun Noodle. He was only 20 years old and hardly spoke any English. Uki’s father, a noodle maker in Togichi, Japan, had been working on a project in Honolulu that fell through, so Uki moved to Hawai‘i to adopt the small noodle machine that got left behind. There were only three ramen restaurants in the entire city, but he started making ramen anyway.
He practically had to beg Honolulu’s three ramen shops to try his noodles. Now, in addition to the Kalihi factory, Sun Noodle makes noodles in Los Angeles and New Jersey, manufacturing 130,000 servings of noodles a day for some of the biggest names in ramen in America, from Momofuku to the creator of the Ramen Burger. Lettuce Entertain You, one of the largest restaurant groups in the country, recently opened a ramen restaurant in Chicago and insists on using Sun Noodle, at one point spending $3,000 a week in FedEx charges to fly the noodles in from the East Coast.
I first met Uki, by chance, at the opening of Marukame Udon downtown last year. When he handed me his business card—President, Sun Noodle, with two hands, in the Japanese style—I blurted out, “You’re the noodle man!”
“I am the noodle man?”
He seemed pleased by the title. I felt like I had met the inventor of the hamburger. We last wrote about Sun Noodle five years ago, calling his Kalihi factory “the center of Honolulu’s ramen universe.” Since then, Sun Noodle’s universe has expanded greatly. The company’s noodles now stretch far beyond Honolulu—hopping both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. When I visited the New York factory in May, it was shipping some of its first ramen to Paris and London, Belgium and Brazil.
So what did the noodle man’s presence at Marukame Udon mean? Marukame’s claim to fame is its extremely visible fresh noodle production. It wouldn’t be the first time a Honolulu restaurant pretended to make its own noodles up front while receiving Sun Noodles in the back. No, Uki said, he helped them source their flour. Udon noodles, he said, require a soft wheat for a chewy, elastic texture. American and Canadian wheat was too hard; Australia’s was bright white and just right.
Uki can tell you about the protein and ash content of flour; which flour is best suited to udon, ramen or saimin; the pH of the water he mixes with the flour; how long he mixes each dough. Sun Noodle now makes more than 140 varieties of ramen, thick and thin, straight and wavy, some that take a shorter amount of time to cook, some that are cut to look like they’re handmade. This is Sun Noodle’s greatest strength—the ability, and willingness, to customize noodles to a restaurant’s broth and a chef’s preferences. “They never say no,” says Ivan Orkin, a native New Yorker who improbably became one of Japan’s most famous ramen chefs and recently opened two new restaurants in New York. “They’ll make anything I ask them to make.”
Sun Noodle’s world of noodles From left to right, top to bottom: Island-style saimin, temomi ramen, Tokyo-style wavy ramen, buckwheat soba, Hakata-style ramen, wonton pi, high-protein ramen, wakana soba spinach noodles, fettuccine, udon, Tokyo straight ramen, whole-wheat saimin noodles.
photo: olivier koning
Only in Hawai‘i
Clockwise: The garlic noodles at Gyu-Kaku in Honolulu. Garlic mazemen at Ivan Ramen in New York. Shio ramen at Ivan Ramen in New York.
In Honolulu, we knew of ramen beyond the Styrofoam cup and powder packet before most of America, just as we were eating raw fish in poke before sushi swept the country. Ezogiku, one of the first ramen restaurants in Honolulu (and Sun Noodle’s oldest client), opened in 1974, its first location outside of Japan. By 1988, we had almost 15 ramen shops while the rest of America was still, for the most part, experiencing 10-cent ramen blocks with highlighter-yellow soup.
By 2000, ramen started ramping up in California, but the rest of the U.S. didn’t really get into it until David Chang opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004. Then, it seemed, suddenly, ramen was everywhere.
Even in Japan, the ramen frenzy didn’t hit until the ’80s and ’90s. Before then, instant ramen ruled. Tampopo, the movie that fetishized ramen and created a legion of ramen devotees, didn’t come out until 1985. So when Uki came to Hawai‘i and started making ramen, he didn’t know that it would become one of Japan’s most celebrated dishes and America’s future obsession. His father’s forsaken ramen machine was just Uki’s excuse to move somewhere warm.
He came because, well, it’s Hawai‘i. But what he found here set the course for Sun Noodle’s eventual fame and success. Ramen in Japan is highly regionalized; when Uki worked in a noodle factory he learned only the noodle characteristic to his hometown, and that’s probably all he would have known had he stayed. But “in Hawai‘i, a lot of people come from many places in Japan,” Uki says. “When they wanted to open a ramen shop, they asked me to make all kinds of ramen, from Hokkaido to Kyushu,” he says. He learned them all—by visiting noodle factories across Japan, by reverse-engineering noodles that he ate in Tokyo, Sapporo, Hakata—and brought them to Kalihi.
Now, his company is perfectly positioned to fuel the country’s ramen boom. Partly because Uki has had decades to expand his operations and hone his strategy of tailoring noodles to individual restaurants, but also because, in that time, he inspired his son, Kenshiro, to jump into the business.
Raised by Japanese immigrants in Hawai‘i, Kenshiro understands both Japanese and American culture and language. And as the son of a noodle man, he is the perfect liaison between many American chefs and Japanese ramen.
Kenshiro Uki at the Sun Noodle factory in Teterboro, N.J.
Photo: harold julian
Where it all began: with Senjiro Uki (second from the right), Hidehito Uki’s father.
Photo: courtesy hidehito uki
“I came to the conclusion that our products sucked,” says Kenshiro, on why he founded the New Jersey factory. He had grown up with his father’s company—from packing noodles in the Kalihi factory when he was 10 to delivering them throughout Honolulu when he was 16 to running Sun Noodle’s Los Angeles factory two years out of college. In 2011, he took a trip to New York, sampling ramen at restaurants serving Sun Noodle and discovering “our noodles were poor. They weren’t represented well.” Sun Noodle was shipping its noodles frozen to New York, which made them as fragile as glass. They would arrive at the restaurants broken or partially thawed and refrozen, about as appealing as ice cream with a serious case of freezer burn. Two months after that trip, Kenshiro was building a factory in Teterboro, N.J.
Being near New York City meant Kenshiro could “really communicate one on one with chefs.” One of his first projects: creating a ramen with teff flour for the Ethiopian-born, New York celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson. Like his father, Kenshiro pays attention to every detail of the noodle—from its elasticity (not easily achieved with teff alone, since it lacks gluten) to its color (he paired the dark teff with a bright white flour to create a striking, speckled look).
In the two years since the New Jersey factory opened, Sun Noodle has achieved 70 percent market share in ramen restaurants in New York. But for Kenshiro, it’s not enough to just supply ramen to restaurateurs.
Photo: Harold Julian
Kenshiro wants to write ramen’s future in America, for each bowl to tell a story of Japanese history and American culture, much the way Hawai‘i does so naturally. “I envision every region will have its own ramen specialty,” he says. Like pizza or barbecue, someday, he hopes he’ll go to New York or San Francisco or Atlanta and taste each city’s style of ramen.
What would that look like? Just look to saimin, a uniquely Hawai‘i bowl where kamaboko and char siu float together in a broth made from Japanese dashi and Chinese dried shrimp. While the noodles lack ramen’s characteristic alkalinity, saimin is very likely America’s first regional noodle soup.
Saimin was born when plantation workers got together for lunch. Regional ramen, however, will most likely come out of a chef’s imagination. That’s where Ramen Lab comes in. It’s like a mini ramen school for aspiring and seasoned ramen chefs. This fall, Kenshiro is opening the small, 400-square-foot ramen counter in Manhattan with ramen chef Shigetoshi Nakamura (“a legendary ramen guy,” according to Orkin. “He was one of the first, most important ramen people in Japan.”). There, they’ll serve flights of ramen to teach the history of the noodles and how the noodles play against the soup. “The end goal is to create a culture where ramen is very regional and very local,” Kenshiro says.
For the past 30 years, ramen in the U.S. have mostly been clones of Japanese styles. It’s only in recent years that chefs have started to riff on ramen—with Sun Noodle’s help—like Samuelsson’s teff ramen; Ivan Ramen’s rye noodles, a nod to Orkin’s Jewish roots; and perhaps the greatest mashup of ramen and American culture: the Ramen Burger, a hamburger patty between two noodle “buns.”
The Ramen Burger
Photo: Courtesy paul wagtouicz
While the Sun Noodle fervor increases on the East Coast and Kenshiro tours the noodle circuit, from Smorgasburg in Brooklyn to Ramen Massive Attack in Minneapolis, Uki is quietly working on a new project in Honolulu. For all of Sun Noodle’s fame in the rest of America, few in Hawai‘i seem to know about the company. And while the L.A. and New Jersey factories garner all the attention, the Kalihi factory makes more noodles than those factories combined. So visiting Uki’s lab, where it all started, feels a little like peeking into the secret headquarters of James Bond’s Q.
Here, Uki is building a machine to make ramen buns. The Ramen Burger is quite possibly the most exciting invention since instant ramen—it’s the first ramen you can eat with your hands. And Uki is working on getting it into as many hands as possible.
With L&L Drive Inn rolling out ramen burgers in all its locations, “Eddie Flores is bugging me to hurry up and make the buns,” says Uki. “Everybody is having a hard time making them.”
Uki’s custom-ordered equipment had just arrived in Honolulu when I spoke to him last. “This is the first machine created for the ramen burger bun,” he says. “It is fully, 100 percent my design.” (He also paid a lot for it: “I spent $18,000. I was so surprised, [the manufacturer] just made it and gave me the bill.”) He calculates it should make 300 to 400 buns an hour, a 10th of the time it currently takes.
Four months ago, when he was describing what he wanted to a manufacturer in Japan, “They didn’t have any idea what we wanted,” says Uki. “They said, ‘that’s not going to work.’” Clearly, they didn’t know Sun Noodle.
How Sun Noodle went from getting its butt kicked by the competition to acquiring the majority market share in Hawai‘i, Los Angeles and New York: Click here to read more about the company’s business strategies in the November issue of our sister publication Hawai‘i Business.
Craft Noodles From Machines
The compound press for ramen dough.
Photo: Harold Julian
Momofuku Ramen bowl at Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York.
In this age of DIY, with restaurants making everything from their own pastas to pickles, it seems strange to discover that so many kitchens are outsourcing their noodles. Especially when that source is a factory with a gleaming stainless steel machine in industrial Teterboro, N.J., not some grandma-run noodle shop dusted with nostalgia and flour.
Momofuku Noodle Bar used to get its noodles from that sort of age-old noodle shop in Chinatown. But, as Kenshiro tells it, George Kao, Sun Noodle’s sales manager, “had the balls to tell David Chang his noodles sucked.”
Momofuku replaced its Chinese lo mein noodles with Sun Noodle’s ramen when “we came to the conclusion that we needed chewier, firmer noodles—the two qualities that noodles made with alkaline salts have,” wrote Momofuku’s chef/founder David Chang in an email. “We started working with George, who helped us get ramen noodles manufactured to our exact specifications from Sun Noodle, and we have worked with them ever since.”
As for Orkin, who wrote in his cookbook why he made his own noodles for his Tokyo shop—“I’m not going to slave over making a perfect bowl of soup and accompaniments, just to let someone else drive their noodle bus right through the bowl”—what happened when he opened his New York restaurants?
Answer: Opening restaurants in New York is a pain in the ass. Setting up a huge, complex, Department of Health-certified noodle machine on top of that wasn’t going to happen. (And if you’re wondering why Orkin doesn’t just suck it up and make 1,000 servings of noodles a day by hand: The low moisture content of ramen means “human strength is really not quite enough to bring [the dough] together,” he says.)
“I’m a noodle maker. I know a lot about noodle making. But of course, collaborating with [Sun Noodle] is great because they also know a lot. … There’s no other shop [I’d go to]. There really isn’t.”
Noodle Me This: Most Challenging Noodles
The fast-food noodle:
What they wanted: Naniwa-Ya Ramen in the Ala Moana food court wanted a skinny noodle with a faster cooking time (one minute versus two) but long holding time (keeping the noodle’s texture in a hot broth for 10 minutes).
How Sun Noodle did it: “Everybody says that’s impossible, but I was thinking about it every day, every night for three months—close to 60 tries,” says Uki. “One night I woke up at two o’clock in the morning, and tried what came to me in a dream. Egg whites! It came out great!”
Whole Grain, Big Pain:
What they wanted: Ivan Ramen asked for a thin, high-moisture content, chewy rye noodle. “I like [my noodle] to have a little aromatic quality to it,” says Orkin. “That’s why I like the whole-grain flour. I like when you bite into it, your nose fills up a little bit with that fresh flavor.”
How Sun Noodle did it: “Ivan’s noodles go against most ramen noodles,” Kenshiro says. “Usually, when you have a very thin noodle, it’s very low-moisture. For Ivan, he wanted a really, really thin noodle with a lot of moisture content. He also wanted that rye,” which involved finding a fine enough rye flour. Kenshiro ended up sourcing from a miller in Canada. The wet noodle also produced all sorts of new challenges—“you have to be sensitive in how you mix it, what stage should the water be poured in and what temperature, and how fast you mix it,” Kenshiro says. He also found that in the summertime, the heat made the noodles sweat, which caused them to stick. It took more than 40 trials over two years to get Ivan’s noodle right.
Does Kenshiro ever get people asking if they can have Ivan’s noodle? “Every day.”
How Ramen Is Made: The Ingredients
Clockwise from top left: The stages of Noodle production at Sun Noodle.
Photos: Martha Cheng and Olivier Koning
Sun Noodle’s New Jersey and Los Angeles factories use a reverse osmosis system to filter the water.
The amount of water added to the ramen dough needs to be adjusted constantly because “it’s 60 percent humidity today versus 10 percent the other day,” says Kenshiro. It’s actually easier to make ramen in Hawai‘i because the humidity levels are more consistent than on the East Coast.
Kansui is potassium and sodium carbonate—it gives ramen its characteristic smell (often confused with eggs), firmness and texture. It’s also used to adjust the pH. “When ramen was first made in China, it was near a lake in Mongolia,” says Kenshiro. “That lake’s pH level was 7.2. What we’re trying to do here is mimic that pH water level.”
Sun Noodle’s New York factory carries 10 varieties of flour from America, Canada and Australia. Each dough is a blend of flours to achieve a specific flavor and texture. “In America, we have perhaps five or six types of noodle flour that we can use. In Japan, you have hundreds of different types of ramen flour.
… We’ve done the analysis on the superfine flour that we source, and it’s 10 times bigger than Japan’s superfine.”
OTHER POSSIBLE INGREDIENTS:
Tapioca starch, cornstarch, powdered eggs and egg whites.
Explore five ramen varieties and their characteristic noodles.
1. Shoyu ramen
Tokyo shoyu ramen is light, and the noodles are thin, yellow and wavy. “You want the noodles and the soup to match. You don’t want one to overpower the other,” says Kenshiro.
2. Tonkotsu ramen
This style comes from southern Japan, famous for its kurobota pork. The bones are used for the thicker broth, paired with very thin, white noodles, low in moisture, so they’re not as chewy, but more brittle.
3. Miso ramen
This is the hottest ramen, temperaturewise. It comes from northern Japan, where it’s cold. “The soup is layered with pork fat so it seals in the heat,” says Kenshiro. “You can hurt yourself. Really.” The noodles are aged for three days, so they’re firmer and hold their texture against the hot broth. The noodles are thicker, wavy and very yellow.
The noodles are thicker and, instead of a broth, there’s a dipping sauce on the side.
“Mazemen actually came from the staff meal,” says Kenshiro. “There are five elements of a ramen bowl: noodles, soup stock, tare (a liquid seasoning), aroma oils and toppings. The most expensive part of the five is your soup. So for staff meals, when you have noodles, you exclude the soup.”
When talking to Chefs about ramen, they often use Japanese words to describe texture and mouthfeel. According to one study, Japanese has more than 455 descriptors for mouthfeel, while English has only 77. Here are some of them.
Chewy, springy, a little bit sticky
Shiny and smooth, like a bald man’s head. For noodles, also describes how easily you can slurp them.
Truly thick, as in the soup. This also describes the thickness of mud.
Describes the pleasant chewiness of noodles. More chewy than mochi mochi.
koshi ga aru
Describes the quality of noodles having chewiness, firmness and bouncy resistance.
Hagire ga ii
Literally, “tooth cutting,” how cleanly and pleasantly you can chew through something.
“On the soft side,” referring to how you want your noodles cooked.
“On the hard side.” (In Hakata, they go to extremes such as “harigane,” or “wire.”)