Slurping your way through an Asian noodle soup is a much-loved Australian pastime, but our soup of choice is changing. According to Google Trends, in 2004 we were nose-deep in coconut-rich bowls of Peranakan laksa. Ten years on, we started airlifting ramen noodles from their Japanese tonkotsu, shoyu or miso broths. And while laksa has fallen, relatively, from favour and ramen continues its steep ascent, demand for Vietnamese pho has been more consistent; we’ve been adding bean sprouts to our beef-rich bowls of rice noodles for the past decade.
This sums up the country’s noodle-slurping habits – except for in the Northern Territory, where searches for laksa outnumber both ramen and pho by two to one. This fixation is best illustrated by the Darwin Laksa festival, the brainchild of the chief minister, Michael Gunner. (Could you imagine this elsewhere, like New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian personally creating a wonton soup festival?)
In Darwin, festival day 29 November is preceded by a month-long celebration of the dish, with eateries showcasing traditional bowls as well as reinvented versions: laksa martinis, ice-cream, panna cotta and smoothies. More than 20,000 laksas were sold during last year’s festival, enough to create a towering bowl stack that’s twice Uluru’s height.
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So why is the Northern Territory obsessed with laksa? “We’re as multicultural as it comes,” says Jason Hanna from the Activate Darwin team behind the festival. Darwin is our closest capital city to Asia and one-third of the territory was born overseas. Rewind to 1900 and locals of Chinese descent outnumbered European-Australians six to one. Darwin’s climate also adds to laksa’s appeal. “It actually tastes better during the wet season when you’re sweating your arse off,” he says.
At the restaurauteur’s seven Darwin venues, “all but the pizza shop serves laksa”. Chow, his Vietnamese-inspired eatery, even offers laksa – which often outsells the pho.
“Ramen’s only just come to Darwin,” says Hanna. City Cafe is one of the few places serving tonkotsu: its chef Kiyoshi Makizono spends over eight hours boiling pork bones for the broth. He’s from Hakata, Fukuoka, a Japanese region famous for this ramen style. He’s contributing a ramen laksa to the festival; it’s topped with pork chashu, marinated egg and tofu puffs.
“Laksa is the epitome of what Aussies love about south-east Asian cuisine,” says Sydney chef Dan Hong (Mr Wong, Lotus). “It’s a noodle soup and a curry all in one. I think that’s why Aussies loved it so much. But I think 10 years ago [in the rest of Australia], it was bastardised.”
Enter ramen, which gets fanfare for its labour-intensive approach. Cult Sydney hole-in-the-wall Gumshara’s chefs spend 14 hours on its collagen-rich tonkotsu broth, and noodle nerds spend hours tweaking the technical requirements to perfect the alkaline water and get the springy noodles right.
Michelle Widjaja spent six months on her noodle-making before training in Osaka. When she opened Iiko Mazesoba last year in Sydney’s Darling Square, she found a secondhand machine (retail price tag: $20,000) for making noodles from scratch.
Ramen’s wide-ranging forms – with many regional differences from Kyoto to Sapporo – has given it a culinary flexibility that’s helped it dominate trends in recent years. Widjaja, for instance, sells mazesoba, which is a soupless ramen, where you swirl the sauces and toppings into the noodles. She also offers tsukemen, a chilled ramen, which is eaten with a dipping sauce – her vegan version channels smashed avocado toast.
At Iiko Mazesoba, she’s produced matcha noodles, blue ramen to celebrate Frozen’s theatre season, and might make glow-in-the-dark ramen if Vivid Sydney goes ahead next year.
This shapeshifting and exclusivity helps ramen stay on trend – and in everyone’s Instagram feed. It’s intrinsic to ramen: Hong remembers when Blancharu and Ichiban Boshi each only offered 20 bowls a day in Sydney, and always sold out. While this reduced output is for quality reasons, the limited-edition nature only increased interest. “It’s a hype thing,” says Hong.
Ramen’s enduring popularity is also because it’s more than a noodle soup, it’s a lifestyle. “Ramen is life” is a popular catchcry. “People are proud to be part of the ramen culture,” says Widjaja. It’s why she’s in a Facebook group called Ramen Gang and the ramen merch at her eatery – like the bucket hat and tote bag – are top-selling items.
Pho, meanwhile, is a reliable constant. “It’s like the Golden Gaytime of noodle soups,” says Hong. “You’ll never get sick of it.”
In Melbourne, where pho remains neck and neck with ramen as the most searched for noodle soup, Jerry Mai serves more than 100,000 bowls of steaming broth a year at her Pho Nom eateries. She thinks international student populations can be tied to noodle trends: laksa was more popular 15 years ago, “because there were a lot more students from Malaysia and Singapore”, she says.
“In the last few years, there’ve been a lot of students here from Hanoi,” she adds. It’s led to more pho from that region, the “humble” counterpart to the extravagant southern style with its garnishes and sides.
She also credits health trends for laksa’s dimmed popularity. “I think that richness and creamy coconut has deterred some people,” she says. Whereas the wellness halo around bone broth has no doubt aided the demand for both pho and ramen.
Could the rest of Australia take Darwin’s lead and return to loving laksa?
Well, it hasn’t truly gone away, Hong believes. “The OG laksa places are still really packed,” he says. Sydney’s Malay Chinese Takeaway, which has “the world’s best laksa”, still has queues. Widjaja agrees. “I don’t know if it’s going to be as hyped as ramen is, but it’s not going anywhere.”