I only found out about Sakura in Asia Asia Food Hall by chance. I say chance, I guess it was more my Twitter overuse, really.
While Twitter can occasionally be a playgroup for pricks, it’s also a useful place sometimes. On my timeline at least, I often see people I follow chatting about food and places they’ve enjoyed visiting, and being a nosey cow means I can’t help getting involved in some conversations. Most recently this happened over ramen, with two blokes I respect very much recommending places to try – Japanese trader Sakura in Asia Asia Food Hall was top of their Brum list so I bumped it to the top of my (never shrinking) hit list.
I love tonkotsu. While some obsess about the noodles, it’s the broth that matters most to me. I want depth of flavour and umami; I want to see colour and cloudiness. Everyone makes it differently and everyone seems to think theirs is the best (a bit like those people who like to show you photos of their kids even when they look like Gollum) but the truth is the only thing most of them agree on is that the broth should be cooked over an extended period of time with multiple components. It’s all about levels of flavour.
I’ve tried making it a few times but decided to just let the experts do it and stop pretending I’ll ever master such things. What I’m getting at is that it sounds easy to make but actually takes some serious skill to get the flavour spot on. We all like different broths and what one person loves another will say is crap, but what’s important is finding somewhere you can enjoy it bowl after bowl, and for me this might be Sakura.
You’ll find this kitchen in the corner on floor 1 of Asia Asia. Choose your bowl, use your top-up card to pay and await the buzzer to tell you when it’s ready to collect. There’s several bowls available (meat and veggie options) so I asked my new best friend behind the counter to pick his favourite – immediately he pointed at the pork belly tonkotsu. “This will make you very happy,” he said with a big smile. I admire confidence like that – I already have one husband but I might have found my second right there.
Ten minutes later I was back at the counter collecting my bounty. I won’t lie, I lapped that broth up faster than Meghan Markle ripped Harry away from his horsey family. Rich, porky and almost creamy from the bone goodness, it packed the salty punch you want but with levels of flavour that play out in your mouth as you slurp more. I’m not Japanese – I know, shocker – and I’ve never been to Japan, so I can’t say it’s authentic (because I don’t actually have the frame of reference to self-congratulate over knowing such things) but what I do know is it was a pleasure to eat and it made me very happy. As did my somewhat broken but friendly conversation with the guy who prepared it for me and asked me twice if I was enjoying it. Enjoying it? I want to bathe in the stuff, pal.
Aside from the liquid joy and veggies packed in, a special shout out goes to the soft pork belly, all sweet, sticky and sexy. My second visit saw me try the signature ramen with chicken and prawns, but I think the pig wins for me. Noodles here are skinny, and while I didn’t get a chance to ask if they’re made in-house, from the prep area I suspect not – it’s up to you to decide how important that is. The unexpected but ruddy delicious mini bowl of kimchi that comes with each bowl is a nice touch, delivering sourness and spice accurately.
I hadn’t been back to Asia Asia for ages after a pretty depressing experience involving some gristly chicken I’ve chosen to forget, but this trader is worth sitting in a glorified canteen for. Tasty, sizeable and cheap (£8.50 isn’t a price you can’t argue about), there’s a lot to like about this. As well as noodle soups you’ll find sushi, rice bowls and bento boxes that seemed popular with those around me.
You can find Sakura and Asia Asia Food Hall on the cusp of China Town, next to the markets. It’s replaced whatever Japanese trader was there previously, so if you’ve been before and didn’t rate it maybe give it a second go now someone else is running the show.
Sakura, Asia Asia Food Hall, 10 Pershore St, Birmingham B5 4RX
Disclosure: I’ve paid in full at every visit. Words and pics are mine because no one else would want them.