What is Ramen?
One of the most popular dishes in Japan, ramen is serving of Chinese wheat noodles in what is usually a pork or chicken-based broth and served with toppings such as sliced pork, seaweed and green onions. Now, that might not sound like much but from the variety of noodles to the range of toppings, from the culinary intricacies of the broth to Japan’s many regional variations, you could literally spend each day of the rest of your life trying out a different ramen experience. Ramen is truly one Japan’s must try – and much beloved – dishes.
The opening of ports like Yokohama and Nagasaki during the end of the Edo and the start of the Meiji Period in the late 19th century saw the birth of the ubiquitous Chinatown and the emergence of ramen. In 1910, a small store directed towards Japanese customers opened in Yokohama. The noodles were called Chinese soba, proved popular and began to spread to other locales.
After World War II, returning servicemen helped create a demand for Chinese food. At the same time an influx of cheap wheat from the United States flooded the market, suddenly making ramen not only easier to make but profitable too.
By the 1960s, instant ramen had been invented and was taking Japan by storm. Once the 1980s arrived, ramen had become a culinary icon of Japanese culture with regional varieties springing up from all parts of the country.
Ramen is noodle, topping, tare (flavour from concentrated sauce) and broth but it is the broth that is the secret to a good ramen. A good broth is complex, subtle and requires some serious commitment from the chef to create. Ranging from rich, fulsome flavours to refreshingly light, the broth is what sets the mood of ramen. It is the quintessential culinary problem that good ramen chefs try to answer.
Ramen broth is made from a stock, usually pork or chicken though sometimes you will find fish used. There are even chefs out there experimenting with vegetable stocks. The stock is then combined with any number of ingredients such as kombu (kelp), katsubosho (skipjack tuna flakes), niboshi (dried baby sardines), beef bones, shiitake mushrooms and onions.
While ramen broth is staggeringly varied and always evolving, there are essentially four basic types: shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), tonkotsu (pork bone) and miso (soy bean paste). Tonkotsu, interestingly, is technically not a seasoning in the way that the other three are. Some also consider variations such as tonkotsu-shoyu, fish broth and curry as additions to that list.
Soy Sauce (Shoyu) Ramen
Shoyu ramen is the oldest ramen with a broth that is clear and salty. Chicken or seafood is often served with this ramen though this is not set by any stretch of the imagination. It is a flexible broth too and you’ll find it combined with other broth types such as tonkotsu or shio.
If shoyu ramen is the oldest, then shio may be the most ‘traditional’. Generally quite clear and light, this salt broth is usually made from chicken or fish stock and, depending on the ingredients used, varies from a pale to golden yellow in colour.
A popular broth, miso is the youngest of the basic broth types having originated in Hokkaido in the 1950s. Made with soy bean paste and blended with chicken or fish, miso ramen has a nutty yet slightly sweet and robust flavour. It’s hard to imagine a heartier ramen in the depths of a Hokkaido winter then miso.
Tonkotsu originated in Fukuoka in Kyushu and is one of the most popular broths. Made from pork bone that has been boiled for hours until the collagen has broken down, it has a cloudy white colouring to it. Courtesy of the broken down collagen, the broth is thick, creamy and utterly rich with flavour.
Another broth is tonkotsu-shoyu, a mixture of pork bone with a strong soy sauce flavour. It’s a broth that originated in Wakayama City in a store named Ide Shoten.
Gyokai broths are fish or seafood flavoured broths that are considered by some to be a healthier version of the usual ramen.
Types of Ramen
Despite there being so many variations of the basic noodle in a broth theme and new styles are continually popping up as chefs experiment with new ideas.
Dipping noodles (tsuke-men)
Dipping noodles, or tsuke-men, were created in 1961 in Tokyo. The noodles and broth are served in separate bowls with the noodles dipped into a shoyu broth before eating. The noodles tend to be thick and the broth is somewhat sweet, spicy and vinegary.
Tantan-men is the Japanese version of the Chinese dandan noodles. It’s a spicy chilli and sesame broth with minced pork and garnished with chopped scallion, chili and Chinese vegetables while kanton-men are noodles covered in a thick and starchy Cantonese-style sauce.
Instead of sitting in a bowl of broth, abura soba are noodles sitting atop a thin layer of soy-based tare. In this way, the noodles themselves become the topping.
Hiyashi-men, Hiyashi Chuka
First served in Sendai about 80 years ago, Hiyashi-men is a dish of cold ramen noodles with a chilled tare and light toppings such as strips of ham, omelette, cucumber and tomato. With its light vinegary soy sauce dressing and Japanese mustard it’s a perfect summer dish.
If the broth is the secret to a good ramen, the toppings are the perfect decoration. And they vary according to the region, type of ramen and chef. The possibilities are endless.
Chashu is thinly sliced roasted or braised pork and is one of the most common ramen toppings. Chashumen is ramen with extra servings of pork. Popular in Kyushu, particularly Nagasaki, kakuni is braised pork belly and is exceptionally enjoyable to eat.
Slightly salty preserved bamboo shoots are known as menma and are usually paired with, negi, chopped leeks or green onions.
Karanegi is a spicy chili oil version often seen with miso ramen.
Served on all types of ramen is moyashi or bean sprouts. Moyashi adds a sweet crunch to any ramen dish
Egg or tamago is a ramen staple and comes hard or soft boiled, raw or marinated. Soft boiled egg, or ontama, is a succulent surprise and is one of the great joys of eating ramen.
Dried seaweed (Nori)
Dried seaweed, or nori, is another ramen staple, often resting on the broth as a small square sheet or two. Valued for its aroma and texture, it’s often used to pick up the noodles or crumbled up and dissolved into the broth. Wakame is a seaweed that has a subtly sweet flavor.
Kamaboko are slices of steamed fish cake. A common version is naruto-maki, a saw toothed edged piece of white fish cake that features a reddish pink spiral pattern.
Corn kernels and Butter
Miso or shio ramen is often the backdrop for corn kernels and butter. The corn adds a crunchy sweetness to the ramen while the butter offers creaminess and depth.
One of the pleasures of Japanese cuisine in general is discovering regional variations and ramen is no exception.
Hokkaido is a famous ramen pilgrimage spot. Sapporo, the capital city, is the birthplace of miso ramen which was the first regional ramen to hit national prominence. From central Hokkaido comes Asahikawa ramen, an oily shoyu based dish with noodles that are thin, hard and wavy.
Fukushima Prefecture is known for its Kitakata ramen, a light shoyu broth with wide flat noodles that are wavy and chewy. They must love their ramen in Kitakata as the town apparently has the highest ratio of ramen shops-to-residents in Japan.
Buried underneath a bewildering array of ramen styles, Tokyo’s own traditional style of ramen is a simple shoyu based dish with a fish stock and noodles that are somewhat thick and wavy.
Yokohama’s specialty is Ie-kei ramen. Now a budding chain store, Ie-kei was created in 1974 at a store called Yoshimuraya and features thick, straight noodles served in a salty and fatty tonkotsu-shoyu style broth. Iekei may have been the originator of the custom of allowing customers to order how firm they wanted their noodles.
Wakayama ramen is the happy medium between eastern Japan’s thin shoyu-style ramen and western Japan’s rich pork broths. The noodles are long, thin and firm, which help cut through the rich, salty flavour of the pork and soy sauce.
Fukuoka is the home of Hakata ramen that features thin and firm noodles slicing through a thick and creamy tonkotsu broth. Hardcore fans of Hakata ramen will often ask for their noodles to remain almost uncooked before dipping them into the broth. As a bonus, Hakata ramen stores feature self-serving toppings such as crushed garlic, beni shoga (pickled ginger) and sesame seeds.
As you can see, there really is a lot to take in when it comes to ramen. From its humble beginnings as an introduced food, ramen has taken on a cultural identity that has spread throughout the world. Next time you are in Japan, try some ramen. Any style.