Originally imported from China in the nineteenth century, ramen (ラ－メン) has become a staple in the Japanese diet and a must-have while in the land of the rising sun. Noodle shops serve delicious variations of the affordable dish in every corner of the country, highlighting regional flavors and cooking techniques. Although the soup’s three main components seem simplistic, the complexities behind the dish are anything but. Here’s what you need to know before ordering a bowl of authentic Japanese ramen.
Ramen chefs spend years developing and perfecting their recipes. The liquid base for the noodles ranges from clear and light to thick and brown, with four different categories. Shio (salt), is the lightest of broths. Typically made from chicken stock and seasoned with salt, it is a clear broth. Shoyu, on the other hand, is much darker. Also made with chicken, its color variant is formed by using soy sauce vs salt for seasoning. The most common ramen in Japan, it can also contain pork, beef or fish, depending on the region.
The second two categories of ramen broth are much thicker. Tonkotsu, a popular style around Kyushu, is created by boiling pork bones until they dissolve. The result is a thick and creamy broth flavored with pork fat or chicken stock. Miso, the thickest and darkest of ramen broths, originated in Hokkaido. While it is a newer varietal, it has quickly gained popularity with its flavorful soybean paste base.
Made with wheat flour, salt, water and kansui (an alkaline mineral water that gives ramen its yellow tint), the noodles are the opposite of basic and come packed with flavor. They are served in many variations, from long, straight, wavy, curly, thin and thick. Just as an Italian chef aims to pair the right pasta with the proper sauce, ramen chefs are meticulous when coupling the perfect noodle with the dish’s broth and toppings. Typically, a thicker noodle will be used in more substantial broths, while a thin noodle will be used in lighter broths.
Perhaps even more regionally diverse are the dish's toppings. From simple vegetables to meats and complex sauces, the added ingredients establish another layer of flavor dimension. Pork loin or pork belly are commonly used and sliced into thin strips, although lighter broths sometimes feature seafood as the protein. Almost all regions will feature a soft boiled egg, cooked to perfection with a custard-like center. The most common vegetables include scallions, mushrooms (such as enoki), nori (dried seaweed) and bamboo shoots. Beni shoga (pickled ginger) is also often paired with tonkotsu-style ramen.
If you’re looking for a spicy kick, try adding togarashi, a Japanese chili powder. But for those with a more sensitive palate, it’s recommended to season with sesame, black or white pepper, or ninniku-dare, a garlic paste.
How to eat ramen
While gaikokujin (foreigners) are not expected to display perfect etiquette, there is a right and wrong way to eat ramen. It is customary to eat the noodles at the beginning of the meal, so they do not get mushy in the broth. Hashi (chopsticks) are used to shovel the noodles into the mouth while a Chinese-style spoon becomes a vessel for collecting the broth. Alternatively, it is acceptable to drink the broth directly from the bowl by bringing it to your lips.
It is recommended to make loud slurping sounds while eating — the technique is believed to cool down the noodles and enhance the flavor. While it is a compliment to the chef if you finish the bowl, it certainly isn’t expected as servings are often quite large.