Ramen. Piping hot bowls of heavenly temptation that has gone from Japanese comfort food to global phenomena. From the depth of the broth to the bite of the noodles, ramen is increasingly revered for its culinary complexity. Here are some things every foodie needs to know about this iconic Japanese dish.
Ramen made its way from China to Japan when the latter reopened its borders during the Meiji Restoration. Under the Tokugawa Shogunate, Chinatowns were developed in various parts of Japan including Yokohama, Hakodate and Kobe.
‘Ra’ means pulled (in Mandarin) while ‘men’ means noodles. The term is derived from the Chinese lamian (拉麺) or hand-pulled noodles. Until the 1950s, these Chinese-inspired noodles were called ‘Shina soba’ (Shina being an ancient Japanese name for China, and soba refers to buckwheat noodles). Subsequently, it was replaced by ramen when Shina acquired a pejorative connotation.
Four main flavours
While there is a wide variety of ramen served across Japan, depending on local preferences, ramen can be loosely categorised into four main types based on flavour: shio, shoyu, miso and tonkotsu.
Shio (塩, Salt) –
The most traditional flavour and tends to be the saltiest of the four. Shio broths are usually light coloured or clear.
Shoyu (醤油, Soy Sauce) –
A clear, brown broth flavoured with soy sauce. It is also the most common type of ramen served when the menu does not specify a specific type of broth.
Miso (味噌, Soybean Paste) –
A rich, savoury brown broth with a more complex flavour compared to shio or shoyu. Great for those who prefer a more robust, hearty broth.
Tonkotsu (豚骨, Pork Bone) –
Made from boiling pork bones for 12-15 hours till all the collagen has dissolved into a rich, whitish gelatinous stock. While technically not a true flavour since it is contains neither salt nor soy sauce, the broth is distinctive enough to be considered a standalone flavour.
Not all noodles are the same
Ramen noodles are made of wheat and they come in various thickness and textures. For example thin, straight noodles are used in Hakata ramen, thick curly noodles are preferred in Sapporo ramen while Kitakata ramen uses a distinctive type of flat, thick, curly noodles.
6 key toppings
The most common ramen toppings are Charshu (barbecued pork), Nori (dried seaweed sheet), Wakame (a type of rehydrated seaweed), Menma (preserved bamboo shoots), Negi (scallion) and Ajitama (seasoned soft-boiled egg).
Depending on local produce and taste preferences, a wide variety of other toppings are also used. For example some ramen restaurants add black fungus for an extra crunch while many Sapporo ramens are topped with butter and corn – two of their best-known local produce.
A Hokkaido heritage
In Hokkaido, ramen is one of the prefecture’s heritage, listed in the Hokkaido Heritage Project in 2001. Just in Hokkaido alone, there are three main ‘regional types’ of ramen:
Sapporo ramen –
The capital of Hokkaido is also the birthplace of miso ramen. The tonkotsu (sometimes tonkotsu with chicken) soup base is accented with strong flavours of miso, lard and garlic, and paired with thick, al dente yellow noodles.
Hakodate ramen –
This bustling maritime town is home to a lighter version of the shio ramen served with mild chicken-pork soup base and soft stringy noodles.
Asahikawa ramen –
Hokkaido’s second-largest city is known for its shoyu ramen which combines a pork-seafood soup base with whitish, stringy noodles. It is then topped with a layer of hot oil to keep the soup warm throughout the meal during frigid winter months.
Slurp it up
In Japan, slurping noodles is considered evidence of enjoying your meal, and an indirect compliment to the chef. Just be careful not to splash the noodles back into the broth. If a spoon is provided, use it to drink the soup; otherwise, lift the bowl to your mouth and drink from it directly.
Most importantly, finish your noodles while they’re hot before they get soggy.
In most ramen restaurants, you can ask for a second serving of noodles when you still have plenty of broth left in your bowl. Just say “Kaedama onegai shimasu” (Kaedama, please) and you’ll have freshly cooked noodles placed into your bowl of broth.