Ramen Guide for Beginners
Where to begin on those bright yellow noodles in a lip-smacking pool of savoury deliciousness?
Ramen has become ubiquitous, from instant packets to formal dining. Japanese ramen chains have popped up around the world such as Ippudo and Ichiran. Non-Japanese chefs, such as David Chang and Ivan Orkin, have popularized ramen in the US, while many Japanese ramen chefs have ventured abroad to share their perfected ramen dishes.
While you may happily (or grudgingly) go out of your way to plonk $15 for a bowl of ramen outside of Japan, here in the home country, ramen is soul food, drunken food, fast food.
There are of course ramen shops awarded with Michelin stars and basked in media glory, but there are many more shops hidden behind train stations and department buildings, tucked in inconspicuous streets, or sandwiched among rows of food stalls, where salarymen and students, the old and the young, men and women, press against each other at the counter, facing the bustling kitchen as their meal is prepared.
From broth to noodles to toppings, ramen varies are based on region and specialties. It is near impossible to scratch the surface to compile a comprehensive guide to ramen, but nonetheless, here is a start to get you drooling and dreaming of your next ramen adventure.
JAPANESE RAMEN GUIDE
What is Ramen?
Ramen is a Japanese adaptation of the Chinese Lamian. To call it “ramen,” it must consist of wheat noodles and soup. While there are several contested theories on how and when it originally arrived in Japan, ramen has always been cheap and filling, the food of champions for blue-collar workers.
In this Japanese ramen guide, we won’t go into the details of ramen deviations such as Tsukemen (ramen with dipping broth), Hiyashi Chuka (cold ramen), Abura Soba (soupless ramen tossed with oil based dressing) among others, as the realm of ramen is far too vast to be compiled into one article. Instead, we’ll discuss the types of ramen based on 3 main components: broth flavours, noodles, and toppings.
Ramen Broth Flavors: The 3 main broth flavours of ramen are Shio, Shoyu, and Miso.
These are also the building blocks that ramen shops use to develop flavours. This is where shops become creative and secret recipes are born. Ramen masters add their own ratio of umami-rich ingredients to the broth, such as dried kelp or seafood, animal bones, charred vegetables, or aromatics.
Why no Tonkotsu or Tori Paitan? They are broth bases, not flavours. Tonkotsu is a pork bone broth. Tori Paitan is a chicken bone broth, seasoned with salt, soy sauce and other seasonings, and simmered for hours with aromatics to extract the collagen from the bones.
As Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats wonderfully summarizes in this article on why tonkotsu is not listed as a broth flavour - It’s sort of like saying “there are four basic types of pizza: Neapolitan, Sicilian, New York, and pepperoni.”
Shio: Light coloured to the point of almost translucent, shio ramen is the saltiest of them all and the lightest in terms of oil as it is boiled down to concentrate the flavour.
Shoyu: Not just your table soy sauce, shoyu ramen is usually made from the shop’s blend of secret ingredients. Depending on what else is swirled into the broth, it could partake a clear brown colour that’s light on the tongue or a dark cloudy colour that’s dense and thick. Check out the JOC recipe for Spicy Shoyu Ramen.
Miso: The most umami-rich of the three ramens and also the heaviest, miso ramen has a bolder and more complex flavour. Miso ramen originates from the northern island of Hokkaido, but its popularity has spread across the country, where there are as many different miso ramen broths as there is miso (the paste). Check out the JOC recipe for Vegetarian Miso Ramen.
Ramen Noodles: Those eggy yellow noodles consist of four ingredients: wheat flour, salt, water, and kansui (a type of alkaline mineral water).
While the vivid colour may trick you into thinking eggs are involved, the colour is due to the mineral composition of kansui. It comes in various shapes and lengths: thick, thin, wavy, straight. Some shops churn out their noodles in-house while others outsource their supply.
Ramen Toppings: A pizza without toppings is delicious on its own, but ramen without toppings is a lonely bowl of noodles. Ramen toppings range from blanched vegetables and seasonings to hearty cuts of meat and thick sauces, which are quickly topped right before serving.
Chashu: Different from the Chinese char siu, Japanese chashu (transliteration of char siu) omits the roasting and instead simmers the meat block for hours in a sweet soy sauce. Chashu is usually served sliced, but some places torch the meat until crispy and cut the meat into cubes. Check out the JOC recipe for Chashu.
Menma: Menma are lacto-fermented bamboo shoots, which are usually imported from China. Light brown in colour, they are long brown strips with a texture between crunchy and fibrous.
Nori, Wakame. You may see sheets of nori in your bowl, slightly soggy by the time the bowl arrives in front of you. Wakame is another type of seaweed that’s most likely in miso or shio ramen.
The bean sprouts in ramen are precooked, either blanched or stir-fried (unlike in Vietnamese pho where it is topped raw to be “cooked” in the hot broth). Not only does it bulk up the dish, but the crunchy texture is a palate cleanser between each bite of savory noodles. Check out JOC recipe for Spicy Bean Sprouts.
Eggs are a must in a bowl of ramen, whether whole or sliced in half, seasoned or plain, soft boiled or firm. Ajitsuke Tamago (also known by its shortened name Ajitama) are marinated eggs in soy sauce and mirin. Hanjyuku Tamago are soft boiled eggs. Both Ajitsuke Tamago and Hanjyuku Tamago are characterized by the custardy creamy yolks.