A Comprehensive Guide to Ramen: From Its History to Variations, How to Eat It, and Popular Restaurants
Ramen is hugely popular not just among Japanese people, but also among foreign visitors to Japan. Many of you may be planning to have ramen at least once while visiting Japan. This article gives a comprehensive overview of ramen to help you find the perfect bowl.
- What is Ramen?
- Rooted in Chinese Cuisine?! The History of Ramen
- How to Make Ramen
- Looking for Your Favorite Ramen? Types of Ramen and How to Select Them - The Tare and Dashi are Key to the Soup
- [Tare] Shoyu
- [Tare] Shio (salt)
- [Tare] Miso
- [Dashi] Seafood
- [Dashi] Chicken Bone
- [Dashi] Tonkotsu
- Dashi】Komi Yasai (flavorful vegetables)
- Connoisseur Tips - Types of Noodles that Can Change a Bowl of Ramen
- All About Ramen Toppings and Seasonings
- Ramen Variations
- Evolving Cup Ramen and Packaged Ramen, Perfect as Souvenirs
- Ramen Regions and Local Ramen to Check Out
- What to Know Before Going to a Ramen Restaurant
- The Best Way to Eat Ramen
- Must-Visit Ramen Spots
- Popular Ramen Restaurants
What is Ramen?
In addition to ramen, there are many different types of noodles in Japan, such as udon and soba. What defines ramen is that lye water (alkaline solution) is used to make it. There are "ramen" made without lye water, but they are not technically defined as ramen.
Ramen comes in a wide variety of flavors depending on the soup, noodles, and toppings. Recently, there has even been an emergence of vegan ramen made without meat or fish!
Rooted in Chinese Cuisine?! The History of Ramen
There are conflicting theories about the origins of ramen, but the general consensus is that it evolved as a fusion of Chinese noodles and Japanese cooking methods. A major difference between noodle dishes in China and Japanese ramen is the amount of lye water in the noodles. There is more in Japanese ramen, resulting in the unique chewiness of its noodles.
The first ramen restaurant in Japan, Rairaiken, opened in 1910. Its ramen was shoyu (soy sauce) ramen made with tonkotsu (pork bone) and torigara (chicken bone) soup topped with minced scallions, chashu (pork braised in soy sauce), and menma (bamboo shoots), so ramen had pretty much already been developed into the form you see it as today.
There was a yatai (food cart) boom after the Great Kanto Earthquake 13 years later, and ramen shops from Tokyo spread across the country.
How to Make Ramen
The soup is a key element that captures the taste buds when eating ramen. So how are they made? They are actually a combination of a rich tare (sauce) and dashi (broth) made by simmering vegetables, meat, or seafood for a long time. There is a wide range of tare and dashi depending on the ingredients, and combining the two results in an endless selection of ramen soup.
Noodles that have been boiled and thoroughly drained of hot water are placed in the ramen. If the noodles are not completely strained of water, the soup can be diluted or the flour the noodles were dusted with may not come off, and the flavors can be ruined.
Perhaps you've seen a ramen chef drain the noodles of water by shaking them in a vertical motion in a deep cylindrical colander called "tebo". This is not just for show, and is actually a key step in making great ramen.
Looking for Your Favorite Ramen? Types of Ramen and How to Select Them - The Tare and Dashi are Key to the Soup
First, let's go over the soup, which is critical to finding your favorite ramen.
Because ramen soup is made by combining tare and dashi, it can taste vastly different with the same tare but different dashi. Once you know the characteristics of various tare and dashi, it will be easier to select the restaurant you want to go to.
Shoyu ramen is popular for the light soup and rich aftertaste. It is recommended for those who do not like heavy soups. The tare that is the base of shoyu ramen is usually made by adding shoyu, sake, garlic, ginger and seasoning to the liquid from cooking chashu that is packed with umami flavors.
Because it is a light sauce, it is also used as the base for restaurants to create their own unique ramen, such as ones with lard or with fish sauces used in Vietnamese and Thai cooking.
[Tare] Shio (salt)
Shio ramen is flavored simply so you can taste the umami flavors of the dashi and the noodles. It is said to be the hardest to make because the natural flavors of the ingredients are so clearly reflected.
Shio tare is usually made by dissolving salt in mirin (type of sweet rice wine used in cooking), sake, and shoyu, and adding seasoning and sugar. It can be enjoyed as shio ramen with standard toppings but also goes well with seafood soups and toppings and chicken paitan soup made with chicken dashi.
Miso tare is recommended for those who like strong flavors. Miso ramen at some restaurants is slightly spicy. Miso tare can be combined with a rich soup that is not overpowered by the strong aroma of miso so that the umami flavors of both the miso and soup are enhanced. The soy protein in the miso soaks up the oil in the soup so it does not taste too oily.
Each area across Japan has miso with local flavors that differ due to the ingredients and production methods. The key to a restaurant creating its own flavors is to select and combine miso from among the countless choices available.
One of the appeals of seafood dashi is that the soup can have vastly different flavors depending on the fish that is used. There are ones that are made from fish, such as katsuo (skipjack tuna), maguro (Pacific bluefin tuna), sardine, mackerel, and salmon, and ones made from kombu (kelp), shrimp, and shellfish.
Seafood dashi goes with any tare, but shoyu tare and shio tare are recommended for enjoying the aroma of seafood dashi. Some restaurants are famous for their rich niboshi (dried sardine) dashi, but if you don't like the strong smell of fish, start with katsuo dashi. You'll be able to enjoy a robust flavor with every sip.
*Katsuobushi: Katsuo is smoked so that the moisture is evaporated and its deep umami flavors are concentrated. It is shaved thinly and cooked in hot water to make a dashi.
*Niboshi: Small fish are cooked then dried then cooked in water to create a dashi.
[Dashi] Chicken Bone
Chicken bone is full of glutamic acid, which is a component of umami. It has less collagen than pork bone, so when it is cooked, the soup does not turn milky but remains clear. Chicken paitan, which has become a common dish, is made by cooking the chicken bone for a longer time so that the fat melts into the soup, which becomes milky and the flavors rounder.
Dashi taken from chicken bone is light and goes perfectly with shio tare.
Tonkotsu ramen often evokes the image of rich, creamy, white soup. The milky soup is made by cooking for a long period of time, similar to chicken paitan. Tonkotsu dashi, which has richer flavors than chicken paitan, can be combined with shoyu and miso tare without losing the aroma of the tonkotsu.
Dashi】Komi Yasai (flavorful vegetables)
Dashi made of komi yasai is often used for vegan ramen. Komi yasai refers to vegetables like onion, scallion, carrot, cabbage, and potato. Apple is used to add sweetness, and ginger and garlic are used to counter the smell of meat. The dashi has a natural sweetness without the use of sugar.
Connoisseur Tips - Types of Noodles that Can Change a Bowl of Ramen
The soup is not the only factor that determines how good ramen is - the thickness, firmness and curliness of the noodles are essential as well.
For example, thin, straight noodles fuse with the soup so it is perfect for enjoying the flavors of light soups such as in shio ramen. Thick, chewy noodles are better for rich soups or ones with fat at the top so that they are not overwhelmed by the soup and the flavors of both the noodles and the soup can be enjoyed.8
All About Ramen Toppings and Seasonings
Chashu, which is fatty pork belly cooked in soy sauce and other seasoning, is a perennial favorite. It comes in varying thickness and softness depending on the restaurant.
Menma is made by marinating a type of bamboo shoot called machiku in salt and fermenting it. Its appeal is the crunchy texture and deep flavors.
Ajitama is boiled egg that has been flavored by marinating in a soy-based sauce. It is often soft-boiled, so be careful not to let all the yolk run out when breaking it open in the soup.
Chopped scallions, seaweed, corn, beni shoga (red pickled ginger)
Corn is often served with miso ramen. Its sweetness enhances the aroma of the miso. Beni shoga and takana (leaf mustard) are often served with tonkotsu ramen.
[Condiments that go well with ramen]
Pepper, vinegar, sesame seeds, garlic, sudachi (a Japanese citrus), butter, etc.
Tsukemen, hiyashi ramen, hiyashi chuka, abura soba, maze soba, Taiwan ramen, wonton-men, Canton-men... These are all very similar variations of ramen but they are not the same. Here are the differences.
Tsukemen is noodles dipped in a warm soup. With hiyashi ramen, both the noodles and soup are cold. It has a similar name to hiyashi chuka, but are flavored completely differently.
Abura soba and maze soba have slightly different ingredients and are made with different oils, but they are very similar. Both have very little soup and the noodles are eaten mixed with tare or oil.
Taiwan ramen is a very spicy ramen. Canton-men are noodles in a viscous soup. Wonton-men is ramen with meat wonton dumplings.
The Difference Between Chuka Soba and Ramen
Although they have different names ("chuka soba" means "Chinese noodles"), they are the same. Some restaurants will have "chuka soba" on the menu or in the restaurant name, but order it and you will be served ramen.
The Difference Between Ramen, Tanmen, and Champon
Tanmen is noodles in a salt-flavored soup with vegetables added. Think of it as ramen with plenty of vegetables. Chanpon is a dish from Nagasaki Prefecture of vegetables, such as bean sprouts, cabbage, and cloud ear mushrooms, cooked with seafood, pork and kamaboko (steamed seasoned fish paste) in tonkotsu and chicken bone soup. The key difference is that everything is cooked together while the soup and noodles are prepared separately in ramen.
The Difference Between Hiyashi Chuka and Hiyashi Ramen
While hiyashi ramen is chilled ramen, the tare for hiyashi chuka is made mainly with soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil and vinegar. It has a light, acidic flavor, so it is popular in the summer. Cooked noodles are topped with julienned cucumber, egg, ham, and other ingredients, and the tare is poured over them.
Evolving Cup Ramen and Packaged Ramen, Perfect as Souvenirs
Cup ramen and packaged ramen are light and easy to take home and a great way to recreate the flavors of Japanese ramen. Cup ramen are products with the noodles, soup, and ingredients in a cup that is prepared by pouring hot water over them. Packaged ramen have the soup and noodles in a bag that are cooked with hot water in a pot.
Cup ramen are easier, but the appeal of packaged ramen is that you can add your own toppings. There is the fun of making your very own ramen by, for example, adding ham, egg, and corn, and perhaps even changing the flavors midway by adding butter.
Although they are ready-made foods, there is a wide variety available at supermarkets and convenience stores, including ones with authentic soup and ones with noodles that taste almost like freshly made noodles.
Ramen Regions and Local Ramen to Check Out
In Japan, there are many "gotochi ramen" (local ramen) that are unique to their locations. Some examples are miso-flavored Sapporo Ramen in Hokkaido, Hachioji Ramen with a soy-based soup and chopped onion topping in Tokyo, and Kyushu's Hakata Ramen famous for tonkotsu soup.
It may be fun to travel around Japan and try local ramen. Why not look at past articles to find out what local ramen there are in the places you plan to visit?
What to Know Before Going to a Ramen Restaurant
Ramen restaurants are often small and many only have counter seating.
If there is a ticket machine, purchase the ticket for the ramen and toppings you want, and give it to a restaurant staff.
The ticket machines often just have the item names, so if there is an item you want to try at a restaurant, look it up online first, and if you can bring a photograph, it will be easier for the restaurant staff to help you.
[Ramen terms for looking up ramen restaurants]
・W soup: Meat-based soup, such as tonkotsu or chicken bone, and seafood soup is poured into the ramen bowl at the same time
・Iekei ramen: Ramen made by disciples of of the ramen restaurant Yoshimuraya in Yokohama. Characterized by a combination of rich, tonkotsu soup and soy-based soup
The Best Way to Eat Ramen
Ramen restaurants often have various condiments, such as pepper and vinegar, on the counter. If you add them from the beginning, you won't be able to taste the subtleties of the flavors the chef has created, so enjoy the noodles and soup as they are to start, then adjust them to your taste.
Must-Visit Ramen Spots
It will be difficult to visit all the popular ramen restaurants around Japan, but you can go to places with multiple outlets of popular restaurants to compare the flavors.
Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum, Ramen Stadium in Fukuoka, Sapporo Ramen Republic, and Tokyo Ramen Kokugikan Mai are irresistible places for ramen lovers where you can try ramen from a number of famous ramen shops.
Popular Ramen Restaurants
Here are three popular ramen restaurants in places that are easy to get to in Tokyo.
AFURI - A Popular Ramen Restaurant in Tokyo
This is a highly renowned ramen restaurant where you can have ramen made through great skill and attention to detail in a stylish cafe-like space. Its signature Yuzu Shio Ramen (1,080 JPY (incl. tax)) is a fantastic dish of clear soup with rich flavors and the refreshing smell of yuzu citrus. The noodles made with a mixture of whole wheat flour and rye flour give off a slight aroma of wheat that goes wonderfully with the gentle flavors of the soup.
At this restaurant, an oil called "chiyu", which locks in the umami flavors of chicken and komi yasai, is added to make the flavors of the soup richer and rounder. You can select the amount of this oil to be added by choosing the standard "tanrei" or "maroaji" to get more of it.
Mouko Tanmen Nakamoto - Famous for its Super Spicy Ramen
If you love spicy food, why not go to Mouko Tanmen Nakamoto? Ten levels of spiciness are listed on the menu, and there is even a warning on the website that says "first timers please beware."
If you like spicy food but don't want it super spicy, start with the Miso Tanmen (800 JPY) or Mouko Tanmen (820 JPY).
There are cup noodles that recreate the flavors of Mouko Tanmen Nakamoto sold at the convenience store chain 7-Eleven. If you like the ramen at the restaurant, you can get the cup noodles to take home.
Ichiran - The Famous Tonkotsu Ramen Restaurant
Ichiran, which has unique seating with barriers between each seat, is famous for their classic tonkotsu ramen. When you sit down, you will fill out an order sheet on which you specify the ramen flavors you want. If you are going to Ichiran for the first time, choose "standard" for flavor strength and richness and "super firm" or "firm" for the firmness of the noodles. The "akai hiden-no tare" is a sauce made with chili peppers appropriate for those who want to add spice. There is some spiciness with the "standard", so if you are not particularly partial to spiciness, you will still enjoy the ramen without the tare.
*Prices differ between 890 JPY (incl. tax), 930 JPY (incl. tax), and 980 JPY (incl. tax) depending on the location
Ramen, which is a popular comfort food around Japan, is an item well worth trying when visiting Japan. Refer to this article to find the restaurant that suits your taste and go out for the perfect bowl!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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