Why the World Has Fallen in Love with Japanese Ramen
Slurping noodles, steaming fragrant broth, and a whole host of toppings covering every texture – there’s a lot to love when it comes to ramen. This humble dish started out in China and is believed to have been carried over to Japan. How it arrived in Japan is still a mystery but some believe it was introduced by a Confucian Scholar named Shu Shunsui who fled China for Japan during the Edo period. Historians tend to refute this and instead suggest that ramen was first served up in Japan in Yokohama Chinatown by immigrants in the 19th century. It would have been super different to the style of ramen we know today – simpler, smaller, and without any toppings, the dish was considered something to end a meal with rather than a meal itself.
The popularity of ramen grew as food carts started to reappear on the scene and as Japan became more industrial. Ramen had grown to be a low-cost filling meal for workers, soldiers, and students in the urban areas. The combo of salt, meat, water, fat, and carbs made it a great choice for those seeking a dish that helped your energy levels stay high all day. After world war two, ramen popularity took a tumble as the food shortage made it impossible to get hold of rice. Wheat flour was easier to get hold of and as a result ramen hawkers began to make their noodles from wheat instead. At first, this didn’t prove a popular choice and some street vendors even went to jail for selling this style of ramen. All this changed dramatically in the course of a few years.
In 1958 the instant noodle was invented by Momofuko Ando and these easy to cook long life noodles were targeted towards the middle class. Ramen once again began to climb the ranks as a popular food for all. In the 1980’s Japanese owned ramen joints began to pop up and eating ramen became trendy with office workers. The ramen boom was back and as more ramen shops popped up, different regions started to experiment with different versions of the dish. Now, ramen is popular all over the world and is considered to be a staple of Japan’s epicurean culture.
What's in Ramen?
While the word ramen means pulled noodles in Japanese when we talk about ramen we are also referring to the delicious dish that has become so popular around the world. Ramen mainly consists of the signature kansui noodles served up in a beautiful broth and decorated with different toppings. While there may be a handful of main flavors of ramen broth, there’s a whole world of choice simmering below the surface. Lots of different regions play around with the classic concept, tweaking and adding their own take to make a ramen dish they can call their own.
The Common Broths
With a few common broths providing the base for most ramen, these five styles are considered to be the main players in this pulled noodle soup scene. While these may be the main styles there are tons of different versions of ramen across Japan. Japan has an exciting list of regional varieties and it doesn’t just stretch to region but also to different ramen shops within that region. Even outside of Japan, the US and other places where ramen is big have also experimented with the traditional formula and come up with some innovative creations too. One of the joys of ramen is how much you can play around with it and this has certainly been the case with spicier styles of ramen entering the scene. As you can see these ramen broth types don’t have too many ingredients but each broth boasts its own unique flavoring – whether tangy or light, cloudy or clear, salty, or fresh – let’s take a closer look at the big hitters.
Originating from modern-day Fukuoka and lending its mouthwatering fragrance to Tokyo’s Asakusa region, tonkotsu ramen is made from boiling pork bones for hours until it brings a creamy cloudy look to the tonkotsu broth.
Coming from the Sapporo region of Hokkaido, miso ramen takes its name from its main ingredient. This broth is strong and savory and has an opaque appearance. There’s lots of different varieties of miso paste too – white miso, red miso, barley miso, and soybean miso are just a few.
Shoyu means soy sauce in Japanese and this style of noodle dish was actually the first type of ramen and is still going strong. There’s lots of different varieties of shoyu ramen but the taste is normally salty and tangy.
Shio means salt and this style of ramen tends to be light and transparent. It’s often made by boiling down chicken bones and flavored with seafood based products like dried sardines, dashi stock, and bonito flakes.
These thick and hearty ramen noodles are cooked, plunged into cool water, and then served alongside a bowl of tare ramen broth. You dip the noodles and let the thick soup coat each strand in tasty moisture. There are plenty of different varieties of tsukemen soup – from seafood flavors to salty pork broth.
Ramen noodles are made from wheat flour, water, salt, and the special ingredient that gives them their unique ramen goodness – kansui. Kansui is an alkaline water that contains potassium carbonate and sodium carbonate. This is what gives ramen noodles their unique flavor, their golden yellow coloring, and their bouncy firmness. If there’s no kansui handy, it can sometimes be replaced with egg yolk to achieve a similar golden glow and firm texture.
Ramen comes in a whole range of sizes and shapes. It can be curly, straight, wavy, thick, or thin. Traditionally ramen noodles were made by hand but since the 20th century with ramen being a highly in-demand style of noodle, there are automatic machines helping turn out plenty of ramen noodles.
As ramen takes its name from ‘pulled noodles’, it hints at how they are made. A lump of dough would have been stretched and folded, stretched and folded many times until it reached the desired length and thickness. There are two main types of ramen noodles – high alkaline which is lighter and brighter, and low alkaline which is denser, heavier, and has a stronger wheat flavor. Thin noodles are more likely to be highly alkaline and will have more spring in their step, thick or wavy noodles are more likely to be low alkaline.
How thick the noodles are may depend on the regional variety of the ramen dish you are eating. Kitakata ramen tends to have super thick noodles for example in comparison to Sapporo or Tokyo ramen where the noodles are thin. Hakata ramen is also said to have the thinnest noodles of all.
Because of the raw alkaline and flour dusting on fresh ramen noodles, it is best to boil them separately from the broth so they don’t disrupt the taste and texture of the soup too early on. There is also a practice called kaedama where you add extra noodles halfway through eating the soup.
Extra Ingredients & Ramen Toppings
There’s a mile-long list of added ingredients and ramen toppings that can step your noodle bowl up a notch. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular additions to our favorite ramen dishes…
Menma - these fermented bamboo shoots add texture and a satisfying clean crunch to any ramen dish.
Green Onions / Negi - the kansui style of ramen tends to be topped with chopped scallions whereas Kanto style comes topped with sliced leeks.
Pickled Ginger - ginger brings a boost of health and warming spice to any noodle soup dish.
Chashu - thinly sliced morsels of pork belly that have been barbequed or braised to bring out its juiciness.
Nori - dried seaweed brings a salty satisfying crinkled crunch to ramen.
Kamaboko / Naruto – these steamed cakes made from fish paste have an aesthetically pleasing pink and white swirled pattern to pretty up your ramen.
Boiled Eggs – soft boiled eggs with their golden yolk bring a beautiful creaminess when added to your ramen. These eggs are normally marinated in mirin and soy sauce for extra flavor.
Corn – Sapporo was the first place to add sweet kernels of corn to their miso ramen dishes.
Umeboshi - pickled plum
Wakame - type of seaweed
Kikurage – wood mushroom
Kakumi – braised pork cubes
Sesame Seeds - A generous sprinkle of sesame brings a delicate finish
Soy Sauce - This briny fermented soybean sauce is a ramen staple
Butter - The richness of butter balances the dish beautifully
14 Regional Varieties of Ramen
Star flavors and styles of ramen all evolve over the years and can vary depending on what part of the country they come from. From the north to the south and from island to mainland, each area takes ramen to a whole new level. While Sapporo stakes its claim on the famed miso ramen, Hakata celebrates that magical milky pork bone Tonkotsu broth. With so many satisfying regional styles, here is a handful you may want to explore…
1) Sapporo Miso Ramen
On the northern island of Hokkaido, the city of Sapporo was the first to dream up their signature miso Ramen. Using chicken or pork bones combined with red miso to make the broth, you get a truly rich and heart-warming soup for those chilly weather days. This noodle and broth combo is topped with bean sprouts, butter, corn, leeks and as Hokkaido is home to major fishing ports, adding seafood to the soup is also common.
2) Wakayama Ramen
From Shikoku Island, Wakayama Ramen uses a blend of tonkotsu and shoyu style broths to create something spectacular. Dark brown and delicious, this broth is topped with a raw egg and served with green onions, char siu, fish cakes, and menma. This dish is known locally as chuka soba which translates to Chinese soba.
3) Hakata Ramen
Super straight noodles and a cloudy soup form the basis of Hakata ramen. This style of ramen originates from Fukuoka in Southern Japan. The tonkotsu bone broth is super silky and this dish needs minimal toppings as it's already drenched in flavor. Hakata was originally sold from food stalls to fishermen needing a quick hearty meal to fill them up. Now, Hakata ramen can be found around the globe as the Ippudo ramen shop went global. As the tonkotsu broth is full of amino acids and collagen from the bones, it’s also great for lining your digestive system and giving your immunity a boost.
As mentioned, tsukemen separates the soup and the ramen noodles into different dishes, giving you the chance to grab a mouthful with your chopsticks and have fun with the dipping sauce element. This style of ramen originated in Tokyo by Kazuo Yamagishi. Usually, the noodles are cooked and then plunged into cold water so they retain their firmness and shape. The soup can be served hot or cold and tends to be pork based and full of intense flavors thanks to the seasoning. Dashi can also be added by the diner to dilute the intensity to match their palate.
5) Abura Soba
Abura means oil in Japanese and soba is a style of noodles – so the name of this dish is oil noodles. What makes this style of ramen stand out from the crowd is the fact that it comes without any broth. However, this soupless ramen doesn’t scrimp on taste as it makes full use of making sure the ramen has a flavor bursting tare sauce. Despite the reference in the title to soba, this dish uses ramen noodles. The soba is a reference to the old Chinese name of these noodles - chuka soba. There are many different varieties of abura soba and it depends what region you are in as to what toppings and flavors you can expect. Usually, abura soba brings together chashu, egg yolk, nori, scallions, chili oil and seasoned ground pork with plenty of umami flavor.
6) Asahikawa Ramen
A shoyu type ramen that comes from the city of the same name in Hokkaido, asahikawa ramen is oily, complex, and delicious. Using wavy noodles, lots of soy sauce, and a broth made up of chicken, pork, and fish all add to the richness of this dish. Thanks to the fatty sheen that sits on top of this dish it also takes time to cool making it a must for those chilly northern days.
7) Hakodate Ramen
A light and clear version of ramen that hails from the Hokkaido region, hakodate takes its base from a pale and salty chicken broth seasoned with herbs. The noodles in this fragrant golden dish are straight and can either be medium or thin when it comes to thickness. Toppings include menma (bamboo shoots), char siu, spinach, corn, leeks, scallions, and naruto fish cake swirls.
8) Kitakata Ramen
This regional style of ramen hails from the city with the most ramen shops per capita. Kitakata is a city in Fukushima and this local ramen is built upon a soy sauce base before being topped with fish cakes, green onions, char sui, and bamboo shoots. Along with a soy sauce broth there’s also niboshi (sardines), Tonkotsu, and sometimes vegetables or chicken to bring a little extra oomph and depth. Kitakata ramen also uses hirauchi jukusei takasuimen noodles that are thick and wavy and have a fabulously firm texture thanks to their lengthy maturing period.
9) Sapporo Ramen
Celebrated as being one of the three great ramens from the Hokkaido region, sapporo ramen is buttery and rich. A miso soybean base sets the scene along with the tonkotsu pork bone broth and the golden curly noodles. Add in some juicy char sui, bamboo shoots, green onions, and vegetables like cabbage, corn, and bean sprouts and you have a heart-warming combo. A melting pat of butter and seasonal seafood also make an appearance in sapporo ramen meaning every delicious box is well and truly ticked.
10) Kurume Ramen
A close relative to the hakata ramen, kurume is thought to be the original way that tonkatsu was made before it met its modern twist. It’s very similar to tonkatsu but is even richer thanks to the addition of trotters, and pig's head that can be added to the broth to deepen the flavor. Toppings can also include fried pig lard and seaweed.
11) Okinawa Soba
From the island of Okinawa, this trademark ramen style offers a thick udon style noodle served up in a ramen-like broth. The broth is sublime and laced with an edible seaweed called kombu, katsuobushi flakes, and thick-sliced boneless pork rib for that extra meaty flavor. You also find it topped with fish cake, scallion, and pickled ginger.
12) Kagoshima Ramen
A southern port on the edge of Kyushu, this is the home of kagoshima ramen. This style of ramen is light and delicious and made from pork bone broth, cloudy chicken stock, dried sardines, kelp, dried mushrooms, and vegetables. This dish also comes with a slightly thicker noodle and can be served with pickled daikon. As Kagoshima is home to kurobuta pork it also means you get an extra tender and delicious style of chashu to top this ramen right off.
13) Ganja Ramen
Tokyo Underground Ramen shop can often be found by following the long line of people heading to Ikebukuro station. The ganja ramen shop is said to be the king of saitama tsukemen and home to one of the best fish stocks you can find. A vending machine offers a plethora of ordering options and the house-made noodles are flat and delicious and either come served with the dark or light version of the soup and topped with chashu.
14) Tokyo-style Ramen
Celebrated as the ‘original ramen’, tokyo style ramen is the poster child for what wonders can happen can broth meets noodle. The soup tends to be made from chicken or pork bones with some added soy sauce and thick curly noodles. With a dark and dreamy colored broth as the base, the toppings usually include char sui, bamboo shoots, fish cakes, spinach, kelp, seaweed, kamaboko, scallions, and a soft boiled egg that all add to an explosion of flavor.
How to Make Ramen at Home
Making noodles from scratch sounds like a divine plan for any ramen lover but it can be kind of tricky, especially if you don’t have an automatic ramen machine helping you with the whole stretch and pull system. While swapping out the homemade noodle approach for instant ramen works, this doesn’t always have the same texture as the fresh stuff. Instant ramen doesn’t always hold up as well in the broth and can get mushy pretty quickly whereas the fresh stuff will hold its shape and firmness even when immersed in delicious bone broth.
Fortunately, there’s always an awesome answer. Nona Lim traditional ramen noodles are authentic, springy, and vegan friendly as they go the traditional way and use kansui instead of egg. They keep the texture, they hold their shape, and they can hang around in a bowl of broth all day. Yep, this is the real deal without spending hours rolling yourself into a sticky dough hole.
Here’s how to make awesome home ramen in minutes…
- Open a pouch of spicy ramen broth and add it to the pot
- Heat on the stove until steaming hot
- Bring water to a rolling boil
- Add your ramen noodles and use a chopstick to gently separate
- Cook for two minutes and strain
- Add to the spicy ramen broth
- Top with your choice of soft tofu, chasyu, bamboo shoots, a boiled egg, sesame seeds, nori or whatever toppings you want to build up your own simmering bowl of bliss.
How many regional ramen dishes have you tried? Or are any on your list for the future? We would love to hear which ramen dishes get you drooling. Share with us in the comments.