Ask anyone outside Japan about the Japanese foods that come to mind, and ramen is likely to be mentioned.
Alongside sushi and tempura in the triad of contemporary Japanese cuisine, ramen is a highlight for visitors to Japan and for aficionados of Japanese food around the world.
But what is it about ramen that has made it popular as a Japanese staple, both inside Japan and beyond its borders? How did ramen come about to exist? And is ramen even a Japanese food to begin with?
We’ll answer these and other questions about ramen in this issue of the Japanese Taste blog.
What Is Ramen?
Ramen could be seen as a bowl of noodle soup. Yet saying that ramen is a bowl of noodle soup would be like saying that the Mona Lisa is a painting of a woman.
Ramen is, of course, so much more than that. It is Japan’s iconic comfort food, a staple that is a go-to for office workers at lunchtime, for night-owls after the bar or club, and even for truck drivers at breakfast. Ramen is available virtually anywhere you look in cities, suburbs and rural areas; served in establishments ranging from humble ramen shops (at its origins) to Michelin-starred restaurants and a wide range in between.
For the purposes of this article, we are discussing ramen as served and eaten in restaurants (and sometimes cooked in a similar style at home). While “instant ramen” is of course popular and might be the first thing that springs to mind for some people, we’ll focus here on the traditional ramen that is prepared from scratch with fresh ingredients.
Ramen is typically composed of a stock (originally pork, but now with many variations including vegetarian); noodles; toppings of protein (traditionally chashu or barbecued pork) and vegetables; and often finished with sesame oil (or other “abura”) for added flavor and heat retention. The stock is complex, rich and comforting – be it on a cold, winter’s day in Hokkaido or a sweltering summer’s eve in Hakata. The toppings vary widely by locality and by establishment. It’s become more common to see an ajitsuke tamago or “ajitama” (marinated, soft-boiled ramen egg) on top, for flavor and texture as well as for visual appeal. Even the ramen noodles are hardly uniform, with regional and stylistic distinctions in taste, texture, shape, size, color, flavor and (whew!) alkalinity.
It would be difficult to say that one singular definition of ramen exists. Pinpointing any one style or adaptation of ramen as being “authentic” or “the real thing” would be doing a disservice to all the other forms of ramen that have permeated food culture in Japan and around the world.
Styles Of Ramen: From Shio & Shoyu Ramen To Tonkotsu & Many Others
Chances are, anywhere you go in Japan will have its own style of ramen.
Tokyo, for example, is known for shoyu ramen, which relies on soy sauce to season its broth. But the Japanese capital boasts ramen restaurants that serve virtually all forms of ramen. Many people from Tokyo hail from somewhere else in Japan, after all, people who’ve come to the megacity for work or for study. Everyone likes a taste of home, especially people hailing from ramen regions such as Kyushu (home of tonkotsu ramen); Hokkaido (which boasts shio, shoyu and miso ramen on its lineup), Tohoku and others.
The most noticeable variation in ramen comes from its seasoning. Shoyu ramen, which is the standard ramen of Tokyo (and itself has regional subvarieties such as Asahikawa shoyu ramen), uses soy sauce as the seasoning of the broth. Pork is the main ingredient of the soup stock in shoyu ramen; some regions and certain shops will mix pork with other proteins (such as chicken or fish) to make the stock. The noodles in the Tokyo version of shoyu ramen are wavy, and a bit thicker than the noodles found in tonkotsu ramen (but not as wavy and thick as the noodles in Sapporo miso ramen). Standard toppings include menma (bamboo shoots), bean sprouts, sliced onions and chashu (barbecued pork). What’s different when comparing Tokyo shoyu ramen to Asahikawa shoyu ramen? Coming from Japan’s northernmost city, the Asahikawa version is heartier and heavier, with thicker noodles as well as a layer of pork lard added to keep the broth hot (especially ideal in the wintertime).
Shio (Salt) Ramen
Though “salt” is in the name of this ramen variety, shio ramen tends to be lighter in color and flavor compared to shoyu ramen. The benchmark for shio ramen is the city of Hakodate (the southernmost city on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido), whose shio ramen is often served on cold winter days, providing warmth and comfort for residents and visitors alike. Nori (dried seaweed) is a fairly common topping on shio ramen, along with the standards. Shio ramen also tends to remind us most of the origin story of ramen, having started out as a Chinese soup. If you’ve seen or eaten a bowl of Cantonese noodle soup, for example, shio ramen might look familiar.
While the previous two versions of ramen are flavored with mainstay seasonings of soy sauce or salt, this version of ramen gets its flavor from the iconic Japanese fermented bean paste, miso. Miso ramen is practically synonymous with the city of Sapporo, the largest city in Hokkaido. That’s three different types of ramen that are native to Hokkaido, a ramen paradise. Miso gives the ramen a sharper flavor, more pungent, and a thicker appearance that is typically brownish in color. How much (or how little) miso is used in the broth will have a large impact on the overall taste of this ramen, as well as the type of miso used. Sapporo miso ramen features thick, wavy noodles that are full of eggy goodness. And the city is said to be home to over 1000 ramen shops. Miso ramen is available throughout Japan and in many global cities; while conversely, other forms of ramen (such as shio, shoyu and tonkotsu) are available in Sapporo.
Contrary to what certain YouTubers refer to this ramen as, tonkotsu and tonkatsu are not the same thing! The latter is a pork cutlet. Tonkotsu, though, is a magnificent and highly popular form of ramen. With the origin story being of a happy accident, tonkotsu’s humble beginnings are very much rooted in and associated with Japan’s southern island of Kyushu. Within the prefecture of Fukuoka alone, for example, are three distinct sub variants of tonkotsu ramen:
- Nagahama ramen (served in the port & nearby shops)
- Kurume tonkotsu ramen (the original)
- Hakata tonkotsu ramen (the iconic version popular the world over)
Tonkotsu ramen has become the most popular form of ramen in restaurants outside Japan. This is quite possibly due to its rich flavor, velvety texture, and cloudy appearance – owed to the cooking down of pork bones in a broth for several hours (typically 12 hours or more). The resulting broth is cloudy and velvety, particularly warming on a winter’s day but truly good any time of year. The pork qualities of the broth are enhanced with the ubiquitous chashu, and the best shops can (and should) be judged on both.
The noodles in tonkotsu ramen are quite different from those found in Hokkaido’s ramen types, for example. Tonkotsu ramen uses a thin, straight noodle that is made from wheat. It tends to be lighter in color, without the yellowish hue that an egg noodle would give off (because tonkotsu or Hakata ramen noodles typically only use the egg whites).
Hakata ramen is another moniker for tonkotsu ramen. Hakata is the central area of Fukuoka city, in the same Fukuoka prefecture that boasts the invention of tonkotsu ramen in the city of Kurume. Tonkotsu ramen in Hakata can be found in a plethora of ramen shops (including the home branch of Ichiran), as well as in the city’s famed “yatai” or night stalls. If you’re a ramen connoisseur heading anywhere near Kyushu, a steaming bowl of ramen in the evening at a yatai is an experience not to be missed!
Other Varieties Of Ramen
While we’ve covered the main types of ramen seen in Japan – and in Japanese restaurants across the globe – many other ramen varieties are available for your dining pleasure. These range from regional variations and local specialties to twists on ingredients, presentation, and much more. Let’s talk about a few more:
As you’ve seen and surmised by now, ramen and pork are largely intertwined. But that doesn’t have to mean that ramen is a definite no-no for anyone looking to go meatless, porkless, vegetarian, vegan, or Halal. The good news is that, for all of these categories, there are now options.
The first is “tori paitan ramen” or chicken ramen. More and more restaurants are offering this dish or even specializing in it; the best way is to check Google Maps and find it in the name of the restaurant or on the menu. To be certain that the broth and toppings contain no pork, it’s always best to ask ahead of time. We’ve enjoyed bowls of chicken ramen that featured broths as cloudy, whisky, and complex as great tonkotsu ramen – without any pork.
Vegetarian ramen and vegan ramen are also making a surge among the ranks of ramen shops both in and outside of Japan. The broth tends to be made of mushrooms, tofu and/or miso, among other ingredients. Vegetables play a role, of course, and yet the best vegetarian & vegan ramen shops keep true to the original flavor of ramen but still cater to a clientele who have opted for vegetarian/vegan diets.
These categories would all seem to be halal. But that’s not necessarily the case. Ingredients and sub-ingredients in these ramen varieties may contain alcohol in some amount, even if all boiled out in the cooking process long before hitting the bowl. There are, however, restaurants who go out of their way to ensure that Halal laws are followed; again, it’s worth googling these and inquiring before dining.
Ramen is always soup, right? Well, traditionally, yes. But what if we were to entice you with a “soupless” version of ramen? Yes, that exists! It’s called “tsukemen,” and this dish has become more popular in recent years among ramen aficionados and those looking for an alternative to steaming hot bowls of soup. Tsukemen refers to “noodles that you dip,” and that’s exactly what this dish delivers. The noodles become more of the focus in tsukemen, as you can imagine, and must be cooked precisely to the right level – then cooled down and served with a “broth” that is thicker and tangier than typical ramen. If you’ve eaten zaru soba or udon before – the kind of noodles that are served cold, plated separately and dipped in a sauce – the experience will likely be a familiar one. If not, you’re in for a treat, as tsukemen is a dining delight anytime of year, but especially in the summer for those who’d rather not get steamy with all that soup.
Ramen Noodles: Variation In The Ties That Bind
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about a dish whose existence would be nil without one very important ingredient: noodles. But just what kind of noodles are used to make ramen? What makes ramen noodles different from other noodles, and/or different by restaurant or region from other ramen noodles? And can you use any kind of noodle to make ramen at home?
Ramen noodles are prepared and served in a way that is distinct from other kinds of noodles. They are often made by wholesale companies who specialize in ramen noodles; but many ramen shops in Japan make their own ramen noodles as well. Ramen noodles vary by region, for example, the way Hakata ramen noodles tend to be thin, straight and only use egg whites, while Sapporo miso ramen features thick, eggy (yolky), wavy noodles. Ramen noodles can also vary by establishment; for example, in Asahikawa, you won’t find the same kind of noodle in shoyu ramen in every shop. Some noodles are said to have more “umami” than others, though admittedly this can be a subjective term and would even vary from one ramen lover to another. But all can agree that ramen noodles are distinct from other noodle types in that ramen requires the noodle to be more alkaline in nature.
If you’ve walked into a ramen shop in Japan and noticed distinct aromas amidst that steamy goodness emanating from the establishment, it’s not just the broth that you’re likely smelling. Ramen noodles are more alkaline in nature, and many varieties give off a certain odor that can be off-putting for some of the uninitiated. But fear not, the ramen noodle-making process is tried and tested. If the shop is full (or has a line) and/or the reviews are good and plentiful, you can rest assured that the noodles will be of good or excellent quality – Japanese ramen lovers wouldn’t tolerate any other way!
Speaking of soba and udon, what about the differences between soba/udon and ramen? Well, comparing the soba or udon that are served in soup versus bowls of ramen, the differences are apparent both visually and in flavor. Soba/udon is lighter in color, featuring a dashi-based broth that has much less oil and is more about finesse in taste and delivery. Soba noodles are made of buckwheat, and udon noodles are lighter in color and made of only wheat flour, water and salt. Restaurants in Japan typically would not serve both soba/udon and ramen, but rather specialize in one or the other. It’s possible to find Japanese restaurants in other countries that serve both as part of a big menu; if you’re faced with the option and are wondering what’s best: Ramen is the go-to for flavor and a heavier noodle. Soba/udon are typically seen as the “healthier” option (and are often made at home as the process is much less complex than that of ramen).
Now that we’ve got ramen’s culinary elements covered, let’s explore the history of ramen, to discover how ramen came to be the iconic Japanese food that it is today.
The History Of Ramen: Legends, Adaptation & Evolution
While the exact origins of ramen are about as clear as a complex tonkotsu ramen broth, Japanese are generally in agreement that ramen was first a Chinese food before being adapted to Japanese tastes and becoming a culinary mainstay in Japan. In fact, Japanese people are often surprised to hear that ramen is among the favorite Japanese food items for non-Japanese people. “But ramen is originally Chinese!” we’ve heard quite a few times. Indeed, it is… and yet ramen is, in many ways, as Japanese as sushi or tempura.
Ramen is tied to the Chinese diaspora in Japan. Up for debate are whether the first bowl of ramen was created at the early Chinese restaurants in Yokohama (which boasts Japan’s largest Chinatown even today); at Rairaiken restaurant in Asukusa Tokyo (which is said to be the first ramen restaurant in Japan); or at Yowaken restaurant in the Hokkaido city of Hakodate.
We know that the origins of ramen are in dishes such as “chuka soba,” the Chinese-style noodles that made their way to Japan. Evidence to support this can be seen in Chinese restaurants in China and around the world, where it’s common to see a bowl of noodle soup on the menu. Chuka soba is, in fact, still enjoyed in Japan, and in some shops and locales it’s synonymous with ramen.
The history of ramen is one of necessity, adaptation and even accident. Legend has it that tonkotsu ramen (now the most popular form of ramen outside Japan) has as its origin story an accidental overcooking of pork bones in a pot of soup. Having been left on the stove too long, the story goes, the resulting broth was so appealing to the purveyors and customers at a restaurant in Kurume on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu that the concept of tonkotsu ramen came into existence.
Ramen Today: What’s Changed & What’s Stayed Constant
Ramen’s roots, however, are not a point of contention – all would agree that ramen is, at its core, a humble food. Ramen shops opened and flourished thanks to a simple concept: serve inexpensive, hearty food that would fill people’s stomachs; serve it quickly, but with quality in mind; and turn over the seat in a matter of minutes. Workers have enjoyed a quick bowl of ramen as a mainstay meal for decades. The price point for most ramen shops has been kept intentionally low (Michelin-star and trendier establishments notwithstanding).
Ramen restaurants aren’t a place to linger and chat over a slowly-eaten meal; even today. Ramen patrons know to slurp their noodles and eat it all while it’s still hot (and before the noodles become soggy). They know they’ll be in and out in little time, on to the next item of the day, while the restaurant is serving the next customer at the same seat just as the last one is barely out the door.
The average price for a bowl of ramen today is in the range of 600 to 800 yen. The price will vary somewhat based on location (the middle of Tokyo, for example, being more expensive for the same bowl than in a small town in Kyushu) and by ramen category (from ramen shops that cater to students and blue-collar workers to high-end ramen establishments, some of which boast Michelin stars and/or advance bookings of 2-3 months or more).
While ramen is a mainstay of eating in Japan, the question arises: Is ramen healthy? Ramen itself is not unhealthy. Like any other aspect of culinary life in Japan, it’s all about balance. Eating ramen every day would be a bit extreme, and could be considered as less than healthy. But including ramen as an occasional meal as part of an overall balanced and healthy diet, which Japanese food very much represents on the whole, would generally be fine. The average Japanese person eats at a ramen shop once or twice a month.
Making Ramen At Home
All this talk of ramen probably has you hankering for a bowl, right? It sure does for us!
While it’s hard to beat ramen made by ramen shops who specialize and take the time and effort to get it right, it is possible to make a good bowl of ramen at home. To do so, you’ll typically need ingredients such as:
- Protein (pork, chicken, tofu, etc.)
- Ramen noodles
- Tare / Seasonings (shoyu, sake, mirin, salt, miso, etc)
- Vegetables for toppings
Just as there’s no “one” definition of ramen, there’s no singular ramen recipe that covers it all. You’ll find plenty of ramen recipes online, of course, and it’s best to choose the variety of ramen first (e.g. miso ramen, tonkotsu ramen, etc) before googling for recipes. Adjust for your personal taste preferences, and remember that it won’t be perfect the first time, but trial and error (and learning and perfecting along the way) are all part of the fun!
Here’s what we carry at Japanese Taste that will go great in your homemade ramen adventures:
- Horiuchi Kuro Mayu Japanese Natural Black Garlic Oil 80g
- Horiuchi Spicy Golden Sesame Oil 32g
- Shimomura Japanese Renge Spoon (5 Pieces Set) 18756
- Yamagi Stainless Steel Garlic Press 148mm R-121
- Mori Japanese Dried Kikurage Mushrooms 100g
- Pearl Stainless Steel Udon Noodles Strainer R-10567
- Imagawa Red Chili Pepper Spicy Vinegar 150ml
We wish you well on your ramen endeavors and would be eager to see photos of the results! Feel free to tag us (@japanese_taste) on Instagram.
Excited about ramen yet? Maybe you’ve already paused to enjoy a bowl before finishing this article? We’re the same way!
Ramen is at the forefront of Japanese cuisine these days in the eyes of people around the world – along with sushi and some other great dishes, of course. We invite you to embark on and continue your very own ramen quest.
With so many types and permutations of ramen available, both for making and for eating in ramen shops and restaurants in Japan and beyond, your ramen journey is sure to be a delicious one.
Got a favorite ramen shop, recipe or experience that you’d like to share? We would love to hear all about it!