No visit to Japan is complete without trying the iconic ramen – a dish that has garnered international popularity and evolved into a culinary experience to be savoured.
Ramen is a Japanese adaptation of Chinese noodles and was first recorded in Yokohama in the early 20th century. Since then, it has grown to become the renowned culinary masterpiece we know today - noodles dance gracefully in a fragrant broth bursting with flavours like soy sauce and miso then topped with the likes of pork, nori seaweed, menma (bamboo shoots), and scallions… delicious.
Here we dissect the anatomy of this tasty dish...
Japanese and Chinese noodles appear to be very similar, but it’s the texture that sets them apart. In Japanese ramen culture, the obsession lies in achieving the perfect firmness. The Japanese like their noodles al dente, as they will continue to cook in the bowl long after leaving the kitchen. The noodles can vary in thickness and shape, ranging from thin to thick and straight to wavy.
A flavoursome broth
The broth is the very essence of every remarkable ramen bowl - it's a heart-warming mixture that can lift your spirits with a single sip. It is a crucial element that defines the flavour and can be made from various bases, such as pork (tonkotsu), chicken (shoyu), fish (shio), or vegetables all cooked with tare to develop a rich flavour.
Chintan, clear soups, are extracted from ingredients at low temperatures on a shortened cooking time. Paitan, white soups, have a creamier appearance having been cooked for longer enabling fats to be released into the broth.
The secrets of tare
Tare is a good ramen’s hidden treasure – it’s the seasoning which defines the very essence of the ramen you’re being served, yet it remains a well-kept secret.
The three most common ingredients used for tare are shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce) and miso (fermented soy bean). But others can also be used such as wine, sake, kombu (kelp), and niboshi (dried sardines). Without tare, the broth would be a much simpler stock.
A mouth-watering masterpiece
Ramen bowls are adorned with an array of toppings that enhance both the visual appeal and taste of the dish. These toppings can vary depending on the regional style of ramen. Common ramen toppings include green onions, beansprouts, wood ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots, seaweed, a protein (which is usually chashu) and the sought-after Aji tamago.
Chashu is a mouth-watering pork belly roll braised to perfection in mix of mirin, sake, soy sauce, sugar, and aromatic spices. The ultimate chashu boasts a glorious blend of succulent fat and tender meat, its dark brown colour promises a burst of buttery softness.
The prized Aji Tamago is a soft-boiled egg bathed in a chashu sauce. We think the best Aji Tamago boasts a mildly runny yolk, which oozes out as you cut into it.
Customising your Ramen
You’ll often find additional seasonings and condiments are often provided at your table. These can include a bottle of soy sauce, chili oil, miso or garlic paste, and vinegar - this means you can just tweak the taste of your Ramen to your own personal preferences.
Ramen has numerous regional styles across Japan and beyond. Take a look below at some of the well-known styles that you could try on your travels:
Tonkotsu Ramen – this is a creamy, pork-based broth that originated in Fukuoka.
Shoyu Ramen – Common in Tokyo, this is a soy sauce-based ramen is known for its clear and light broth.
Miso Ramen – the key to this delicious ramen is its hearty and flavourful broth made from fermented soybean paste (miso).
Shio Ramen – This is perhaps the “lightest” ramen and the style is characterized by a clear, salt-based broth, resulting in a delicate flavour.
Tsukemen – In this variation, you are served the noodles and broth separately where you dip the noodles into a concentrated broth before eating.