Breaking Down a Bowl of Ramen: From Basic to Gourmet


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Ramen, the ubiquitous noodles in a bowl of broth considered a Japanese “national dish” has actually originated from China over a century ago. Since then, it has extensively evolved to become an authentic Japanese food with varied ingredients reflecting regional styles and cultures.  Today, ramen is served in the entire country from street carts, filling your cravings even in the middle of the night, to classy restaurants and specialty ramen houses in the cities.

Ramen is a well-loved dish around the world. In fact, it appeared in The Guardian’s The 50 best things to eat in the world, and where to eat them. It is so popular that upon the invention of the instant noodles by Momofuku Ando in 1958 it created a whole food sub-culture in Japan. “Fresh noodles are the best,” but Instant ramen became a hit worldwide “… it was voted as the greatest Japanese export of the 20th century in a national poll…”

The Basic Ramen

A basic ramen can be broken down into noodles and soup/broth. Each of these components gets various “treatments” so that a lot of variations are possible.

The Noodles

The traditional Chinese-style noodles called Chuka-men (中華麺) are really nothing like Chinese noodles anymore. These are chewier, bouncy and yellowish being made from wheat flour as well as salt and kansui alkaline water.  According to Japanese Cooking 101’s Ramen Recipe, “The texture is very important because the noodles are in hot soup while eating and might absorb too much soup and become too soft.”

  1. Kenji Lopez-Alt of the Serious Eats explains about the so-called noodle-eating etiquette inThe Serious Eats Guide to Ramen Styles. He says ramen must be eaten as soon as it is served and not stop until it is consumed, or else it becomes mushy. This also explains the ‘wild slurping” that is commonly observed in a Japanese ramen shop and why “to-go” ramen is delivered with the broth separate from the noodles.

There are several types of noodles. Sizes and shapes of noodles vary, but the more common ones are the straight and wavy types. There is really nothing much different between the two in terms of taste or texture, but know that if you like hearty tonkotsu-style broths go for the straight noodles. If you like miso, this is usually used in wavy noodles. If you prefer the shio and shoyu-flavored broths, you can get any of these two shapes of noodles

The fresh ones are served in high-end ramen shops, indicating it is “more gourmet.” Dried noodles are made from the fresh, uncooked noodles. The latter is preferred for home cooking. The one that reconstitutes better are the straight and thinner ones. A high-end brand is Myoja Chukazanmai. Then there is the inexpensive, instant noodles, the just-add-water ready-to-eat noodles you can buy in a bowl.

The Broths

Japanese 101 says, “… there are three basic types of Ramen soups: Shyoyu (soy sauce), Miso, and Shio (salt).” These are J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s soup classification by seasonings; lopez-Alt further breaks it down into classifications by heaviness and by broth base.

  • Heaviness:  Broths can be classified either as assari (light) or kotteri (rich). A broth that is assari is thin, clear and is served with more veggies while kotteri is thick, usually thick and with meats and emulsified fats.
  • Broth Base: It is common to use animal bones when making a soup. Other ingredients that may be added to enhance the aroma and the flavor are garlic, leeks/scallions, ginger, charred onions, and mushrooms. One of the ramen-consuming world’s favorite is tonkotsu, a milky broth derived from pork bones.
  • Seasoning: The salt sources can also define the broth, which is usually added to individual bowls. Shio uses sea salt, the oldest form of ramen seasoning. Shoyu is seasoned with  Japanese soy sauce, which is popular in the Kanto region of central Japan. “Traditionally it’s paired with clear to brown chicken, seafood, and occasionally pork or beef-based broths, though these days shoyu is used willy-nilly by ramen chefs throughout Japan.” Miso is the newest innovation in seasoning the broth. Certain ramen shops give their version a distinct flavor or aroma and thus add a dollop of flavorful oil or fat—pork fat, sesame oils – or a secret flavor – “tahini-style sesame paste or powdered smoked and dried bonito.”

The Defining Characteristic: Toppings

While the toppings are not a basic component of a ramen, it is its defining feature. It can range from simple seasonings and veggies. By far, the most popular topping is Chashu pork, a Japanese version of Chinese char siu roast pork.

Other possible toppings or possible topping combinations are:

  • Meat and Seafood: bacon and cabbage, crispy shredded pork, ground pork, seafood (shrimps, scallos and mussels), Kamaboko (fish cake) or narutomaki (spiral-shaped fish cake),or eggs,
  • Fresh Veggies – scallions, cabbage, corn, spinach, or a stir-fried assorted vegetables, or enoki mushrooms.
  • Preserved Vegetables – Menma, wood ear mushrooms, kimchi, nori,  wakame , or beni shoga
  • Condiments or Spices: Togarashi, Sansho pepper, Yuzukosho, black or white pepper., sesame seed, Ninniku-dare, or  curry powder or paste, or Mayu

There are other Japanese ramen twists and variations from the different regions that can thrill your palate. Eating ramen is never boring. Being an international sensation as it is, all you need to do is be more experimental as you make the ramen shop-hopping in Japan or anywhere else in the world where ramen is served. Enjoy it and its many oddities from the noodle type to its soup, and yes, its toppings!

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