What is Ramen? Ramen 101

Today, ramen is much more than a fleeting buzzword. This delicious Japanese noodle dish has impressively captured the attention of the world. But how did ramen come to be? What exactly are ramen noodles? We'll cover all this and more below!

Ramen 101 - Noodles

Ramen - How it all Started


Let's go back in time - the roots of ramen are Chinese. The late 1800s saw greater numbers of Chinese immigrants come to Japan. After this, it was in Chinatowns across Japan that Chinese noodle dishes eventually turned into ramen.

Ramen 101 - Chinatown
Yokohama's Chinatown (Japan's Biggest)

Many consider 1910 to be the turning point. This was when Rairaiken, Japan's first ever ramen restaurant, opened its doors in Tokyo's Asakusa neighborhood.

3rd Generation Ramen at Yutenji Rairaiken

But what exactly changed? How was ramen different from the Chinese noodle dishes it evolved from?


Generally speaking, some other things were added to the soup. This included vegetables, and quintessential Japanese ingredients like dried fish and kelp. People think of ramen today as a distinctly Japanese dish, which it is. But it's also one that doesn't forget its Chinese roots.


Main Ramen Styles


Today there are countless ramen styles. But let's look at what I call the "Big 4" (moving clockwise in the photos below):

  • Shoyu (Soy Sauce) Seasoned Ramen

  • Shio (Salt) Seasoned Ramen

  • Tonkotsu (Pork Bone) Ramen

  • Miso (Fermented Soy Beans) Ramen


From the Big 4, only "tonkotsu" is defined by the soup (pork bones). The other 3 are defined by the seasoning.

Shoyu Ramen at Dateya

Think of Shoyu and Shio ramen as cousins. As a seasoning, Shoyu (soy sauce) is often tangy, and even sweet. It gives the soup a brown, sometimes blackish color. Shio (salt) creates a clearer soup and is usually lighter.

Miso Ramen at Hanamichi

Tonkotsu and Miso ramen are often heavier (although not always). Tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen usually has a cloudy, rich broth. Miso (fermented soy bean) ramen is also richer, but the miso seasoning provides a strongly flavored base.


Ramen styles don't have to be exclusively one or the other (the Big 4). In Yokohama, for example, there's a Tonkotsu Shoyu (Pork Bones + Soy Sauce) ramen (Ie-Kei style).

Ie-Kei Ramen at Torakichiya

Note: Yet another way to categorize ramen is based on whether it's light ("assari") or heavy ("kotteri").


More Ramen Styles


Here are some other styles - more specific subcategories.

  • Tsukemen (Dipping) Ramen

  • Tori Paitan (Rich Chicken) Ramen

  • Tantanmen (Dan Dan Noodles)

  • Abura Soba (Soupless Ramen)


Regional Ramen Styles


There are simply too many regional ramen styles to list, but here are some of the better known ones (moving clockwise again):

  • Tokyo Shoyu Ramen

  • Kyoto Shoyu Ramen

  • Kitakata Shoyu Ramen

  • Hakodate Shio Ramen

  • Sapporo Miso Ramen

  • Hakata Tonkotsu Ramen


What Makes Ramen...Ramen?

Ramen is essentially 3 components:

  1. Soup

  2. Noodles

  3. Toppings

But this describes many tasty noodle dishes around the world. Let's break down each of these components.


Soup

Soup is further broken down into seasoning and soup. The prepared seasoning (just a few tablespoons) is put into an ramen empty bowl first. Think of it as the flavor foundation. E.g. A shio (salt) ramen may include 5 types of salt and 3 types of dried fish.

Next up is the soup, poured directly on top of that seasoning. The soup can be a number of different things, whether pork bones, chicken bones, or vegetables.


E.g. One ramen shop might shop might use 60% chicken bones, 10% pork bones and 30% vegetables (ginger, carrots, and onions).


Noodles

Ramen Noodles are made up of four elements:

  1. Wheat Flour

  2. Water

  3. Salt

  4. Kansui (Alkaline Mineral Water)

Kansui is key in ramen noodles - giving them extra chewiness and bounce. Furthermore, in Japan noodles are not considered ramen noodles unless they have kansui. This is despite some ramen shops not using any kansui.


Toppings

You see a lot of inspiration from Chinese cuisine when it comes to ramen toppings. For example, pork is often the meat topping. Some old-school ramen shops will prepare their pork like Chinese charsiu (roasted). But nowadays, boiled pork is most common.

Dumpling Ramen (Wontonmen, or Wantanmen)

Other ramen toppings include:

  • Negi (Spring Onions)

  • Menma (Bamboo Shoots)

  • Nori (Seaweed)

  • Narutomaki (Fish Cake)

  • Ajitama (Flavored Egg)

  • Bean Sprouts

Certain regional styles will have their own toppings too. For example, in Sapporo miso ramen (we saw earlier), corn and butter are popular.


Ramen Etiquette Points


Ramen doesn't have as many rules as other Japanese foods (like sushi). But here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Start with the Soup (then the Noodles)

  2. Slurping is OK (Cool it down, Compliment the Chef, Enhance the Flavors)

  3. When done, place your Chopsticks on top of the Bowl (not inside)

  4. Don't Linger at Ramen Shops (They rely on Fast Turnover)

  5. Say "Gochisousama deshita" (Thank you for the meal) when you leave


In the future, I'll cover even more ramen styles and other ramen tidbits! Consider this part one, Ramen 101.


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