Japanese food is hailed universally as one of the finest cuisines in the world, but for many the idea of eating raw fish or fermented soy beans isn’t very appeasing. However, one Japanese staple and comfort food enjoyed by nearly everyone is ramen. Originally imported from China during the Meiji Period, the ramen of Japan has evolved into a culinary obsession for connoisseurs and hungry drunks alike. The flavorful noodle soup has a wide array of tastes that vary between the thousands of ramen shops around the country and can also be found as instant ramen in convenience stores, supermarkets, and college dorm rooms.
While many shops and stalls stay open until dawn, a select few will remain closed for the day if the soup isn’t up to the master chef’s liking. Inexpensive and delicious, it is easy to discover why ramen has a loyal cult following who will travel great lengths and wait in never ending lines for a hot bowl. For a more in depth guide to ramen shops in and around Tokyo check out Ramen Adventures and Ramen Tokyo for shop listings and reviews. Here is a basic guide to the most common varieties of ramen noodles and soups found around Japan —
For many the noodles can make or break a great bowl of ramen. Most noodles are made from four basic ingredients: wheat flour, salt, water, and kansui (Chinese alkaline salt). Sometimes kansui is substituted with eggs. A great trick for big eaters and those on a budget is to order extra noodles (かえだま) after you finish to add to the left over soup. Often this additional noodle ball comes for as little as 100 yen.
Many shops will give you two types of noodles to choose from:
- Futomen (ふとめん) – thick noodles *personal favorite
- Hosomen (ほそめん) – thin noodles
Some shops (especially tonkotsu ramen) also allow you to choose how you like your noodles cooked.
- katamen (かためん）- hard noodles
- futsuu (ふつう）- normal noodles
- yowarakame (やわらかめ）- soft noodles
SHOYU (soy sauce)
The most common variety found around Tokyo, this clear brown broth is based on a chicken, vegetable, fish, or beef stock with a healthy helping of soy sauce creating a soup that is tangy, salty, and savory yet still fairly light on the palate. It is often adorned with marinated bamboo shoots or menma, green onions, kamaboko (fish cakes), nori (seaweed), boiled eggs, bean sprouts and/or black pepper. You can also choose to further enhance your bowl with chashu (pork) and a few shops are even topping theirs with slices of roast beef.
The pale, clear, yellowish broth is created with plenty of salt and any combination of chicken, vegetables, fish, and seaweed. Occasionally pork bones are also used, but they are not boiled as long as they are for tonkotsu ramen, so the soup remains light and clear. Recently experiencing a renascence of toppings and varieties ranging from lean chicken to roasted tomatoes, making shio ramen one of the most exciting flavors to try.
TONKOTSU (pork bone)
Originating from the southern island of Kyushu, the thick cloudy broth is made from boiling pork bones, fat, and collagen over high heat for many hours infusing the soup creamy consistency that rivals milk, melted butter or gravy. Most shops, but not all, blend this pork broth with a small amount of chicken and vegetable stock and/or soy sauce. One of the most difficult varieties to master, but once you find a shop that has prepare to enjoy a unique and creamy delight.
This uniquely Japanese ramen, which was developed in northern island of Hokkaido whose cold winters complement this bold soup. Featuring a broth that combines copious amounts of miso and is blended with oily chicken, fish, and sometimes with tonkotsu broth to create a robust, aromatic, and very hearty soup. The strong flavor stands up to a variety of flavorful toppings, butter and corn, leeks, onions, bean sprouts, ground pork, cabbage, sesame seeds, white pepper, and chopped garlic are common.
Almost every flavor soup can be made spicy and it sure adds a kick to any variety. Most commonly served with miso soup its a popular dish in the cold winters of Japan. With a mix of chili oil and a variety of Chinese spices, the levels of hotness range from tangy to downright lethal! Add garlic and black pepper to round the taste of this red hot soup. This should definitely be on the list of any lover of spicy food.
Tsukemen refers to ramen being served with the noodles and soup served in separate bowls. Enjoy this dish by dipping the noodles into the soups before eating. Served hot or cold and with any variety of soup, this dish is especially popular in the brutal summer months in Japan with cool noodles and a refreshing taste.