The only time I’ve waited in line for over an hour for a table was at a back-alley ramen joint in Kyoto, and it was more than worth it. Filling and warm, it was perfect for the chilly January night.
Ramen is a delicious Japanese dish famous the world over. From easy cup noodles devoured by hungry students to steaming bowls of broth and pork prepared artfully by master chefs for hours or even days at a time, all the styles of this popular food share a common ancestor and history. Learn the complicated techniques and a wide variety of ingredients that make this simple soup of noodles and broth a global favorite.
Don’t be surprised if the following overview of ramen makes you a little hungry. If you find yourself with a hankering by the end, we’ve included a simple homemade ramen recipe you can try tonight.
The long tradition of Japanese ramen
Ramen is a traditional Japanese noodle soup popular throughout Japan and the world. Legend has it that ramen came to Japan from China in the late 17th Century. Specifically, the Confucian scholar Zhu Shunsui brought ramen when he came to Japan as a refugee to escape Manchu rule in China.
Most experts consider this a folk history, though. More likely, Chinese immigrants brought the dish to Japan in the late 19th or early 20th Century. During this time, Japan was a major colonial and industrial power, and many immigrants from other Asian nations moved to Japan for a better life. The first ramen shop opened in Asakusa, Tokyo, in 1910, where a Japanese owner hired 12 Cantonese immigrants to cook ramen for Japanese customers.
Still, ramen actually didn’t become popular until the 50s, after World War II. During the war, Japan had moved most of its rice production to colonies in Taiwan and mainland China, so when they lost that territory, there was a major rice shortage. To help keep people fed, the US brought in large shipments of wheat flour, which provided for an abundance of ramen noodles.
What are noodles made of?
That brings us to the noodles themselves. Ramen noodles are technically Chinese wheat noodles. They’re made with just four ingredients: wheat flour, salt, water and kansui. Kansui is a kind of mineral water that contains sodium carbonate, often called “soda ash,” and potassium carbonate. Kansui traditionally comes from Inner Mongolia where the lakes are mineral rich. This is what gives ramen noodles their yellow coloring and firm texture.
How to make ramen noodles
Traditionally, chefs and homemakers made ramen noodles by hand. The process involves making a wheat-flour dough, which is then rolled into long bars, “pulled” or stretched, and doubled. You repeat the process until the noodles are extremely thin. There may not be many steps, but it’s actually difficult to do right. Many chefs put in hours practicing to master hand pulling noodles. Just check out this video.
Of course, there are plenty of modern machines that can make noodles. These range from hand cranked machines that cut the noodles, removing the hand-pulling step, to electrical, industrial machines that completely automate the process. Ramen noodles are best fresh, so most modern restaurants need this machinery to keep up with the steady stream of customers. Still, though, many renowned ramen chefs choose to hand pull noodles.
What’s in ramen?
The basics are simple: noodles and broth. But from there, it can get endlessly creative. The broth itself can be many different things. Most commonly it’s based on chicken or pork stock, but it could also be fish or vegetable based. The broth may also include flavoring from shiitake mushrooms, onions, sardines, even kelp. The broth can be thick and creamy or thin and transparent, depending on the amount of fat absorbed by the broth. The broth can be flavored further by soy sauce or miso, a powder made from fermented soy.
In addition to the broth, ramen usually has a number of toppings. These can be simple or elaborate. The most typical toppings are chāshū pork slices, negi green onion, and boiled or fermented eggs. Don’t be surprised to find any host of ingredients, though, ranging from menma bamboo shoots, seaweed, corn or pretty much anything the chef has decided to try.
The 5 types of ramen
Japanese chefs invent different combinations and styles all the time, so these definitions aren’t exactly concise. That said, there are generally five different kinds of ramen:
This ramen comes in a very thick broth made from pork bone and fat. It’s cooked for several hours, infusing the flavors and fat with the broth. This gives it an opaque creamy texture almost like milk or gravy.
This ramen is set apart by its strong soy-sauce flavor. The broth is a rich brown but clear, being made from chicken or vegetable stock. Typical toppings include menma bamboo shoots, green onions, nori seaweed, and eggs.
This is the original style of ramen. The broth is the typical clear yellow and is made from a mixture of stocks including chicken, fish, and vegetables. Chāshū sliced barbecued pork is the most common topping but you might also find pickled plums or kamaboko fish roll. Shio is known for its salty flavor, from which it derives its name.
If you thought that karē sounds like “curry,” you were right. This ramen is made with pork bone and vegetable broth, but its defining feature is the curry flavoring.
Miso ramen is the newest type but also one of the most popular. It is uniquely Japanese and contains a large amount of miso fermented soy, a traditional Japanese ingredient. The broth can range from medium to thick, made from chicken or fish, and sometimes lard. You can find miso ramen with many different toppings.
Regional styles of ramen
Pretty much every region and large city of Japan has its own ramen variation. A few have become nationally and globally famous.
Historians generally agree Japanese ramen started in Tokyo based on Chinese dishes. If you’re visiting Japan, this may be the ramen most similar to what you’ve seen abroad. It features curly noodles in a chicken broth heavily flavored with soy. Sliced pork and eggs are the usual toppings.
Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido, and it’s become famous internationally for its ramen. Hot ramen soup is the perfect dish for the cold climate there, and the ramen is a particularly rich and thick version of miso ramen.
Hakata is from Fukuoka in Kyushu. It’s good ramen to try if you want something different. The noodles are thin but not curly, and the broth is thick, made from pork bone. The toppings are unique as well, usually crushed garlic and pickled ginger.
This is the local style native to Hiroshima. The city’s proximity to the sea means that seafood is a major ingredient. The defining topping is a cut of pork back fat that gives it a rich flavor.
Native to Yokohama, this style was one of the first to evolve. The broth comes from pork stock and is flavored with soy. Pork, spinach and negi green onion are common toppings.
When many people think of ramen, they think of the global phenomenon of instant ramen, or cup noodle. These are packages of dried ramen noodles that come plastic-wrapped or in convenient cups that you add water to heat on the stove or in the microwave. The packages come with flavorings to add.
Although instant ramen certainly evolved from Japanese ramen and was invented in Japan by Nissan Foods in 1958, there are some significant differences. For one, to preserve the noodles for long-term storage, they have to be dried. This typically involves flash frying with palm oil or air drying. This creates the recognizable dry ramen noodle block you place in boiling water.
The flavorings and spices also tend to be different than traditional Japanese ramen. Spices vary depending on the variety, but most instant ramen brands include some amount of sugar in their flavor packets, something uncommon in a restaurant- or homemade ramen.
Instant noodles are incredibly popular in Japan and around the world as convenient, pre-fabricated food. In fact, the average Japanese person consumes 40 packs of instant ramen each year. Other major consumers include China, having eaten 40.25 billion servings in 2018, Indonesia, and India. The largest non-Asian consumer is the United States, with 4.4 billion servings consumed in 2018.
Homemade ramen recipe
What would an article on Japanese ramen be without a recipe so you can try it yourself? Below is a beginner’s ramen recipe that is relatively easy to make but tastes great. It serves four.
3 cups (700 ml) chicken stock
1¼ cup (300 ml) water
3 garlic cloves
4 tbsp soy sauce
1 ginger root
16 dried shiitake mushrooms
¼ cup (30 g) dried kelp (optional)
12 oz. (375 g) ramen noodles
16 oz. pork
3 tsp oil
4 boiled eggs
3 green onions
- Halve the garlic cloves and slice the ginger. Add them to the chicken stock along with the water and soy sauce. Bring the mixture to a boil and then remove from heat.
- Add the mushrooms and kelp (if you found it) to the broth. Let it steep for five minutes, then strain the broth and save the garlic, ginger, mushroom and kelp solids for later.
- Boil the noodles in the broth until soft.
- While the noodles are boiling, slice the pork and fry it in the oil until lightly browned on each side. Chop the onions into short, thin strips.
- When the noodles are done, divide between four bowls. Add a boiled egg and strips of green onion to each. Divide the garlic, ginger, mushroom and kelp solids into four servings and add them to the bowls. Finally, add the fried pork to each bowl.
- Let the ramen cool before eating, but serve warm.
Mix it up
As you can tell, the above recipe is more of a guideline. Ramen is easily customizable, and you can change out or add ingredients however you want. With the broth alone, you could try making your own homemade stock from whatever ingredients you have on hand. You can change pork for chicken, add different spices or invent new toppings. If you’re up for a real challenge, try to make your noodles by hand. Whatever you do, just make the ramen your own. The Japanese sure do.