Not your Average Noodle Soup
It’s difficult to begin a discussion on Ramen if you don’t conceive of it in the proper way. Ramen tends to be thought of as one specific dish of the Japanese food roster; a standardized combination of noodles with a salty broth, topped with some vegetables and possibly meat and or eggs. Whereas this is indeed the standard, the discussion only begins at this understanding. Much in the same way that a hamburger must necessarily contain meat and bread, a bowl of ramen is only held to the fundamental elements of noodles and broth; from there it’s a deep and complicated process with countless variations and flavors depending on region and seasons, but here we can start to explore it from the ground up.
The best way to begin to unravel the complex world of ramen is to start with the soup. This is where every ramen shop both begins and ends their day of hustling bowls to customers. You may have seen instant ramen soup in the form of powder or bouillon, but you obviously won’t see any legitimate ramen shop using that in Japan. The soup is cooked with special attention to timing and flavor combinations, and in many cases needs to sit and slow cook for hours on end. Varying amounts of oil, meat, vegetables, and stocks are used in creative ways to get a flavor that is unique to a specific shop, or chain of shops. Just as the shop began the day centered on perfecting their own unique soup, the shop may often close early if the soup runs out.
The soup determines the title of the ramen. One can order “ramen”, or go out to eat “ramen”, but they always know the specific type of ramen they are eating. Thus, to understand where to begin your investigation into the most perfect ramen for your pallet, let’s have a look at the primary styles of ramen soup that originally were developed in different areas of Japan but have become available everywhere, at least in large areas. Presenting the big 4.
Shoyu, or soy sauce based ramen, although not necessarily standard these days, is probably the most “standard”, or rather “stereotypical” flavor. It’s what comes to mind when most think of Japanese ramen, as it’s closest to the “cup of noodles” flavor. Shoyu ramen was developed in the early 1900’s in Tokyo’s downtown area of Asakusa. Since ramen originally came from China, and chinese ramen is also largely soy-sauce based, this was the most common flavor for some time.
Somewhat similar to Shoyu ramen, Shio (lit. salt) ramen has a sharp and salty flavor that in general is much lighter in terms of oil than other flavors of ramen, but still has the filling qualities one comes to expect. It’s not exactly clear which region of Japan is most particular to Shio ramen, as it was developed along with Shoyu ramen in the early 20th century as the popularity of ramen skyrocketed across Japan.
Tonkotsu (lit. pork bone) is certainly on the heavier side of ramen, and presents itself as the chief rival to Shoyu ramen. Made from slow boiling pork and pork bones to create a thick stock. This ramen was originally developed in southern Japan, in Fukuoka prefecture, and is sometimes referred to by the original region “hakata” where it is most associated with. The original style is difficult to pinpoint as this ramen in particular has many different methods of preparation. Tonkotsu is now extremely popular all over Japan and is also used in combination with shoyu (although many ramen fanatics oppose this).
Miso ramen is most generally associated with the colder regions of Japan, as the miso paste has a special thick and warming property that just seems to go hand in hand with a winter morning. The base of the soup is often tonkotsu broth, or in some cases beef broth, and then the miso is subsequently added right before serving to give it an overall creamy and thick quality.
Ramen only begins with the soup, but at the end of the day, this can be the most decisive factor in the ramen experience. The flavors listed above are only the most basic building blocks of ramen soup, and each store will have their own unique combinations of different flavors to for example give their shoyu ramen a slightly more fishy flavor, or just as easily take away some of the oil content from a tonkotsu broth to make it more drinkable. The next step in ramen is the noodle varieties, and finally one can then move on to the subject of toppings. The exponential world of ramen may seem overwhelming, but a bit of time in Japan will allow you to experience a very surprising range of flavors from this single food concept. It kind of leaves a hamburger in the dust in terms of diversity.