I ate a lot of ramen noodles as a child but like most people outside of Japan in the 80s and 90s, it was the Nissin Cup O’ Noodles kind. Seafood flavor was my favorite and I became an expert on opening a packet by first tearing off the cardboard packaging and then the plastic wrapper, and finally the lid. I had a special way of making the noodles extra soft: first add boiling water, then microwave the cup o’ noodles for one minute (no more or it will boil over and make a mess of the microwave tray), then cover for 5 minutes. Voila, extra soft noodles.
In 2000, I moved into a midtown apartment in New York City right across from a tiny Japanese bar/restaurant. Even then I was always craving noodles and would order their ramen when I could afford it. This was way before the ramen craze hit New York and that bowl of ramen wasn’t very good compared to today’s standards. But I would inhale it nonetheless and go back for more when the craving hit me.
By the time the ramen craze arrived in my hometown of NYC, I had already moved to Dubai and missed out on all the fun of trying out all the trendy new noodle bars popping up right and left in the city.
So every summer, when my kids and I visited friends and family back in the States, I had a lot of catching up to do. We ate indiscriminately at first in that we just ordered whatever we could get our hands on. Then we started seeking out specific restaurants based on authenticity and creativity. Each of us gravitated towards a different kind of ramen and our curiosity was piqued on how to make our own.
Along the way of our journey, I started putting together this ramen guide so I could keep all the different ingredients and techniques straight. This is by no means and exhaustive guide but I hope that it will help you begin to understand all the elements that go into the bowl of ramen you are eating…or will eat.
Read straight through or click the links below to jump around:
What is Ramen?
Ramen is a Japanese noodle soup dish that is comprised of four essential items: (1) noodles, (2) broth, (3) tare and (4) toppings.
Each of these essential items has endless variations.
You can say, “Let’s go grab a bowl of ramen,” or “Let’s get some ramen.”
(1) Ramen Noodles
The word “ramen” has its roots in Chinese culture. It is believed to originally mean either “pulled noodles” (“la mien”) or “noodles tossed in sauce” (“lo mien”).
Today, the word “ramen” can mean the dish or the actual noodles. The noodles are made from wheat flour and in Japan, freshly made ramen is easily accessible.
You can make your own ramen noodles at home with just three ingredients: all-purpose flour, water and an alkaline water known as kansui. You can easily substitute the kansui with baking soda and I explain how to do that in my post here. Also check out my post on “How to make homemade ramen noodles from scratch.“
Because ramen dough is a low hyration dough (which means there’s very little water in it), it is tough to knead and best made with either a pasta machine or pasta attachment. I recommend the Marcato Atlas 150 pasta maker or this one from Kitchen Aid if you already have their stand mixer.
Ramen noodles can be straight or wavy. They can be cooked al dente or soft or anywhere in between. Some restaurants will let the customer choose the softness of their noodles.
(2) Ramen Broth
(2A) Broth versus Stock
Many people use the terms stock and broth interchangeably but they are two different things.
Broth is made primarily with meat and does not gel when cooled. It is also seasoned and ready to drink.
Stock is made with bones and cartilage (while broth is made from meat), it is cooked for a long time (at least 6-8 hours) in order to extract the collagen, and results in a richer and thicker texture than broth. Stock is not usually seasoned so is a blank slate for adding flavorings and unlike broth, stock turns into jelly when chilled.
While making broth or stock, you can add aromatics like onion, celery, carrot, etc.
Ramen stock can be make with any type of animal bones but chicken and pork are the more traditional options. For vegetarian ramen, shitake mushrooms are a popular ingredient.
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(2B) Chintan versas Paitan
Besides the stock base (chicken, pork, vegetable, etc), ramen is further categorized into chingtan (which translates as “clear stock”) and paitan (which translates as “white stock”).
Tonkotsu ramen is considered paitan because of its white and creamy nature. The origin story of Tonkotsu suggests that someone accidentally left a pot of pork bones boiling for hours and resulted in a creamy white color from all the collagen from the bones being boiled out.
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Dashi is a simple stock that’s usually made with two ingredients: kombu (kelp) and katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes). It is an essential part of ramen because it imparts a lot of “umami” into the broth.
Because of dashi, a bowl of ramen will always have a hint of brininess in it since kombu and katsuobushi both come from the sea.
If you cannot find the ingredients to make homemade dashi, you can try buying premade dashi stock from Amazon or your local Asian grocery store.
What is Umami?
Umami is a loan word from Japan and can be translated as a “pleasant savory taste.” It is considered the fifth basic taste after sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness.
People detect umami through taste receptors that respond to acids called glutamates. Glutamates occur naturally in many foods like tomatoes, mushrooms, cheeses, shellfish, fish, and kombu. In fact, Kikunae Ikeda, founder of Ajinomoto, invented the infamous MSG powder after trying to figure out the “fifth taste” with kombu.
Umami is often associated with ramen because ingredients like kombu, katsuobushi, miso, and soy sauce all contain sources of glutamates. All this umami combined in one bowl of ramen can only result in an amazing sensation of flavors.
(3) Ramen Tare
Pronouced “tah-reh”, tare in Japanese means “dipping sauce” but can mean any flavoring that is comprised of two or more seasonings.
Ramen tare is traditionally classified as one of three types:
- (1) shio (sea salt)
- (2) shoyu (soy sauce)
- (3) miso (fermented bean paste)
Knowing your tare is helpful when deciding which type of ramen to order. If you want a light, mild tasting ramen, choose the shio version. If you prefer extra umami, go for shoyu ramen. If you’re looking for more pungency, bolder texture and even more umami, go for miso ramen.
Note: A shio ramen can still contain shoyu, just that it will be primarily shio, it can still contain shoyu. Ramen restaurants make every effort to create ramen tare that are packed with umami and the recipe is often a closely guarded secret.
These are the bottles of Japanese soy sauce and mirin that I have in my pantry for making ramen tare:
Since ramen stock doesn’t contain salt and only 1-2 tablespoons of tare is needed for each serving bowl of ramen, the tare is made extra salty and extra concentrated. In restaurants, it is traditionally added to the serving bowl before anything else.
When making homemade ramen broth, I often wondered why the tare wasn’t directly mixed with the meat stock? I actually do this at home to simplify my final plating process. But in a restaurant, it is advantageous to have one master stock (ie, chicken stock or pork stork or vegetarian stock) and then many different variations of tare for made-to-order ramen bowls.
(4) Ramen Toppings
This is what goes on the top of your bowl of ramen after the noodles and broth. The options are endless for ramen toppings. If you are making ramen at home, you can technically use any topping you like. Here are some of the most frequently used toppings:
- pork patties, ground pork, pork cheeks;
- chashu (roasted or braised pork shoulder; not to be confused with Chinese char siu), marinaded in a tare of soy, mirin, sake and sugar and aromatics like ginger and garlic;
- fish cake, steamed and sliced (kamaboko, naruto-pink and white one)
- tempura seafood
- soft boiled egg: ie. ajitsuke tamago (flavored egg) or nitamago (marinated egg).
- menma: bamboo shoots fermented and seasoned;
- bean sprouts;
- mushrooms – shitake, enoki, shimeji, oyster;
- kikurage: wood ear mushrooms;
- negi: green onions negi;
- beni shōga: pickled ginger;
- grated ginger;
- garlic chips (fried);
- seaweed – ie. wakame, nori;
- mayu – blackened garlic sesame oil;
- chicken oil;
- pork oil.
- sesame seeds – white and toasted;
- shichimi togarashi (chili flakes).
Different regions in Japan are known for certain specialties of ramen. I’ve listed some of them below starting from north to south and have included a map to help visualize the different regions and prefectures of Japan.
- Sapporo ramen – a rich miso ramen made with tonkotsu stock for the cold winters of Sapporo. Topped with sweetcorn, beansprouts and finely cut pork.
- Hakodate ramen – a light, clear shio (sea salt) broth served with thin noodles. Topped with of menma, pork slices, naruto fish cakes, and spring onions.
- Asahikawa ramen – a rich soy broth to counter the Sapporo winters with a thin film of flavored lard to trap the heat in and the cold out. Toppings are similar to Hakodate ramen.
- Kitakata ramen – possibly the lightest of ramen with a gentle, clear, soy-based broth flavored with pork bones and niboshi (dried sardines). Served with thick and curly noodles.
- Tokyo ramen – Clean flavors of seafood and chicken gives us an indication of Tokyo ramen’s humble beginnings, which is likely to be soba served in a simple dashi soup for laborers. Today, the dashi is simmered in chicken stock and shoyu, giving the Tokyo ramen its signature dark toffee color.
- Takayama ramen – made primarily with chicken bones, bonito flakes and vegetables. Ramen broth is typically made by first placing the tare in a bowl and then the hot broth. Takayama ramen, on the other hand, boils its tare together with its broth base, resulting in a dark and yet clear shoyu broth with a mild sweetness.
- Onomichi ramen – Four words: chunks of melted lard. A distinctive feature of the Onomichi ramen is its silky, flat homemade noodles. Similar to the Asahikawa ramen, the Onomichi ramen comes with a layer of hot oil.
- Hakata ramen – A tonkotsu broth typically served with thin and hard noodles so that they do not overcook and disintegrate into the soup.
Build Your Ramen Pantry at Home
You can easily make your own ramen at home. First, build your ramen pantry by buying the necessary staples. You will need dashi ingredients, the most basic of which are kombu and katsuobushi which can be kept in a dry cupboard. Or you can buy already made dashi stock.
Buy a good soy sauce, mirin and sake. These keep indefinitely.
In regards to mirin, look for “Hon Mirin” which has no added sugar nor salt, and because of it’s higher alcohol content, must be sold as regular wine. Try to avoid “Aji Mirin” for the tare as this is more like corn syrup than true mirin.
To make miso ramen, buy shiromiso (white miso) and store it in your freezer and just scoop out a tablespoon or two as needed from the freezer.
For the noodles, you can use storebought from an Asian grocery store or make your own at home with flour, water, and baking soda. Here is my recipe for homemade ramen noodles from scratch. Run the dough through a pasta machine and voila!
Ready to make your first bowl of ramen? Or your first batch of noodles? Check out my tutorials here:
If you like to read more about ramen, here are some suggestions for culinary travel writing, cookbooks, children’s books, and more: