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The Different Types of Japanese Ramenラーメン

What exactly is ramen? Where does this beloved noodle soup originate? What makes this seemingly simple dish so special, and why has it become so trendy these days? Join Kinashi-San as he unveils the delicious details of this iconic Japanese noodle soup.



What is Japanese Ramen?


Ramen is a noodle soup closely associated with Japan. Though it originated in China, it has become one of Japan's most popular dishes, alongside sushi, sashimi, and other Japanese specialties.


A bowl of ramen consists of two main components: noodles and broth. Depending on the restaurant and region, you can choose from various types of broth, noodles, and additional ingredients to customize your ramen.



The History of Ramen


The Chinese origins of ramen


The fascinating history of ramen traces back to its Chinese origins. The first traces of noodles in China date back over 4,000 years, and it is believed that noodles were introduced to Japan from the 9th century onwards, mainly via the Silk Road. However, ramen as we know it today emerged later, during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties in China. Chinese noodles, called "lamian" in Chinese, originated in the North China region. These fresh noodles were made from soft wheat flour and water and were pulled, stretched, and folded by hand to give them their characteristic texture. The Chinese consumed these noodles in various broths and sauces, paving the way for the later emergence of ramen.


The first mentions of this dish date back to ancient China, where noodles had been a staple food for centuries. Ramen was then introduced to Japan in the 19th century, mainly through the Chinese diaspora. Initially, it was eaten in Chinese restaurants across the country.


Chinese noodles, known as "chuka soba," became popular in the Chinatowns of Yokohama and Tokyo in the 1850s. These early ramen dishes were simple: composed of noodles and broth, they didn't necessarily resemble today's topping-rich variants. In Japan, ramen has evolved into a dish in its own right, rooted in Japanese culture. The Japanese brought innovations to the preparation of ramen, notably adapting the noodles to make them thinner and straighter, and developing a wide variety of broths and fillings.


Ramen was originally a Chinese specialty that arrived in Japan during the Meiji era in the 1900s. Various events in the twentieth century contributed to making ramen one of Japan's most popular dishes.


Introduced to the country by Chinese immigrants, this wheat noodle-based specialty is said to have originated in 1910 in a Chinese restaurant in Tokyo's Asakusa district. Served in a meat or fish broth, ramen was an immediate success. The original recipe was later modified to incorporate Japanese ingredients, already popular in the cuisine of the time.


In particular, soba (buckwheat) and udon (wheat) noodles made their appearance in these soups of Chinese origin. The addition of kansui to ramen also gave the recipe the shape we know today: kansui is a type of alkaline mineral water that gives the noodles their characteristic firm texture. The addition of Japanese sauces gave an even more Japanese touch to the original recipe.


The first truly Japanese ramen is thought to date back to the 1920s. It consists of a dark broth and is garnished with slices of chashu pork, marinated bamboo shoots or soy, and an ajitama egg (egg marinated in soy sauce and mirin, a type of sake). A sheet of nori seaweed and kamaboko (compressed fish paste) also adorn the preparation. Yokohama's Chinatown, south of Tokyo, filled up at this time with street stalls serving delicious ramen and gyozas.



The importance of ramen in Japan


The ramen boom began in a devastated Japan. After World War II, the country was left in ruins, with two million homes destroyed by air strikes. In December 1945, Japan also experienced its worst rice harvest in 42 years. Having lost its colonies, China and Taiwan, Japan could no longer rely on their rice supplies.


To address this severe rice shortage, the United States provided emergency aid to Japan. During their occupation of the country from 1945 to 1952, they imported large quantities of flour to replace the rice.


Although street food sales were prohibited, some of the flour was secretly diverted to the black market and used to cook ramen sold on the street. The popularity of this dish soared, becoming a staple of the post-war Japanese black market.


Ramen was the ideal dish: inexpensive, quick to eat, and nourishing, it provided protein and comfort to the Japanese in these difficult times. Tens of thousands of ramen stands, banned by law, compensated for the government's lag in food distribution.


In 1950, the laws governing the flour trade were abolished. At the same time, many Japanese soldiers returned from their postings in China, where they had become accustomed to eating ramen. This combination of circumstances led to the growing success of ramen restaurants in Japan and the birth of countless new recipes.


In the late 1950s, Momofuku Ando developed the instant noodle, which became a pop culture icon. Years later, the popularity of this bowl of noodle-and-vegetable soup has only grown, and today it graces tables the world over.



The Art of Ramen


Ramen is a simple dish, which is one of the reasons for its popularity. However, crafting delicious ramen has been an art for decades. Every region and family has its own secret recipes for making these flavorful dishes, as do the specialized establishments and restaurants offering freshly prepared ramen. Traditionally, ramen consists of four elements: a savoury broth, a sauce made with oils or tare, the famous ramen noodles, and various toppings such as pork, green onions, or eggs.



The original recipe


Ramen is composed of five basic ingredients. The first is a tare, the sauce that gives each type of ramen its distinctive flavour and name. For example, soy sauce (shoyu) is the main flavour in Shoyu Ramen, while miso paste characterizes Miso Ramen.


The second ingredient is the soup, which can range from a light, vegetable-based broth like chintan to a thicker and creamier broth like paitan. Seasoning oil is another crucial component, as it loosens the noodles and imparts a unique flavour.


Of course, ramen wouldn't be complete without the noodles. These come in various forms—flat, thick, thin, or folded—but all contain an alkaline base called kansui. Finally, there are the toppings: slices of meat, seafood, vegetables, bamboo shoots, seasoned eggs, and more. The variety of toppings can vary greatly depending on the type of ramen.



Broth: the key to a good bowl of ramen


The most common broth bases for ramen include:

  • Shoyu (soy sauce)

  • Shio (salt)

  • Miso (soybean paste)

  • Tonkotsu (pork bone)


However, you may encounter various regional variations as you travel through different parts of Japan. Some ramen blends two types of broth, while certain restaurants have gained recognition for their distinct and unique broths.



The different varieties of ramen


Over the years, every region in Japan, and subsequently each restaurant, has crafted its signature style of ramen. As a result, there are thousands of unique ramen recipes throughout Japan. The broth's richness, the noodle size, and the soup's colour can vary significantly, as can the choice of ingredients. Nevertheless, there are four quintessential Japanese ramen dishes that every ramen enthusiast must sample.



Shoyu ramen (醤油ラーメン)


Image: Wikipedia


This is one of the most popular types of ramen in Japan and around the world: Shoyu ramen, made with soy sauce. Considered the best-known type of ramen, it is believed to have originated as a variation of salt ramen (Shio ramen), introduced to Japan by Chinese immigrants.


The success of Shoyu ramen lies in its high umami content. Umami, which translates to "the taste that makes you salivate with pleasure," is one of the five fundamental flavours in Japan, along with sweet, salty, bitter, and sour.


Quick and easy to make, Shoyu ramen is traditionally served with slices of braised pork (chashu), though beef is sometimes used. The typical garnishes include sliced bamboo shoots (menma), green onion, and nori seaweed.


While it is the most common type of ramen, Shoyu ramen is incredibly diverse. Each region of Japan has its own recipe for soy sauce-based ramen, incorporating local products. For example, Asahikawa ramen from the island of Hokkaido is a variation of Shoyu ramen that includes seafood, vegetables, and pork or chicken bone broth.



Shio ramen (塩ラーメン)


Image: Wikipedia


Shio ramen is a type of ramen whose base is a salty sauce ("shio" means "salt" in Japanese). It is believed to be the first ramen recipe introduced in Japan in the early 20th century. The benchmark version of shio ramen can be found in Hakodate on the island of Hokkaido.


This type of ramen is much lighter than Shoyu ramen. Sea salt is used as a flavour enhancer, which, unlike other seasonings, highlights the flavours of the broth without adding additional aromas.


The texture and thickness of shio ramen noodles vary from restaurant to restaurant, but they are generally straight rather than wavy. They are served in a very light yellow soup called chintan, made from a mixture of gelatinous poultry broth and dashi seasoned with salt. Dashi is a broth made from kombu seaweed and dried bonito flakes (a fish in the tuna family).


The traditional garnish includes one or more slices of chashu pork or chicken, a few bamboo shoots, chopped spring onions, a piece of nori seaweed, and a halved ajitama egg.



Miso ramen (味噌ラーメン)


Image: Wikipedia


Miso ramen is made from miso paste, which is a fermented soybean paste combined with rice or barley, salt, and other ingredients that vary by region and preparation technique. This type of ramen emerged relatively recently, around 1965.


The dish is believed to have been created in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo by a ramen chef, and it quickly became popular with the Japanese public in the 1960s. Today, there are many different types of miso ramen across Japan.


Traditionally, its broth is made from a combination of miso paste, chicken fat, and fish stock, with bacon sometimes added for extra flavour. The result is a slightly sweet, hearty soup. The noodles in this delicious broth are usually thick, wavy, and chewy, and they are commonly accompanied by a wide variety of ingredients.


A wide choice of toppings includes :


  • Spicy bean paste;

  • tobanjan (a spicy paste made from beans and soy fermented with salt);

  • Corn;

  • Chopped leeks;

  • Onions;

  • Bean sprouts;

  • Sesame seeds;

  • Ground beef;

  • Cabbage, etc.


This dish is also seasoned with white pepper and minced garlic. Cities renowned for their delicious Miso ramen include Sendai and Kagoshima.



Tonkotsu ramen (豚骨ラーメン)


Image: Wikipedia


Tonkotsu ramen originated on the island of Kyushu in the south of the Japanese archipelago. Its hallmark is the white, opaque, and creamy texture of its "paitan" broth, achieved by emulsifying the fat from pork meat and bones, hence the name Tonkotsu, which means "pork bones."


This ramen can be made with various bones, with marrow bones being the best for adding flavour and texture to the soup. Many Japanese restaurants also use pork heads to enrich the broth. The bones are simmered for a long time, imparting a unique, savoury taste to the soup.


Unlike other types of ramen, Tonkotsu ramen is not named after its base sauce, known as "tare" in Japanese. It can be made with soy sauce, making it Shoyu Tonkotsu ramen, or with salt or miso paste, making it Shio Tonkotsu ramen or Miso Tonkotsu ramen, respectively.


The most popular oil served with Tonkotsu ramen is mayu, a charred garlic oil that coats the often thin and straight noodles, adding extra flavour to this irresistible dish.


Regardless of the specific Tonkotsu ramen recipe, a wide range of accompaniments can be found, with the most common being green onions, pickled eggs, braised pork (chashu), and Judas ear mushrooms. Regional specialties abound as well, with Hakata ramen from Fukuoka being a particularly well-known and renowned variety of Tonkotsu ramen.



Tantanmen (坦々麺)


Image: Wikipedia


Tantanmen is a derivative of the Chinese Sichuan dish, dan dan mian. Its distinctive reddish-orange colour immediately indicates its spiciness. Other notable features include the use of sesame oil and a generous mound of minced meat on top.



Tsukemen つけ麺


Image: Wikipedia


Tsukemen, or Dipping Ramen Noodles, is a type of ramen where the noodles and soup are served separately. To enjoy this dish, you dip the noodles into the thick soup before eating. Tsukemen noodles are typically elastic and can be served either hot or cold, depending on the restaurant. The broth comes in various forms, most of them thick, sauce-like, and very rich in flavour.



Curry ramen カレーラーメン


Image: Wikipedia


Curry ramen is essentially ramen noodles paired with a curry sauce. The noodles are often thicker than those used in other types of ramen. The curry can range from sweet to spicy, with the sweeter version being more common in Japan.



Maze soba まぜそば


Image: Wikipedia


Maze (mixed) soba derives its name from the need to mix the toppings with the noodles before eating. Unlike most ramen varieties, maze soba is served dry. In some restaurants, this dish may also be called abura soba (油そば) or abura ramen (油ラーメン). "Abura" means oil, referring to the aromatic oil used in its preparation.



Hiyashi Chūka 冷やし中華 (Cold ramen)


Image: Wikipedia


A dish exclusive to summer, cold ramen is commonly known as Hiyashi Chūka (冷やし中華). It's served chilled, with or without broth, and is often accompanied by citrus fruits like lime, lemon, or yuzu for a refreshing taste. Enjoying cold ramen will help you forget the oppressive heat of a Japanese summer.



Noodles: another essential element of ramen


While you may encounter different varieties depending on where you go, authentic ramen noodles are generally made from wheat. They are typically long and springy, but you can also find them thick or thin, wavy or straight. Some restaurants even offer a choice of several types of noodles.



Side dishes: various ingredients to add to your ramen bowl


Most restaurants serve ramen topped with a variety of ingredients, such as:


  • Chashu (roasted or grilled pork slices)

  • Tamago (hard-boiled, soft-boiled, raw, or pickled egg)

  • Kamaboko (steamed, compressed fish paste)

  • Negi (thinly sliced leeks or green onions)

  • Menma (fermented bamboo shoots)

  • Moyashi (raw or cooked bean sprouts)

  • Corn

  • Seaweed

  • Butter


Depending on the restaurant, you may also find seafood, mushrooms, and other ingredients.



Japanese ramen by region


Now that we've covered the basics of Japanese ramen, let's delve into its regional variations across Japan. Each region offers its own unique variety. Here are a few examples, from the south to the north of Japan:


Kagoshima Ramen (鹿児島ラーメン) features local Berkshire pork, known as black pork. This variety includes a mild broth made from pork, chicken, and vegetables browned with onions. The noodles are cooked al dente and can be either thin or thick, reflecting influences from Okinawa and Taiwan.


Tare: Tonkotsu - shoyu

Toppings: roast pork, shallots, bean sprouts and mushrooms.


Kumamoto Ramen (熊本ラーメン): Like other ramen varieties in Kyushu, it's served with straight noodles, though they are thicker and softer compared to those in the north of the island. In addition to the typical toppings, Kumamoto Ramen includes mustard greens, mushrooms, bean sprouts, and cabbage. Its high garlic content sets this ramen apart.


Tare: Tonkotsu

Toppings: Roast pork, shallots, nori, mushrooms, garlic, cabbage, sesame-garlic oil



Kurume Ramen (久留米ラーメン): This city has had a significant impact on the history of Japanese ramen. In 1937, a chef accidentally left a pot of bones simmering for too long and discovered that the resulting broth was incredibly delicious. The addition of fried bacon, melted marrow, sesame seeds, pickled ginger, and garlic gave this ramen a unique and flavorful profile.


Tare: Tonkotsu

Toppings: Roast pork, shallots, nori, pickled ginger, sesame, spicy mustard greens, and garlic.



Hakata Ramen (博多ラーメン): This ramen features pork bones cooked for days at high heat until the marrow seeps out, creating a rich broth. It is served with thin noodles that are briefly dipped in boiling water before serving. You then dip the noodles in the soup and enjoy. Toppings include sesame seeds, garlic, pickled ginger, mustard greens, and soybeans.


Tare: Tonkotsu

Toppings: Roast pork, shallots, nori, pickled ginger, spicy mustard greens, and garlic.



Onomichi Ramen (尾道ラーメン): This recipe features a base of chicken, a bit of pork, and local seafood. It also includes a generous portion of bacon and pork fat on top, all paired with a Shoyu broth and flat, wavy noodles.


Tare: Shoyu

Toppings: Roast pork, shallots, bamboo shoots, bacon.



Tokushima Ramen (徳島ラーメン): The broth is crafted from pork bones combined with "aged and robust" soy sauce, complemented by thin slices of pork belly and a raw egg topping.


Tare: Tonkotsu - Shoyu

Garnishings: Shallots, bamboo shoots, pork belly, raw egg, bean sprouts



Wakayama Ramen (和歌山ラーメン), also known as Chuka Soba (Chinese noodles), features a robust soy sauce Tare and pork bones simmered for an extended period. The noodles are long, thin, and firm, accompanied by pink and white fish surimi.


Tare: Tonkotsu - Shoyu

Toppings: Shallots, bamboo shoots, roast pork, fish surimi.



Kyoto Ramen (京都ラーメン): The former capital of Japan is known for offering two distinct types of ramen. The lighter variety, "Assari-Kei Shoyu Ramen," features a blend of pork and chicken with black soy sauce. The richer version, "Kotteri-Kei Ramen," is based on a chicken porridge soup and is topped with spicy bean paste, chives, garlic, and onions.


Assari-Kei Shoyu Ramen

Tare: Shoyu

Toppings: Shallots, bamboo shoots, roast pork, nori.


Kotteri-Kei Ramen

Tare: Tonkotsu - Shoyu

Garnishes: Shallots, bamboo shoots, roast pork, chives, garlic, bean paste, white pepper.



Nagoya "Taiwan" Ramen (台湾ラーメン): This is a reimagined version of Taiwanese Danzimian, featuring minced pork, Chinese chives, shallots, and chili pepper.


Tare: Shoyu

Toppings: Minced pork, shallots, Chinese chives, hot peppers, garlic.



Yokohama Ie-Kei Ramen (横浜家系ラーメン): Considered the birthplace of ramen, Yokohama offers a salty, fatty Tonkotsu-Shoyu variety. When ordering, you can customize the firmness of the noodles, the salt level, and the amount of fat.


Tare: Tonkotsu - Shoyu

Toppings: Nori leaves, spinach, ginger, garlic, spicy bean paste.



Tokyo Abura Soba (油そば): This unique ramen dish is served without broth. Instead, the noodles are placed directly on the Tare, and vinegar and chili oil are added. You then mix everything with the toppings before eating.


Tare: Shoyu

Toppings: Roast pork, shallots, bamboo shoots, chili oil, vinegar, mayonnaise, raw egg, garlic, bacon.



Tokyo Tsukemen (東京つけ麺): In this dish, the noodles are served separately from the fish broth. You dip the noodles briefly in the broth before eating.


Tare: Shoyu

Toppings: Roast pork, shallots, bamboo shoots, fish surimi.



Tokyo Ramen (東京ラーメン): Tokyo shoyu ramen features a flavorful broth made from pork, chicken, vegetables, seaweed, bonito flakes, and other dried fish. It's garnished with shallots, nori, roast pork, and bamboo shoots.


Tare: Shoyu

Toppings: Roast pork, shallots, bamboo shoots, fish surimi, nori, spinach.



Tsubame-Sanjo Ramen (燕三条ラーメン): This ramen features a rich broth made from pork, chicken, and sardine bones, topped with an indulgent amount of pork fat. The filling includes so much bacon and white onion that the thick noodles are almost hidden.


Tare: Shoyu

Toppings: Roast pork, shallots, bamboo shoots, sliced white onions, bacon.



Shirakawa Ramen (白河ラーメン): This ramen features a simple, light soup and hand-kneaded noodles that can be somewhat chewy. The Shoyu-based broth is made with local mineral spring water, giving it a unique flavour.


Tare: Shoyu

Toppings: Roast pork, shallots, bamboo shoots, surimi fish, Nori, spinach.



Kitakata Ramen (喜多方ラーメン): In the small town of Kitakata, there is one ramen restaurant for every 300 residents, giving it the highest concentration of ramen shops per capita in Japan. The soup is straightforward, and the toppings are minimal, but the noodles stand out for their wide, wavy, and flat shape. Their water-rich texture makes them particularly tasty and moist.


Tare: Shoyu

Toppings: Roast pork, shallots.



Akayu Ramen (赤湯ラーメン): In 1960, Sato Kazumi accidentally dropped a spoonful of miso into his soup and noodles. This happy accident led to the creation of sweet and mild ramen, served with a ball of red miso, chili, and garlic that gradually dissolves in the broth.


Tare: Miso

Toppings: Roast pork, shallots, bamboo shoots, fish surimi, miso paste with chili and garlic.



Hakodate Ramen (函館ラーメン): This distinctive ramen features a light, yellow broth made from boiled chicken and pork. The city proudly boasts Shio Ramen as its own creation.


Tare: Shio

Toppings: Roast pork, shallots, bamboo shoots, fish surimi, spinach.



Sapporo Ramen (札幌ラーメン): This ramen boasts a rich, fatty soup infused with minced pork, complemented by hints of ginger and garlic, and served with miso. Sapporo is revered as a Ramen Mecca in Japan.


Tare: Miso

Toppings: Roast pork, shallots, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, minced pork, ginger, garlic, butter, corn.



Asahikawa Ramen (旭川ラーメン): This ramen combines pork and leftover chicken in a seafood broth, seasoned with a Shoyu Tare. Topping it all off is a layer of melted bacon, perfect for warding off the winter chill.


Tare: Shoyu

Toppings: Roast pork, shallots, bamboo shoots, bacon.



What is a ramen restaurant in Japan?


In Japan, ramen restaurants, known as ramen-ya or ramen-ten, can be found on nearly every street and corner. These establishments typically offer seating at tables where you can savour a bowl of ramen. Some smaller shops feature just a single counter and a standing area for customers.



How do you eat ramen?


Eating ramen is straightforward, making it both easy to order and enjoy. Here are a few tips for a successful dining experience:



How to order ramen?


Some ramen restaurants let you customize your noodle selection, offering choices between different thicknesses (thin, regular, or thick) and cooking preferences (normal or al dente). You might also be asked if you’d like to add green onions or other garnishes. Additionally, some places provide a complimentary bowl of rice, which is a common practice in Japanese culture.



To eat ramen


Most ramen restaurants serve ramen in a bowl, eaten with chopsticks provided at the table. In some places, you'll also receive a Chinese-style spoon for the small ingredients and soup, which can also be sipped directly from the bowl.


When you enter a ramen restaurant, you might notice that the clientele is predominantly male. However, this doesn't mean that people of all genders and ages can't enjoy this delicious and popular dish.



How to enjoy ramen


The best way to enjoy ramen is to eat it quickly, as the fresh noodles can become soft if left too long. It's customary to eat your ramen noisily, slurping the noodles to cool them down. This is not only acceptable but also shows your appreciation for the dish. While finishing all the soup isn't necessary, doing so is considered a compliment to the chef.



To pay for ramen


In general, you pay for your meal after you've finished eating. Most ramen restaurants in Japan do not accept credit cards, so make sure to always have cash on hand to ensure a smooth payment process.



Conclusion


Exploring the diverse world of Japanese ramen reveals a rich tapestry of flavours, textures, and regional specialties. From the creamy, pork-based broth of Tonkotsu ramen to the spicy, sesame-laden Tantanmen, each type offers a unique culinary experience. Whether you’re savouring the distinct umami of Shoyu ramen in Tokyo, the seafood-infused Onomichi ramen, or the hearty miso flavours of Sapporo ramen, there’s a variety to suit every palate.


Ramen is more than just a meal; it's a reflection of Japan's culinary artistry and regional diversity. The intricate balance of ingredients, from the tare to the toppings, showcases the meticulous care that goes into each bowl. As you embark on your ramen journey, whether in Japan or at home, you'll discover that each bowl tells a story of tradition, innovation, and the passion of its creators.


So, grab your chopsticks, and dive into the delicious world of ramen. Each slurp brings you closer to understanding why this humble noodle soup has captured hearts and taste buds around the globe. Enjoy the adventure, and happy eating!




Ready to embark on your own ramen adventure? Whether you’re a seasoned ramen aficionado or new to this beloved Japanese dish, there's always something new to discover. Visit your local ramen restaurant, try a new variety, or even experiment with making your own ramen at home. Share your experiences, favourite bowls, and unique discoveries with friends and fellow food enthusiasts.


If you’re travelling to Japan, don’t miss the opportunity to explore regional ramen specialties firsthand. From bustling Tokyo ramen shops to quaint countryside stalls, each bowl is a taste of local culture and culinary tradition.


Join the conversation! Share your favourite ramen spots and recipes on social media, tag your photos with #RamenLovers, and inspire others to dive into the delicious world of Japanese ramen. Let's celebrate this iconic dish together, one bowl at a time!

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