Ramen was, for the longest time, Japan’s national-dish-in-hiding. Those who had seen the late, great Itami Juzo’s 1985 ramen Western – and paean to the noodle – Tampopo, knew otherwise, yet many overseas observers toiled under the misassumption that Japan’s favourite meal must include a raw fish. Many still do. Well, partner-san get on your horse, drink your soup, and think again. Ramen is Japan's numero uno. Ichiban as they say.
The fabuluos Maruboshi Chuka Soba Center in Kurume, Fukuoka prefecture
If you hadn’t guessed, this is all a bit tongue-in-cheek, and there still is plenty, plenty of sushi consumed in Japan and beyond it’s shores. But ramen really has ‘exploded’ over the last three decades, since this observer arrived in Japan. Globally, it has become a phenomenon.
But to backtrack. In late 1980s Japan, it was still relatively unusual to see a woman dining by herself in a ramen shop. Its blue-collar, masculine associations were so strong. It was not 'the done thing'. Ramen was considered almost risqué in certain elements of society.
And there was also constant debate that seemed to trouble people. “Is ramen Japanese or Chinese?” It seems silly even to mention it now, but back then it was something of a minor 'issue'. In the 80s, had you taken a straw poll, ‘Chinese’ would have been the strong winner. Today anyone under 25 will say it's Japanese, and many people, including myself, are likely to concur.
Clearly, the yellow wheat noodles came from China. But so did green tea and a whopping part of Japan’s culture, food and otherwise, often passed through an extra Korean cultural filter. Ramen doesn't exist in China except as a late 20th century re-import. Today no-one gives a flying hoot about origins. Probably a good thing, no? Times have moved on.
So Exactly What Is Ramen?
‘Ramen’ is generally considered to be an amalgam of the Chinese word meaning ‘to stretch’ and the Japanese suffix for noodles, ‘-men’, though often it is simply rendered in katakana or hiragana script.
Older names for the yellow noodles also include Shina soba, Nankyo soba and Chuka soba, and there is much discussion about the merit of one over the other. Sometimes ramen is written using the kanji characters for the willow tree or yanagi. Best move on, or we’ll be at this all day.
At the heart of good (and bad) ramen is the dashi, made from torigara chicken bones or tonkotsu pork bones, created with the addition of vegetables, shoyu or miso, or a blend of these, or perhaps with a base of niboshi dried fish. Experimentation is rife, and ramen fads come and go.
Ramen 101: Basic Types, Regional Variations
Please bear in mind we are talking in the broadest strokes here. Ramen types fit into four basic categories, each with a distinctive geographical origin: shoyu ramen (soy broth ramen, from Tokyo); shio ramen (salt ramen) and miso ramen (ramen in a miso broth), both from Sapporo; and tonkotsu ramen (noodles in a thick pork broth) from Hakata/Fukuoka and Kurume in Kyushu.
Morioka in Iwate Prefecture is famed for its reimen, yellow wheat noodles served cold. Reimen is popular nationwide during the hot summer months, usually accompanied with a large dollop of fiery mustard. Kyoto, Wakayama, Tokushima in Shikoku, Onomichi in Hiroshima, and Asahikawa up in Hokkaido are just a few others famed for their own take on the subject. Make sure to check out our 'The Ramen Professor Recommends' sections for every prefecture. It is the most comprehensive guide on the subject ever published in English, and gives great FGL-only recommendations.
Tsukemen is ramen dipped in a separate cold sauce, often containing sesame, and has become a huge hit nationwide. We have also witnessed tomato, milk , cheese and, we kid you not, Country and Western varieties.
Eitaro's famed yuzu citrus chuka soba
Whatever the regional variation, essentially, ramen noodles are made from wheat flour mixed with egg. Also present in much ramen is kansui, an alkaline binding agent that not only stops the noodles from falling apart when boiled, it also allows the natural flavonoids in ramen that makes it tasty, and gives it that golden yellow hue. The noodles are kneaded, left to sit, then stretched with both hands, before being slices thinly.
The noodles are cooked, then served in a hot soup, with toppings such as charshiu sliced pork, moyashi bean sprouts, menma pickled Chinese bean sprouts, negi spring onion, naruto-maki thinly sliced white fish-cake with a pink, whirlpool-shaped inset) and nori seaweed. With tonkotsu expect kikurage cloud-ear fungus, hanjuku tamago a seasoned soft-boiled egg and beni-shoga red pickled ginger.
Curly noodles, in a Taiwanese style are called chijiremen. This is yours truly chewing down on chijirimen at Raishuken in Tokyo's Nishi-Asakusa, quite possibly the best ramen in Japan for this style, IMHO. Should you like your ramen ‘al dente’, make sure to specify you’d like katame, and if there’s the option you may be able to choose hosomen thin noodles or futomen fat noodles. The regular versions are just known as futsu – ordinary.
Ramen doesn’t pretend to be a health food. If you live in mortal fear of MSG, avoid it like the plague. Though some seriously good purveyors claim not to use it, I always have my doubts. Once again, please bear in mind this is just Ramen 101. More detail will be on the site soon. In the mean time, check out Eitaro, and Raishuken, and Kyohei Ramen, and the detailed descriptions of Fukuoka, Sapporo and Asahikawa (Hokkaido), Tokyo, Kyoto, Onomichi (Hiroshima) and Tokushima in particular.
If you feel like learning how to make your own ramen from scratch, check out Tsukiji Cooking's ramen-making classes. How cool is that?