Ramen: The Basics

Shoyu-Ramen/Ramen with soy sauce

Ramen (ラーメン, らーめん, 拉麺) is a Japanese noodle dish that originated in China. It is served in a meat- or fish-based broth, often flavored with soy sauce or miso, and uses toppings such as sliced pork (チャーシュー, chāshū), dried seaweed (海苔, nori), kamaboko (Fish paste), green onions and even corn. Almost every locality or prefecture in Japan has its own variation of ramen, from the tonkotsu (pork bone stock) ramen of Kyūshū to the miso (fermented bean paste) ramen of Hokkaidō.

Tonkotsu Ramen/Pork Bone Stock Soup

Though of Chinese origin, it is unclear when ramen was introduced to Japan. Even the etymology of the word ramen is a topic of debate. One hypothesis is that ramen is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese: 拉麺 (la mian), meaning “hand-pulled noodles.” A second hypothesis proposes 老麺 (laomian, “old noodles”) as the original form, while another states that ramen was initially 鹵麺 (lǔmiàn), “noodles cooked in a thick, starchy sauce”. A fourth hypothesis is 撈麵 (lāomiàn, “lo mein”): 撈 means to “dredge up” and refers to the method of cooking these noodles by immersing them in boiling water before dredging them up with a wire basket.

Butter Corn ramen in Hokkaido

Until the 1950s, ramen was called shina soba (支那そば, literally “Chinese soba”) but today chūka soba (中華そば, also meaning “Chinese soba”) is more common. Ramen should not confused with Japanese soba or buckwheat noodles.
By 1900, restaurants serving Chinese cuisine from Canton and Shanghai offered a simple ramen dish of noodles (cut rather than hand pulled), a few toppings, and a broth flavored with salt and pork bones.

Hakata-style ramen (Northern Kyushu)

Many Chinese also pulled portable food stalls, selling ramen and gyōza dumplings to workers. By the mid 1900s, these stalls used a type of a musical horn called a charumera (チャルメラ, from the Portuguese charamela) to advertise their presence, a practice some vendors still retain via a loudspeaker and a looped recording. By the early Shōwa period (1030~), ramen had become a popular dish when eating out.

Hiyashi ramen/cold ramen

After World War II, cheap flour imported from the U.S. swept the Japanese market. At the same time, millions of Japanese troops had returned from China and continental East Asia. Many of these returnees had become familiar with Chinese cuisine and subsequently set up Chinese restaurants across Japan. Eating ramen, while popular, was still a special occasion that required going out.

In 1958, instant noodles were invented by the late Momofuku Ando, the Taiwanese-Japanese founder and chairman of Nissin Foods. Named the greatest Japanese invention of the 20th century in a Japanese poll, instant ramen allowed anyone to make this dish simply by adding boiling water.

Miso ramen/ramen with fermented bean paste

Beginning in the 1980s, ramen became a Japanese cultural icon and was studied from many perspectives. At the same time, local varieties of ramen were hitting the national market and could even be ordered by their regional names. A ramen museum opened in Yokohama in 1994.

Tantanmen sryle ramen.

A wide variety of ramen exists in Japan, with geographical and vendor-specific differences even in varieties that share the same name. Ramen can be broadly categorized by its two main ingredients: noodles and soup.

Noodles

Fresh ramen: Most noodles are made from five basic ingredients: wheat flour, salt, water, and kansui which is essentially a type of alkaline mineral water. Originally, kansui was named after the water from Inner Mongolia’s Lake Kan which contained large amounts of minerals and was said to be perfect for making these noodles. Making noodles with kansui lends them a yellowish hue as well as a firm texture. Eggs may also be substituted for kansui.

Ramen comes in various shapes and lengths. They may be fat, thin, or even ribbon-like, as well as straight or wrinkled.

Tokyo-style ramen

Soup

Ramen vending machine: Ramen soup is generally made from stock based on chicken or pork, combined with a variety of ingredients such as kombu (kelp), katsuobushi (skipjack tuna flakes), niboshi (dried baby sardines), beef bones, shiitake, and onions, and then flavored with salt, miso, or soy sauce.

The resulting combination is generally divided into four categories (although new and original variations often make this categorisation less clear-cut):

Shio (“salt”) ramen
Shōyu (soy sauce) ramen
Tonkotsu (“pork bone”) ramen
Miso (fernented beans paste) ramen.

While standard versions of ramen are available throughout Japan for the last 100 years, the last few decades have shown a proliferation of regional variations. Some of these which have gone on to national prominence are:

Sapporo, where ramen are topped with sweetcorn, butter, beansprouts, finely chopped pork, and garlic, and sometimes local seafood such as scallop, squid, and crab.

Kitakata ramen in northern Honshū is known for its rather thick, flat, curly noodles served in a pork-and-niboshi broth.

What is known as Tokyo style ramen consists of slightly thin, curly noodles served in a soy-flavoured chicken broth. Standard toppings on top of chopped scallion, menma, and sliced pork are kamaboko, egg, nori, and spinach. Ikebukuro, Ogikubo and Ebisu are three areas in Tokyo known for their ramen.

Ie-kei (家系) ramen is from Yokohama and consists of thick, straight-ish noodles served in a soy-pork broth.

Hakata-men ramen originate from Hakata district of Fukuoka city. It has a rich, milky, pork-bone tonkotsu broth and rather thin, non-curly and resilient noodles. Often, distinctive toppings such as beni shoga (pickled ginger), sesame seeds, and pickled greens are left on tables for customers to serve themselves.

NOTE:
Many Japanese people also believe that ramen soup contains a high amount of fat and also that pre-fried fat from the noodles seeps into the soup. However, a typical serving of ramen, even when drinking all of the soup, has less food energy than a fast-food menu consisting of a hamburger, soda, and fries!

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