Feed That Ramen Addiction

Ramen is one of those classic Japanese foods that has achieved cult status here in the United States, second only to sushi.

Comforting yet healthy, ethnic yet familiar, fun to eat, and loaded with great umami ingredients like soy, miso, bonito, and kombu seaweed, ramen checks off all the boxes. No wonder it’s becoming such a big trend!

Did You Know?
Ramen on US menus has enjoyed one-year growth of 12.5%, and four-year growth of 46%.

Last fall I was lucky enough to travel to Tokyo for a five-day “ramen expedition” with four other chefs from Asia and Europe, where we hit 15 ramen places, from mass-market chains to a Michelin-starred ramen temple. That’s a lot of noodles, and a lot of broth, in the ground zero of ramen.

It’s thought that missionaries brought ramen from China to Japan in the 17th century. But it wasn’t until 1910 that Japan’s first ramen shop—Rairaiken—opened in Tokyo’s Asakusa district, an area of merchants and artisans. It served simple Chinese noodle soup modified with traditional Japanese ingredients—dried fish, seaweed, and soy sauce.

Americans used to think of ramen as a store-bought package of dried noodles you bring to life with boiling water and a packet of spices—late-night fare for college students and others on a tight budget. But foodies know that true Japanese ramen is a complex combination of layered flavors that combines clear broth with wheat noodles, slices of roasted pork, seasoned bamboo shoots, and chopped green onions.

But Japan boasts more than 30 regional varieties of ramen, and nearly 4,000 places sell it in Tokyo alone. Whether it’s an inexpensive chain or a celebrated ramen-ya like Nakiryu, the experience is the same: Wait in line, order and pre-pay at a vending machine, squeeze into a seat, and slurp quickly so the next person can take your place.

In Japan, restaurants specialize: They serve only ramen, or sushi, or fried pork tonkatsu, or skewered chicken—not the wide-ranging menus we’re used to here. Ramen eaters fiercely debate their favorites, but specialization means delicious broth and noodles. The difference between restaurants comes down to the quality of the ingredients, the type and flavor of the broth, and the excellence of the noodles. Each shop tends to have a specialty it’s known for—extra-thick noodles, a touch of Japanese citrus, perfectly slow-roasted chashu pork.

Did You Know?
Ramen has an excellent market appeal score of 78 on US menus vs hundreds of other global foods.

One of the highlights of my ramen expedition was Chuka Soba Tomita Ramen. This mecca of ramen has won the prestigious grand prize in TRY (Tokyo Ramen of the Year) for four years running. Chuka Soba specializes in the unique tsukesoba—buckwheat noodles served separately from a rich, wonderful dipping sauce that is made by packing a pot full of cartilage and maple, then cooking it down for over a full day.

Whether you’re having shrimp broth ramen, tsukemen “dipping” ramen, or the soup-less ramen known as tantan, it’s all about the ramen noodles, which are handmade from scratch.

But the broth is very important, too. There are different kinds of broth, with noticeable flavor profiles that come from chicken broth or demi, pork broth, seafood flavor, roasted garlic, soy sauce, ponzu, and miso.

Four broths stand out. The classic shoyu ramen broth is the simplest, taking its dominant flavor from soy sauce. Miso ramen broth is relatively new—from the 1960s—and is rich and aromatic from fermented soybean paste known as miso. Tonkotsu broth is made from pork bones, giving the finished product a thick, almost creamy texture and meaty flavor. Shio ramen broth is the most austere and delicate, with a salt base that works well with seafood. Each is traditionally served with a particular type of noodle and toppings, but here is where the regional variations and house specialties start standing out.

I’m sure you could eat ramen for a lifetime in Japan and never try all the varieties.

Getting Started
Try this recipe for Chicken Ramen.

Sources: Datassential SNAP! Ramen (2019); Datassential’s World Bites: Japanese Cuisine (2016)