Unless your parents did the right thing by blocking anything labeled Nissin in your life, you’ve probably had your first ramen experience right at home. It’s no doubt inferior, but instant noodles are a good starting point if you want to understand ramen.
Instant noodles were invented during Japan’s post-war era, where everything was a mess and people were struggling. The Japanese government, concerned about finances, insisted on feeding the populace with wheat bread from the US for their daily meals. Momofuku Ando, the father of instant ramen, wasn’t a big fan of bread and wanted to feed everyone with noodles instead. Not surprisingly, Japan embraced it.
Although it was designed as a cheap substitute for real ramen, the Nissin noodles you’ve been eating since childhood follows the same principle of ramen—noodles in a broth overflowing with umami. If you’ve been pouring hot water over a styro cup of dehydrated noodles your whole life, you’re more familiar with ramen than you give yourself credit for.
Now if you’re still not convinced why you should learn all this, think of a basketball game. You could watch one and have fun with it, but you’ll only truly enjoy it if you know who’s playing and what the hell everyone is doing besides shooting the ball. Unless you learn a little about ramen, you can’t gloat about being a true fan.
Anyway, a bowl of ramen has four main components, the noodles, broth, tare and toppings. We’ll discuss each one below.
Most of us can’t tell Japanese from Chinese ramen noodles (half of those who do are merely pretending) and it’s totally understandable. The confusion is from the fact the Japanese stole the idea of ramen from the Chinese. Although nobody knows when it exactly happened, it’s clear that ramen noodles came from China.
But even with that knowledge, it’s still not easy to distinguish Chinese noodles from Japanese ones due to the sheer number of varieties available in both cuisines that overlap with each other. Some argue that the Chinese use egg in their noodles, which is sometimes true, but it’s not a clear rule. Other debates include hand-pulling versus machine cutting, using alkaline water, cutting them at different noodle lengths; but both cuisines tend to share these techniques.
However, one detail differentiates how the Japanese treat noodles from the Chinese: texture.
In Japan, people are obsessed with getting their noodles firm and under-cooked. Being served mushy noodles is like getting a well-done steak when you’re expecting a medium—it’s blasphemous. Needless to say, if you want to seriously enjoy ramen like the Japanese, learn to eat your noodles hard.
It’s best to serve noodles a bit under-cooked is that they continue cooking even after it leaves the kitchen. If you serve them soft, they’ll be mashed potato-soggy once you’re halfway through your bowl. It doesn’t stop there. Slurping noodles is a sign of respect that you’re enjoying your meal, and mushy ones can’t be smoothly slurped. (I challenge you to slurp mashed potatoes.) Therefore, when judging ramen, remember that soggy is a sin.
Another important thing to note is how noodles vary based on the region, broth combinations and target audience. Fukuoka’s Hakata-style noodles which are light, firm, long and toothpick-thin are popularly combined with heavy and oily broths that’s popular among a younger, fat-seeking crowd. Contrast that to the pencil-thick udon noodles, which are usually balanced with a light and clear broth that’s more refined and attractive to an older demographic.
There are a few other noodle characteristics that differ from region to region including color, curl and chewiness, but these are mostly left to the noodle maker’s personal preference.
In Manila, here’s a short summary of the types of noodles being offered by ramen houses:
- Mitsuyado Sei-men: thick, straight, yellow, chewy
- Ukkokei: thin, yellow, bouncy
- Ikkoryu, Wrong Ramen: light-colored, firm, straight, thin
- Yushoken, Ramen Bar: light-colored, medium-thickness, straight, firm
Ramen broth is one of the most complex soups in the world. Compared to a broth like bulalo where there’s only one stock (beef), ramen uses at least two to three. The first is usually made by boiling pork and chicken, the second is from dashi (which we’ll discuss below).
To clarify, here’s a generic ramen broth formula:
[Pork/Chicken broth] + [Dashi] = Ramen Broth
The more creative and daring ramen shops tend to play with other ingredients such as beef, lobster, shrimp or even duck. Their broth recipes could look something like this:
[Shrimp broth] + [Pork broth] + [Dashi] = Ramen Broth
Dashi is a simple stock that’s usually made with two ingredients, kombu (kelp) and katsuobushi (dried bonito or skipjack tuna). It’s a necessary component because it makes ramen distinct from Chinese or Vietnamese noodle soup.
Dashi is also crucial because kombu contains a generous amount of glutamic acid, a flavor enhancer and the main component of MSG. In fact, Kikunae Ikeda, founder of Ajinomoto, invented the infamous powder after trying to figure out the “fifth taste” with kombu. To answer your MSG question, yes, ramen has it in its natural form. That’s also the reason why you profusely reach for a glass of water after ironically downing a bowl of liquid.
If you’re wondering what dashi tastes like, just remember your last bowl of miso soup, isolate and remove the miso taste in your head, and there you go. Remember that dark green plant lying at the bottom of your miso soup bowl? That’s kombu. (Good to know: most restaurants here in Manila use dashi powder as a shortcut for miso soup.)
Because of dashi, a bowl of ramen will always have a hint of brininess in it (because seaweed comes from the sea) regardless of whether it’s primarily made with pork or chicken.
In Japan, the most popular broth is called tonkotsu, (not to be mistaken for tonkatsu) a rich, milky, pork bone soup that’s usually boiled somewhere between 4 to 48 hours, depending on the broth texture and flavour depth the cook wants to attain. As with all ramen, tonkotsu broths include dashi and commonly, chicken.
In Manila, ramen restaurants that specialize in tonkotsu include Ramen Yushoken, Ikkoryu, Santouka and Wrong Ramen. Kitchitora of Tokyo does a thick, chicken broth. Ukkokkei has a mix of different types (but my personal guess is that they’re using instant ramen mix for their non-Tantanmen ramen).
Tare (pronounced as ta-re) is the ramen’s seasoning and defines the “type” of ramen you’re being served. If you’ve been to any ramen house, you’ve most likely encountered the three major categories shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce) and miso (fermented soy bean).
One common mistake is to assume that a shio ramen contains only salt as a seasoning but that’s not the case. A shio ramen uses salt as the primary seasoning, plus a combination of mirin and other Japanese spices in tow. In the same way, shoyu ramen will have soy sauce as its star, but will also contain other flavoring ingredients.
Knowing your tare is immensely helpful when trying to decide which type of ramen to order. Let’s say you get yourself a tonkotsuramen. If you want a clean, pure, porky taste, go for the shio version. If you’re looking for an extra punch of umami from the soy sauce, go for shoyu. If you’re looking for a little pungency, a bolder texture and even more umami, go for miso.
Some ramen houses don’t offer guests choices for tare. They do this either because they want to specialize in one type, or they want to be more creative than usual by offering seasonings that don’t exist elsewhere.
The lineup of traditional ramen toppings commonly include green onions, beansprouts, wood ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots, seaweed, naruto (that pink & white eraser-like object), garlic, oil and a protein, which is usually chashu. Aji tamago (marinated soft-boiled egg) is a popular, but usually optional addition.
Among the toppings, the most noteworthy ones are the protein and the egg. Ramen houses are judged based on these two.
Chashu (not char siu, that’s Chinese!) is a skinless pork belly roll that’s braised in a pot of mirin, sake, soy sauce, sugar and some aromatics, which lends it a dark brown color. Once the meat is tender after a few hours of cooking, a meat slicer is used to consistently cut the pork into slices about ten pages thick. Good chashu should contain a balanced amount of fat and meat, and should be flavorful and buttery soft.
In some cases, chashu is substituted for another form of protein. Santouka for example, uses pork cheeks as a premium option. Similarly, Nomama gets a little more adventurous with Kitayama Wagyu beef cheeks.
Aji Tamago is a soft-boiled egg that’s commonly marinated in chashu sauce. Although there are debates on this, I’d wager that a good aji tamago would have a mildly runny yolk that oozes out when you slice the egg open.
If you’re wondering why a good number of ramen houses screw up the aji tamago, it’s because egg is bacteria and temperature sensitive, which makes it a tricky dish to mass produce in a restaurant kitchen. Fortunately, if you want to do this at home, it’s relatively easier once you’ve got the timing and temperature perfect.
If ever there’s a lesson to be learned from all this is that ramen requires a ton of components and processes to create. When I first realized that a single bowl contains over 30 different ingredients, I understood that bowls of ramen are like humans, no two will ever be completely the same. Cool, eh?
With your newfound ramen knowledge, you can boldly begin interrogating servers from Manila’s ramen joints with the confidence of a ramen god.
This article was originally published in 2013.