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There’s no Japanese food I’m more obsessed with than ramen. It’s cheap, delicious, and has enough variations to keep me interested and coming back for more.

Even though ramen is originally from China and was once called shina soba (しなそば), over the course of about 150 years ramen has slowly but surely become a uniquely Japanese dish, and even a staple across the country.

Chefs all over Japan have tinkered and toyed with ramen, elevated the food to a national obsession. Different parts of the country have very different styles of ramen, to the point where they represent a sort of regional pride. Once you’ve seen the ramen movie to end all ramen movies, you’ll see the kind of passion the Japanese have for their noodles.

I’ve tried all of the ramen offerings in my hometown of Portland, and while there are some bright spots, most are fairly disappointing (partly because I neglected to follow to Laws of Identifying a Real Japanese Restaurant).

But as much as I’m a ramen noobie, I know there are others out there who are less fortunate than I, whose only brush with noodly goodness is instant ramen out of a packet or in a styrofoam cup. Here is my effort to guide those people in the right direction, walking you through step by step, ingredient by ingredient, what’s what in a delicious bowl of ramen.

Broths

The foundation of any good ramen is the broth and, when done right, is light years beyond the little packet of flavoring that comes with instant ramen.

A good broth is made over the course of hours and has a ton of different ingredients, but there are a few primary types of ramen broth:

Shoyu (醤油)

Soy sauce, or shoyu is a staple in basically every type of ramen broth, but is more prominent in some more than others. It has a very rich, salty, umami flavor to it, and a dark color.

Miso (味噌)

You’ve no doubt had miso soup before, but miso broth is a little more than just your standard “off the hook” miso soup. Miso broth a relatively recent ramen invention (miso ramen’s only been around for about 50 years), and is more of a regional specialty than a countrywide phenomenon.

Shio ()

Photo by Ryosuke Hosoi

Most ramen broths use shoyu to give it a lot of that salty flavor, but shio ramen does it a bit differently. It uses salty things from the ocean, like seaweed and other dried seafoods to give it a salty and umami flavor.

Pork (豚骨)

Photo by open-arms

Who doesn’t like pork? Well, besides people who don’t eat red meat, pescatarians, vegetarians, and vegans. Pork broth is a stock made from pig’s bones and other ingredients which vary by the chef.

Toppings

Ramen toppings are yet another way to distinguish your bowl of noodles from everybody else. They’re not quite the heart and soul of the dish, but they make an already awesome dish ever more awesome.

According to Tampopo, each ingredient basically has its own personality, its own special place in the bowl, and you must treat them with respect.

There are a lot of basic toppings that almost always make it into the ramen bowl: things like seaweed, green onions, bamboo shoots, etc.. But some have a much larger personality and role in the bowl:

Pork

Photo by kattebelletje

Pork comes in ramen comes many forms, whether it’s char siu, pork shoulder or pork belly. My all-time personal favorite is stewed, cubed pork belly, otherwise known as kakuni (角煮). On a good (or bad) day, I’d probably kill a man to get some.

Egg

This ain’t your grandpa’s hard-boiled egg — the eggs that go into ramen reached a level culinary sophistication far beyond your average scrambled or boiled variety.

Photo by Owen Lin

Lots of chefs cook the egg in a way that the yolk is still left gooey and intact. Some slow poach the egg, a process that requires that the egg never touch the bottom of the pot, and a thermometer to measure the exact temperature of the water at all times. All in all, slow poaching an egg takes about an hour; or, a little more than your egg timer can handle.

Even better still are eggs boiled then soaked in a sort of marinade, usually some combination including soy sauce and mirin. The way the sauces get into the eggwhites is just amazing. I’d highly recommend it.

Corn

Yes, corn. More recently, people in Japan have begun experimenting with new and sometimes weird ingredients not native to Japan or even China. The uniquely American grain has somehow snuck across the Pacific and into ramen bowls in Japan.

It’s not uncommon to see corn paired with butter in the ramen bowl, all atop miso broth. You see this more in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Something about the warm, buttery corn makes sense in the frigid northern weather, I guess.

Different Styles

Some types of ramen break completely free of the “noodles in broth with toppings” idea. Some are completely brothless, which can be good in its own way. It lets you focus a lot more on the taste and texture of the noodles.

Photo by open-arms

Another style that’s gained popularity is tsukemen (つけ麺), which are cold noodles with a separate sauce for dipping. Some people love to add enough chili oil to make you want to cry.

While this post doesn’t even begin to cover all of the different varieties of ramen, hopefully it will be a guide for those of you out there in the ramen wilderness. For more, I’d highly recommend the food magazine Lucky Peach, issue 1. If you can read through that and not be hungry, then you’re just not human.

  • Milán Marsi

    Oh, ramen, yes. My first meeting with it was when my father made instant ramen when I was 6. I didn’t even know it was ramen, and it wasn’t really a soup either, just the noodles with some mexican and grill spices.

    Then I’ve seen an american movie about ramen, “Teary Ramen”, or something like that. That was the first time I realised that ramen is actually more than just some soup with weird spaghetti like pasta in it.

    Some years later (it was like a year ago) my parents left for a family meeting, and the anti-social guy I am, I didn’t go with them (honestly, it’s no fun watching the adults getting drunk when you can’t even have a drink).

    Since I didn’t have anything to eat and became fairly interested in ramen via Naruto ( I know, I know), I thought that I’d give it a try. I looked up a recipe on the internet, and made my own ramen.

    Now, I know that it wasn’t anything japanese people would call ramen, not even close. It was a normal chicken soup with soy sauce broth, homemade noodles ( they were twisty as hell, I’ve become somewhat better making them, but it’s still nothing like real noodles) and some toppings (pork, spring onions, tomato and eggs). But boy, still, it was like I died and woke up in heaven. Seriously, it was ridiculously good. I even ate it with chopsticks, because that’s how I roll, and it gave the whole meal a ritual kind of feel. It was awesome.

    Ever since that day one of my main motivators (along with a lots of other things) for learning japanese is that I WANT to taste real, authentic ramen made by someone who know’s what’s he doing, and doesn’t burn the pork topping, preferably every single day. I’m not saying that back then I realised that I want to live in Japan just for the ramen, but I knew that I want to go there and see the country for myself, because if even a “normal” soup can be this full of spirit, then that’s a place for me.

    TL;DR: eat ramen, it’s f*cking awesome!

  • http://www.facebook.com/Scottlavigne Scott Lavigne

    The best ramen I ate was actually in Korea. It was a small shop by my hostel run by a Japanese man and his daughter, his dream was to spread REAL ramen around the world. It was a spicy tonkotsu ramen, catered to the flavors of Korea. Oh my god it was good! Also nissin seafood ramen is the best cup ramen!

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    What?!?! No mention of top ramen or cup of ramen???!??!

  • Kenneth Hendricks

    As a Portlander, have you ventured into Boke Bowl? I honestly can’t recommend it, which kind of sucks. They make a decent attempt at ramen, but fall short in the details. Bowls are usually a mess and poorly arranged, and the flavor is very inconsistent (went once and it was awesome, went again and it was really bland tasting).

    I’m curious to know what your bright spots are though.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Shaun-Krislock/553071502 Shaun Krislock

    Hashi, if you ever come up to Vancouver BC, you are going to love some of the restaurants we have up here. Motomachi Shokudo is my favourite (Bamboo Charcoal Ramen!!), and we have lots of other good places, that all pass your “how to spot a good Japanese restaurant” tests :-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/dennmart Dennis Martinez

    The best ramen I’ve ever had in Japan was Hakata ramen in a ‘yatai’ (food stall) in Fukuoka, next to a river in Nakasu. Super-tasty, large portions and not expensive at all, definitely recommended if you’re ever around that area. To boot, the guy who was shilling the ramen at one of the stalls was super-excited to be able to talk about baseball with an American. That was a fun night.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Yeah, I’ve been to Boke Bowl a few times and was kind of disappointed. I wholeheartedly endorse Yuzu and Biwa. Wafu and Mirakutei are pretty decent too. I’ve only been to Shigezo once and wasn’t a big fan, but I’d be willing to try it again.

  • http://www.tadaimatte.com/ Ashley Haley

    Love ramen so much! I have a special affinity for the very nontraditional “tomato ramen” (originated from tomato nabe, but with more Italian spin) from the Taiyou no Tomato chain in Osaka. But you really can’t beat a good tonkotsu ramen, either. Wish I could have some right now!

  • http://www.facebook.com/meg.datsameh Meg Datsameh

    Stop it, you’re making me hungry. /)*[]*(

  • Ruben

    It’s the perfect quick lunch, and still healty !
    Solid food, and liquid to drink, all in one in a tasty union.

    I wish ramen was more common here, it would be easier to find the real ingredients !

  • http://twitter.com/_tom_reynolds Tom Reynolds

    I’m gluten intolerant which means I can’t eat udon! Never had ramen, even though I’ve been studying Japanese for four years (T.T) any suggestions on alternatives or how I could home make it? Much appreciated!

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.alexander.980 Joel Alexander

    I love ramen. Didn’t like Tanpopo, though.

    We’ve got some pretty good ramen shops here in Sydney, Australia.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I don’t know a lot about gluten-free food, so I’m afraid I don’t have any suggestions for you. Sorry!

  • orangedude

    I’ve only ever had “instant ramen”… :(

  • This guy called Drew

    What? Why can’t you tolerate gluten? They’re people, just like yourself! Prejudiced meanie.
    #sarcasm

  • Arison

    The best ramen I’ve ever had in the States was in San Francisco… I can’t remember the name of the tiny restaurant there, but it was nothing compared to the real ramen I ate in Japan. Nothing. I ate more than a few bowls of ramen during my travels in Japan, and if anyone is ever planning to go there, I highly recommend Sodaisho in Osaka. It was the best I’ve had in my life, hands down. It’s a tiny restaurant with seating for about only 10. We got there around 7 or 8 pm and there were only a couple of people there, my friends and I were all able to get seated right away (party of 5). We all loved the ramen, and even drank all the broth at the end (although our Japanese friend told us afterward that it was considered weird to drink the left-over broth!). Every time I go back to Japan, I’ll be visiting that restaurant!!

    https://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=%E5%A4%A7%E9%98%AA%E5%BA%9C%E5%A4%A7%E9%98%AA%E5%B8%82%E5%8C%97%E5%8C%BA%E6%B5%AE%E7%94%B02-4-16&sll=34.67677,135.4896&sspn=0.008717,0.01929&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Japan,+%C5%8Csaka+Prefecture+%C5%8Csaka+City+Kita+Ward%E6%B5%AE%E7%94%B0%EF%BC%92%E4%B8%81%E7%9B%AE%EF%BC%94%E2%88%92%EF%BC%91%EF%BC%96&z=16

  • DAVIDPD

    Hashi, sorry to be that guy this time, but there was no mention of the different noodle styles. Sometimes they are wavy like Cup Noodles and sometimes they are straight. Sometimes they are yellow (from alkaline agent added to the dough) and sometimes they are white. No matter how they look they should always be chewy! After living in Singapore for a while, I have eaten many bowls of Ramen. Mostly, tonkotsu (aside: why Singapore, WHY!!! Its a million degrees outside all year around with super high humidity! And you want to eat the fattiest, least heat friendly Ramen?!), and tried the big boys like Ippudo and Ajisen and Tampopo, but Santouka is da best! They have “toroniku” which they claim comes from the buta’s cheeks, it’s expensive but worth it! Meat so tender is chewed by looking at it! The soups are all tonkotsu based, so shio and shoyu are all essentially tonkotsu, but they are good. Also tsukemen is amazing. Hard to call it ramen, but I guess the noodles are the same… // You can make onsen tamago in a Thermos! Just preheat the thermos with boiling water, add eggs (that have been brought to room temperature), add water that is about two minutes off boiling making sure not to pour directly on top of the eggs, lid the thermos, wait twenty minutes, remove water and allow eggs to cool inside thermos. Done.

  • Brittney Howdyshell

    Are any gluten free :(((?

  • Brittney Howdyshell

    You can have cellophane (rice) noodles. I have Celiac disease and have never had a reaction from rice noodles. I’ve tried to make them in a broth like ramen, and they just get way too soggy. We can’t have shoyu either, so our ramen choices would be pretty limited.

  • DAVIDPD

    As I quickly found out. Gluten intolerance/allergy is kind of an American thing.

  • Brittney Howdyshell

    Celiac Disease is an autoimune disorder like Lupus or Rheumatoid arthritis. It causes your body to attack itself when you are exposed to a particular irritant. For Ceiliacs, those irritants are wheat, barley, or rye.

  • DAVIDPD

    I am aware of CD. But you see, in places that more impoverished or are more recent to first world luxuries, or where people eat to survive, their bodies cannot afford to develop intolerances and allergies. As food is fuel for them. I spent time in China and never once ran into anyone with food allergies. My friend did a three year stint in Africa and never once did a person turn down Plumpynut (a peanut based, high calorie food given out by aide workers). I am not saying our experiences are true of absolutely everyone in China and Africa, but here in the States it seems like 1 in 4 people have a food allergy of some kind. I am also not discounting that you have Celiac Disease either, just pointing out my own observations. My apologies if any offence was taken.

  • Brittney Howdyshell

    Ok, yeah, so it’s a western phenomenon. Not simply an American one. But I totally agree that over-consumption (or gluttony rather) is responsible for this.

  • Jirugi

    WANT. SHOUYU. なうーー.

    You should do a part 2 post with locations of ラーメン屋 around the globe..

  • http://twitter.com/SactoMan81 Raymond Chuang

    I think ramen is a lot more varied in Japan because the Japanese are more than willing to experiment with various types of soup bases and toppings for a bowl of ramen. It might be (in my humble opinion!) that the Japanese have pretty strict ideas on how to serve udon, soba and somen noodles–limitations that are not found in ramen dishes.

  • http://twitter.com/paretsong Aya

    hashi i have a feeling you like food

  • kuyaChristian

    I went to Orochon Ramen in LA’s Little Tokyo once. You probably heard of it thanks to Man v. Food. I think it was my very first bowl of ramen so I can’t really judge it enough for comparisons, but my ramen was good. I had a miso-based soup [didn't know any better. must get shoyu broth next time though] with eggs. I jokingly told my friends that I like eggs on my ramen so much [even with instant noodles, really] that I should sneak in some eggs myself to put on my ramen. Not down to pay $0.99 for one boiled egg. Yummy :]

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    I like ramen, but to be honest I prefer udon or soba!

  • Emi

    Same here. Soba being first choice.

  • ZXNova

    Shoyu doesn’t really give Ramen a “salty” taste, rather, an umami (savory) taste.

  • henderson101

    We don’t really call them Ramen in the UK. They are “Instant Noodles” or just “Noodles”. I’d also say that in my youth, I ate more Chinese instant Noodles than Japanese (mainly “Doll” brand Wanton flavour was best IIRC.)

    In the UK we also have a brand called “Super Noodle” that is essentially the same thing. These, like our crisps (chips to US bods) come in all kinds of crazy flavours. see Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Super_Noodles

  • http://twitter.com/SactoMan81 Raymond Chuang

    I like to eat udon, but the problem is (from my perception!) that the Japanese aren’t so willing to “experiment” with soup base or toppings on an udon or soba dish. Because ramen isn’t so tied to Japanese perceptions on how to serve udon or soba, that’s why you see a gigantic variety of ways to serve them.

  • ジョサイア

    Naruto would be mad :/

  • ジョサイア

    :O

  • ジョサイア

    I need a old man ramen master to make eating ramen harder than it should be. :D

  • ジョサイア

    This has nothing to do with ramen but it’s crazy Japanese so :/
    Vocaloid in the beta stage :O

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fi-Yjj-2DoE

  • lychalis

    noice :3 The ramen I’ve made I don’t generally eat with chopsticks, too messy XD (I suck at using them) but whenever I make a stirfry – aaaaall of the chopsticks :D
    (also, with instant ramen I always try and get Japanese brands. demae shoyu flavour instant ramen is /delicious/)

  • crowbark

    If you’re using rice noodles, I’d suggest making the broth separately, with all the good stuff that’s not noodles. Make the noodles as al dente as you can, cool them off quickly after you cook them, then add them to the broth just the moment before you’re going to eat it. Maybe even don’t add them all at once, add them a little at a time as you go. They don’t absorb the broth flavor, of course, but rice noodles don’t have all that much flavor of their own to compete anyway. Don’t try to keep leftover broth with noodles in, either, unless you like slimy soup.

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    It depends on the season for me. ^^

    In summer I prefer soba, in winter udon!

    I especially love sanuki udon! :)

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    I don’t care too much if there variation if it’s a dish I really like eating!

    And even soba and udon offer some variation!

    Personally I love sanuki udon a LOT!

    During the cold winter time I always order udon only. No idea why. In summer I’m more of a soba person.

    I also adore chanpon and sara-udon.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    u callin me fat

  • stardust

    “This ain’t your grandpa’s hard-boiled egg — the eggs that go into ramen reached a level culinary sophistication far beyond your average scrambled or boiled variety.”

    That was rude.

  • GAME-DEBATE . COM

    you, kids do you like gaming or lol!

  • Hinoema

    At the risk of being labeled a heretic, yes; I often make ramen type dishes with glass noodles, made from mung bean flour. They cook a lot faster and taste great, imho, plus no gluten!

  • Hinoema

    Mung bean noodles work, too.

  • Hinoema

    My favorite instant ramen is HooRooRook; love the sardine broth. I doctor it with spices, bok choi, egg and a shot of sake. Good stuff!

  • themightythunder

    Unfortunately, living in Southern town where the Japanese population is barely above 0, I’ve never had the opportunity to taste real (i.e. non-instant) ramen. :(
    The only place in town that I know of that serves ramen is a Sapporo restaurant downtown. Does anyone know if that’s a good Japanese restaurant?

  • themightythunder

    I decided a long time ago that, if I ever am Blessed enough to finally get to go to Japan, one of the first things I’m going to do striaght off the plane (besides sleep) is find the nearest ramen place & finally try a bowl of REAL ramen.

  • belgand

    Any idea where, even roughly, in San Francisco this place was? Any other details to share? I’d like to help track it down. Especially since I’ve never had any particularly great ramen here.

  • Arison

    I’m pretty sure it was Katana-ya at 430 Geary St. Keep in mind though that it was a few years ago that I went… I don’t know if it’s still as good! Haven’t visited SF for quite a while… You might want to try other ramen shops in SF and compare :)

    http://www.yelp.com/biz/katana-ya-san-francisco

  • belgand

    I’ve heard a number of people raving about them, but I never understood why. In my experience their prices are high and their ramen is mediocre.

    They also don’t sell katana. Talk about deceptive advertising.

  • caro

    please share name of said ramen house! :D i’d love to try!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    hashi, you have a problem with eating.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I read a whole post about it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/matt.hubz Mad Hops

    I live about 45 minutes out from Portland and come into the city whenever an excuse arises! What places would you recommend to get some really great ramen?

    Thanks,
    Matto

  • http://twitter.com/SactoMan81 Raymond Chuang

    Speaking of ramen, I hope somebody at Tofugu does an article on Ramen Jiro. That ramen shop has to be one of the most polarizing things for residents of Tokyo….

  • http://www.facebook.com/Azure.Knight.Heaven Zarkaus B Amurils

    T.T give us recipes :[!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/Scottlavigne Scott Lavigne

    Sorry for the late reply! It’s called ramen maru(라멘마루) it’s in hyehwa exit 4(혜화 4번춘구) Pretty sure it’s that exit.

  • http://www.facebook.com/julie.ferguson.9421 Julie Ferguson

    soba noodles are made from buckwheat so that would be safe. I make duck shouyo noodle soup for my mum with buckwheat. check the packet so that it’s 100% buckwheat though. some companies do a wheat buckwheat blend.