Slurping hot noodles in a rich, savory broth with all sorts of toppings makes ramen a deliciously comforting meal. Ramen is a very popular dish, especially in Japan where it is consumed regularly. It is a versatile dish with plenty of room for variation, making it ideal for fusion cooking and also highly adaptable to local tastes. Each style has its own distinct flavor, with variations in saltiness, richness and flavour. This huge variety in ramen across Japan is what makes it so great, but there are some main elements that all ramen share: soup, noodles and toppings.
It is not clear when ramen first arrived in Japan, but it is believed that it was introduced in the late 19th century when Chinese restaurants began to line the streets of major cities in Japan. The name ramen is a transcription of the Japanese word for la mian, which refers to Chinese wheat flour noodles. This is probably the time when ramen really started to distinguish itself from its Chinese counterparts, and it was around this period that chashu, bamboo shoots and green onions became common toppings.
The basic ramen recipe consists of thin, curly noodles (much thinner than those in soba or udon), broth made from pork bones and chicken stock, pork fat, dried bonito flakes and katsuobushi (dried fish shavings). A variety of seasonings is added to the soup including soy sauce, garlic, ginger, pickled takana mustard with chili, sesame seeds, ground black pepper and the shredded seaweed kombu. Many restaurants will add scallions, wood ear mushrooms, white sesame, and minced pork to the base of their ramen, and it is very common to garnish each bowl with a soft boiled egg.
As with most Japanese dishes, ramen has a multitude of different toppings which can make or break it. One of the most important, though, is the tare sauce, which is a blend of soy sauce, mirin and other ingredients. The tare is what gives each ramen its unique flavor, and it is the part of the dish that most people notice when they taste a particular bowl of ramen.
Aside from the tare, the other key ingredient is the broth. The broth can be cloudy or clear, thick or light, and it is often seasoned with salt, shoyu or miso paste. There are so many different combinations of tare and broth, that it is possible to create endless varieties of ramen.
For an easy-to-make home version of this tasty and comforting dish, prepare the ramen according to package instructions, but leave out the flavor packet. Bring the mixture to a boil, then add noodles and cook for three minutes, or until they are al dente. To serve, pour into a bowl, sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds and the sliced vegetables. If desired, a splash of hot chili oil can be drizzled over the top to add extra spice. If you can’t find doubanjiang, Korean chilli paste is a good substitute and it adds a very similar flavour.