If you’re looking for comfort in a bowl, ramen is one of the most popular and satisfying meals out there. The Japanese version, also called shina soba or chuka soba, originated from Chinese noodles served with flavored broth in the mid-19th century. Since then, it has spread across the country and beyond. Various versions have developed based on local ingredients, flavors and cooking techniques. Ramen consists of 3 elements: soup, noodles and toppings. The soup, which is often categorized by its heaviness (kotteri or assari) and base ingredients (chicken, pork or fish), provides the umami flavor that defines the noodle dish. The noodles can vary in shape, thickness, bounce and chewiness. And finally, the toppings provide an opportunity to express your own style.
There are 4 main types of ramen – shoyu, miso, tonkotsu and shio. Each has its own unique character derived from the type of meat, fish or vegetables used in the broth, the cooking method and seasonings. In general, shoyu and miso ramen are light in flavor, while tonkotsu ramen is rich and hearty.
The flavor of ramen is extracted from a combination of savory, salty, sweet and umami tastes. The savory taste comes from soy sauce, salt and/or miso while the sweetness is usually from sugar or honey. Umami is created from the savory and salty tastes plus other ingredients such as kombu, niboshi (dried sardines) or even a bit of astringent like yuzu.
Ramen is eaten hot and is typically served with chopsticks. A bowl of ramen can be a meal in itself, but it is commonly shared among people and friends. The eating is characterized by loud slurping noises and splashes as people take small bites of the soup, noodles and toppings.
The history of ramen began with a restaurant in Tokyo named Rairaiken in 1910. It was the first ramen restaurant in Japan and is considered the official beginning of modern ramen. The shina soba served at Rairaiken consisted of thin curly noodles made from lye water (kansui) with chashu, bamboo shoots and green onions as toppings.
Another defining aspect of ramen is its tare, which is a sauce or seasoning that adds an extra layer of umami and depth to the soup. This can be done with soy sauce, wine, sake, kombu, sancho pepper or other spices and is a key part of the recipe.
Ramen can be enjoyed with many different toppings depending on the region and restaurants. These toppings are added as the final touches to the bowl of ramen, and include everything from pork, chicken, fish, beef or seafood to mushrooms, egg, leeks, green onion, cabbage, wood ear mushroom and other vegetables. These toppings are meant to balance the heavy flavor of the broth and add variety to the noodle dish. Some other popular ramen toppings include garlic paste, chili oil, sesame seeds and togarashi spices. The boiled or raw egg is a staple for many bowls of ramen.