Answerman What Are The Different Types of Ramen?
by Justin Sevakis,
Where I live, there's no good ramen restaurants, so when I see anime characters ordering different types of ramen, I have no idea what they are. Can you help?
First of all, that is a very tragic story. I was nearly 20 before I had my first "real" bowl of ramen, and it was a life-changing experience. Having only eaten the curly freeze-dried variety they sell for 25¢ at the supermarket, I fell in love pretty much instantly. The restaurant I tried it at, Sapporo 46 in Midtown Manhattan, just outside of Times Square, is gone now. It had long since passed its prime as a restaurant, and apparently needed major renovations that it couldn't afford. But I'll always remember it fondly.
Ramen and its popularity has spread like wildfire around the United States in the last decade. While it's been a mainstay of coastal cities, especially on the West coast, for many years, you can find it in a lot of places now: I was delighted to find good ramen in Des Moines when I visited last month. But just because a place has ramen doesn't mean it's good. Even here in Los Angeles, you can find more bad ramen than good ramen.
Ramen are generally categorized by their style of flavoring, which is added to a more generalized soup stock. The main four are shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), miso (you know what that is), and tonkotsu. Shio and shoyu are supposed to be fairly clear (shoyu, obviously, being darker in color), and every ramen place has their own recipe. Miso ramen is made cloudy by the addition of miso paste.
But the "sexiest" ramen is Tonkotsu ramen (not to be confused with tonKAtsu, which is a breaded pork cutlet). Also known as Hakata ramen, it's is among the harder broths to successfully pull off, and the one that I see the most screwed up in American ramen restaurants. Made from slow simmered pork bone stock, some chefs cook this broth at a gentle not-quite-boil for up to 36 hours. It's very rich and thick with natural collagen, and full of umami flavor.
There are lots of different kinds of noodles in the ramen broth. While the thickness and individual styles vary greatly, the noodles themselves are just wheat flour, salt, and alkaline water. Some higher end ramen chefs will go out of their way to import alkaline water from China, since ramen noodles are descendants of Chinese noodle recipes (and, to this day, many Japanese people consider it to be "Chinese food"). The alkaline water makes the noodles more elastic and gives them their signature texture.
The most common meat ingredient is chashu, which is sliced braised pork belly. A few generous slices are usually served off to the side of each bowl. There are ramen restaurants that use chicken, but it's not very common in Japan. Aside from that, a soy sauce-marinated soft boiled egg, a sheet of nori seaweed, wakame seaweed, menma (pickled bamboo shoots), and a handful of other staples are added. That's a standard bowl of ramen.
From there, different areas of Japan are known for different kinds of ramen. Hokkaido is the home of miso ramen, and given its agricultural tradition, often adds butter, corn and seafood. Tokyo is all about shoyu ramen. The island of Kyushu's variant is among the most beloved: tonkotsu ramen with sesame seeds and sesame oil. Tokushima uses a blend of tonkotsu and shoyu broths, sometimes with pork ribs.
However, just because you're not in the right place doesn't mean you can't get those variations. Kyushu Jangara, a chain famous for their Kyushu style ramen, has several locations all over Tokyo. Most larger ramen restaurants offer a variety of different styles. But as any food lover can tell you, there's nothing like going to the place known for a specific dish. Somehow, it's just better there.
There are other variants. Tsukemen offers a thicker broth, with lukewarm noodles served separately: you're supposed to dip a mouthful of noodles into the soup and slurp it up that way. Koreans go an entirely different direction: they put the cheap freeze-dried bricks into spicy stews, and even melt American cheese on top of it.
The ramen craze shows no signs of slowing down. Tsuta, one only a small number of ramen restaurants to earn a Michelin star, is reportedly opening an outpost in San Francisco and Los Angeles early next year. There are now ramen festivals in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and New York City.
Unfortunately, this also means that a lot of places just aren't as good as they say. Lots of places serving tonkotsu ramen waters down their soup with coconut milk, giving it a very light milky color. (It's supposed to be light tan, not almost white.) Bland soup, overcooked pork, overcooked eggs, and mushy noodles are but a few of the sins I've seen committed in the name of ramen. I've also sampled some vegetarian ramen... To say I was unimpressed is an understatement, but I understand that reproducing ramen without pork or chicken must be next to impossible.
To be honest, you don't need to know a ton about ramen to enjoy ramen. All you need is to find a good spot, and if you live near a city of any size at all, you might be in luck. Just do your research online before you go. Happy slurping!
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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