Until very recently, most North American people didn’t know anything about Ramen, maybe just Ichibans or instant Ramen. Today, Ramen is the one of the most popular Japanese foods in North America and its popularity is growing.
Ramen is soul food for the Japanese people. There are over 35 000 ramen restaurants in Japan, with 3700 of those in Tokyo alone. For every 100 000 people, there are 27.71 Ramen shops. Calgary has 1.2 million people and I can only think of five, maybe six ramen shops. To put things into perspective for you, there are only 3000 MacDonald’s in Japan.
Every Japanese person can be and often is a Ramen critic. Everyone from Japan I know has at least one favorite Ramen restaurant, often very near where they grew up. They all have their favorite soup, noodle, BBQ pork and etc. This is because there are so many kinds of Ramen available in Japan. I, myself, grew up eating Ramen at least once a month at a ramen shop just a three-minute walk from my house. I started going to the shop by myself when I was only 10. My taste for ramen was formed and created by this shop’s menu.
Ramen doesn’t have to be complicated but must include following components:
Broth; Unlike a traditional French-style stock, a ramen broth can be made using any combination of chicken or pork bones and meat, dried fish such as bonito, flying fish, mackerel, sardine, or shrimp. For additional flavours, one might add dried shiitake mushrooms, kombu (dried kelp), vegetables like onion, ginger, scallions, carrots, or even apples. How the chef boils and for how long changes the body of the soup as well.
Noodles; Ramen noodles are made with wheat flour and Kansui (Alkali water), not usually with egg. Alkali water gives the noodle its unique elasticity. The noodle can be thick to very thin, straight to curly depending on the type of soup.
Tare (Tah Reh) or Kaeshi; This is to add more depth to the broth. Tare is made with lots of umami rich ingredients such as kelp or bonito flakes along with soy sauce, sea salt and miso. Sometimes a ramen chef will use the base that they simmered their ChaSiu as Kaeshi. Ivan from Ivan Ramen uses soffrito in his Kaeshi, which is definitely a western touch.
Fat; This adds more body to the bowl of ramen. It is often fat rendered from chicken skin, but some chefs use sesame oil, flavoured oils (like garlic oil) or melted pork fat.
ChaSiu, also known as BBQ pork, is a piece of port that is poached in a sugary soy base until very tender. Most chefs usually use the fatty pork belly but in Tokyo, they traditionally use the shoulder.
Boiled Egg; it is now very popular to have half of a runny soft boiled egg in your ramen.
Nori (seaweed); Tokyo style ramen often has nori. I personally don't understand why.
Menma, or simmered bamboo shoots.
The possibilities in making a bowl of ramen are infinite. Once someone told me that Ramen is easy, it is just fat, salt and sugar (noodle). Well, I would argue that it is very difficult to make good bowl of ramen. To come up with a perfect bowl of ramen from infinite possibilities, it is nearly impossible. So I think every good bowl of ramen is a miracle.
Many cities and regions have their own type of ramen. The most famous of all is probably Tonkotsu (Ton Koh Tsoo, NOT Ton Kah Tsoo). Tonkotsu ramen is famous mainly in the island of Kyushu, Fukuokaprefecture. The creamy broth is made from pork bones that have been cooked at a very hard boil for hours, sometimes days. The chef has to stir the bones occasionally to extract every bit of flavour they can; fat, marrow, everything! The noodle is usually very thin and straight and customers can choose how they are cooked, very hard to very soft. This type of Ramen is very popular in North America because of its intense flavour.
The first form of ramen developed in Japan was clear a Chinese-type chicken broth with Soy sauce and a thicker frizzled noodle by a restaurant called “Lai Lai Ken” in Tokyo. In Tokyo, this style of Ramen seems to be the most popular.
In Sapporo, Hokkaido, they developed their own style of ramen, “Miso Ramen”. Often, a miso ramen chef uses a clear chicken broth with specially blended miso and spices. Thick frizzled noodles go perfectly with this soup.
On the same island of Hokkaido, another famous ramen type is Shio (salt) ramen from city of Hakodate. This type of ramen usually consists of very clear chicken broth and salt base kaeshi.
As you saw, there are millions of types of Ramen around. Ultimately the best and only way to find your favorite bowl is to try as many as you can!