With its golden noodles and warm, comforting broth, there’s little that rivals a good bowl of ramen on a cold night or as a filling meal with friends. But did you know Japan is home to many different types of ramen?
Here’s your guide to all the types of ramen and ramen’s various components.
What Is Ramen?
The word “ramen” comes from the Chinese “lamian,” which literally means “pulled noodles.” It makes sense, then, that noodles are a key ingredient of this soup.
Every type of ramen consists of four main parts:
- Broth: Japanese soup stock, or dashi, combines with chicken or pork stock to create a basic ramen broth.
- Noodles: Ramen uses springy, golden wheat noodles. These noodles are different from other kinds you’ll find in Asian cuisine due to the inclusion of kansui, or lye water.
- Seasoning: Tare, a mixture of intense seasoning pastes or liquids, forms the flavor base of the broth. One common tare mixture is a 1:1 ratio of mirin and soy sauce.
- Toppings: An artful arrangement of toppings like eggs, fish cakes, fried veggies and even butter add the finishing touches.
Most of the time, ramen is eaten as a soup. However, if you ever order or prepare tsukemen ramen, you’ll enjoy a dish of plain noodles that you dip into a separate bowl of sauce or soup.
Where Did Ramen Come From?
Historians believe ramen has its roots in 19th-century China. Chinese immigrants to Meiji-era Japan brought the dish with them. They would likely never guess this simple meal would become a staple of Japanese cuisine.
The first restaurant to serve something like ramen was Yowaken in Hokkaido. Originally called Chinese soba, the dish became popular and spread throughout the country. Regional varieties began appearing as chefs in each part of Japan experimented with new combinations and seasonings.
Today, ramen is a popular street food in Japan. Tokyo alone has several thousand ramen shops, or yatai. It’s also a quick and convenient comfort food around the world, thanks to Momofuku Ando’s innovation of instant ramen.
Types of Ramen Broth
The broth is the most important part of the ramen — it’s where most of the flavor comes from. Typically, ramen broth is a combination of pork or chicken stock and dashi. Dashi is a simple Japanese soup stock containing kombu and bonito flakes. It has a subtle umami flavor perfect for complex dishes like ramen.
Every good bowl of ramen begins with the tare. Also known as kaeshi, tare is a concentrated, salty base unique to each style of ramen. Chefs add it to the bottom of each bowl before adding broth and noodles. Although each chef uses a different tare recipe, common ingredients include sake, soy sauce, dried seaweed and mirin.
Here are the most common types of broth you’ll find:
- Shoyu: Considered to be the original ramen broth, shoyu ramen is a pork or chicken broth flavored with soy sauce. It usually has a tangy, salty flavor that pairs well with toppings like nori, chashu and menma.
- Shio: Shio broth is a light chicken or pork broth that is often transparent or clear. After boiling down the chicken or pork bones to make the stock, chefs add seafood products like dashi stock, bonito flakes or dried sardines for flavoring.
- Miso: This umami broth contains miso, which is a fermented soybean paste. It’s a strong, savory broth that often looks similar to miso soup in appearance. There are many different varieties of miso, including white, red, barley and even chickpea.
- Tonkotsu: Fukuoka chefs accidentally created tonkotsu ramen by over-boiling pork bones. The long cooking time created a creamy, cloudy broth that became iconic in the Fukuoka street food scene.
Types of Ramen Noodles
Just like with the different types of broths, there are so many noodle varieties ramen chefs can choose from. Regional varieties often use different types of noodles. For example, ramen shops in Tokyo and Sapporo tend to use thinner noodles, while Kitakata usually features super thick ones.
Ramen noodles typically contain wheat flour, salt, water and a special alkaline water called kansui. Kansui is what affects the ramen’s texture and appearance. Here’s how:
- High alkaline: Higher alkaline noodles are lighter in color and springier in texture. They’re also more likely to be cut thinner than low-alkaline noodles.
- Low alkaline: Noodles with less kansui are usually heavier and denser with a wheatier flavor. Most of the time, they’re also thicker and wavier than high-alkaline noodles.
Some artisanal noodles have egg yolk instead of kansui to get the same bouncy texture and golden color.
Noodles are common in Japanese cuisine, and the noodle you choose changes your dish significantly. Here’s how ramen compares to other Japanese noodles:
- Udon: Usually made from a mix of wheat flour, water and salt, udon noodles are the thickest type of Japanese noodle. Because they don’t contain egg or kansui, they’re paler in color and have a more subtle flavor than ramen. They also have a springier texture and come in either a rounded or flat shape.
- Soba: Soba noodles are thinner and firmer than ramen. They’re often served cold, though you might also find hot soba dishes. Soba noodles made with buckwheat flours are gluten free. However, many soba noodle brands also contain wheat flour so it is safe to read a label if you look for a gluten-free type.
- Somen: A popular summer dish, somen noodles are thin-cut wheat noodles usually served cold with a dipping sauce. Like with soba, serving somen noodles cold preserves their firm texture and subtle flavor.
- Harusame: These gluten-free transparent noodles, also known as glass noodles, are made from potato starch or mung bean flour. They’re typically thin-cut and used for salad, stirfry and soup.
- Shirataki: Shirataki noodles are full of fiber and low in calories, which is why they’ve become a popular health food in the U.S. They’re made from konjac yam, which lends them a pale, translucent appearance. The most typical ways to cook shirataki noodles are to dry roast them or add them to hot pots.
Of course, you can use a different noodle for your ramen if you need to. For example, because udon noodles don’t contain egg, they’re a great option for vegans.
Instant Ramen Noodles
So, where do instant ramen noodles play into this story?
Momofuku Ando, the founder of Japanese food company Nissin Foods, invented instant noodles in the 1950s. Although we consider them an affordable convenience food today, the original instant ramen noodles were actually slightly more expensive than fresh ramen from street carts.
Instant ramen has become popular in almost every corner of the world, but it wasn’t always that way. Due to cultural differences, ramen took a while to catch on in the U.S. — to break into the new market, Nissin Foods created Cup Noodle in the early 1970s. The venture was successful, to say the least.
How to Make Instant Ramen Noodles
It typically comes as a dried block of noodles with an enclosed packet of seasoning, though some more high-end varieties might include dried fish cakes and nori. Instant ramen noodles are often fried before being dried and packaged, so they’re a little different from fresh noodles in terms of texture and nutritional content.
You might be wondering if it’s possible to make an authentic bowl of ramen using instant noodles. Of course! By making a few swaps and additions, you can easily take your instant ramen to the next level.
For one thing, most instant ramen packets don’t come with any toppings. You can level up the experience — and the nutritional content — by adding toppings like a fresh-boiled egg or some nori sheets. You can also use your own broth instead of the seasoning packet for a more intense flavor.
Types of Ramen Toppings
The toppings you get in a restaurant usually depend on which type of ramen you order. For example, shoyu ramen typically comes with corn, nori, bean sprouts and negi on top. You can get as creative as you would like when preparing your own bowl at home.
Here are some of the most popular ramen toppings:
- Tamago: An egg, or “tamago” in Japanese, is a common topping for any variety of ramen. The egg can either be soft- or hard-boiled and is often marinated in a soy sauce mixture.
- Nori: Dried seaweed, or nori, has a fishy, umami taste and chewy texture that beautifully complements most broths. It’s also packed with vitamins and minerals, including calcium, iodine and vitamin B12.
- Menma: These crunchy fermented bamboo shoots add a distinct briny flavor and texture to ramen. You can find authentic menma in most Asian or Japanese grocery stores, or you can buy some online.
- Kamaboko: One of the most common and instantly recognizable ramen toppings, kamaboko is a steamed fish cake often made from surimi. There are several different types, but the most iconic is the narutomaki, which is a white spiked circle with a unique pink swirl.
- Chashu: Typically, chashu is thinly sliced pork that has been roasted, simmered or braised. However, some restaurants may also offer chashu beef, duck or chicken. It has a sweet, rich flavor perfect for any type of ramen.
- Negi: Japanese long green onion or Welsh onion. It’s often chopped and sprinkled on top as a garnish, but it elevates the dish by adding an aromatic quality and a little kick.
- Umeboshi: If you see a pink or peach-toned ball on top of your ramen, you’re looking at an umeboshi, or pickled plum. Its unique flavor is both sour and salty, so it provides an interesting contrast to the rest of the dish.
- Butter: Believe it or not, butter is a popular topping for miso and shoyu ramen. Its rich, slightly sweet flavor and creamy texture deepen the broth’s flavors, creating the ultimate comfort food.
Other common toppings include fried veggies, corn, nuts and even melted cheese. That’s the great thing about ramen — it’s such a versatile dish that you can get inventive with the toppings you use.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Ramen Master?
It might look simple, but ramen is a complex dish that takes years to master. To say it’s a serious commitment would be a massive understatement.
In Japan, ramen chefs often work alone, dedicating countless hours to finding the right balance between ingredients and mastering the art of consistency. They develop a unique bond with their regular clientele, remembering the little variations in the ways everyone likes their ramen.
Typically, you need to train as an apprentice for several years before earning the title of ramen master. Those determined enough to break into the ramen industry can often do so after only a short training period.
How to Make Shoyu Ramen
Are you ready to become a ramen master? Here’s how to make a delicious bowl of shoyu ramen from the comfort of your own kitchen.
You can use pre-made chicken stock or make your own by simmering chicken wings, ginger, onion and garlic for several hours. For a vegetarian option, use vegetable stock.
Make your own dashi by simmering water, dried shiitake mushrooms, kombu, bonito flakes, mirin and shoyu or Tamari on medium-low heat for 20 or 30 minutes. Let it steep for about 10 minutes, then strain it into a large bowl before combining both stocks to make the final broth.
You can find plain ramen noodles at most supermarkets and Asian grocery stores. You can also use instant ramen noodles — you’ll just need to make a few changes for the best results. Boil the noodles in your broth instead of plain water to add flavor. Additionally, cook the noodles for a few minutes under the recommended cook time to maintain their chewy, bouncy texture.
You should also be able to find gluten-free or vegan noodles, but consider using soba or udon noodles in place of traditional ramen noodles if not.
No bowl of ramen is complete without an assortment of toppings. Here are some tips for perfecting your meal:
- Tamago: First, soft-boil some eggs for about six minutes or until the yolks should be solid but soft and jammy. To really level up your bowl, marinate the eggs overnight in a soy sauce-mirin mixture.
- Chashu: You may be able to find cooked chashu in stores, but you can also make your own if you prefer. Simmer together mirin, less-sodium Tamari Soy Sauce, brown sugar, fresh ginger and garlic over medium heat, then add freshly cooked pork belly and simmer for another hour.
- Seasonings: If you’re using standard instant ramen, leave the seasoning packet. For a spicy kick, we recommend chili oil, sesame oil with red pepper flakes or sriracha. For more umami, choose Tamari Soy Sauce, miso paste or furikake.
Once you have your bowl arranged how you like it — dig in! Traditionally, people slurp their ramen while the broth is still piping hot.
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