It’d be an understatement to say that ramen is one of the world’s favorite foods. But have you ever stopped to think about where ramen came from or why it’s so popular? Here’s everything you should know about this iconic Japanese comfort food.
What Is Ramen?
Ramen is a type of Japanese noodle soup. Once a simple street food, it’s now become a gourmet phenomenon around the world. Every bowl of ramen has three main components:
- Broth: A good bowl of ramen begins with a hearty, flavorful broth. Most broths begin with a combination of Japanese soup stock, or “dashi,” and chicken or pork stock. Each ramen chef uses a different “tare,” or flavoring base, that they add to each bowl of broth before serving.
- Noodles: Ramen noodles contain wheat flour, salt, water and a special alkaline water called “kansui.” “Kansui” is what gives the noodles their unique flavor and springy texture. Noodle shape and thickness often change depending on the type of ramen you’re eating.
- Toppings: Ramen chefs artfully arrange each bowl with toppings like fried veggies, sliced meat and sheets of seaweed before serving.
Ramen is unique in the Japanese food scene because, unlike more traditional foods, the combination possibilities are basically endless. People are constantly coming up with new ways to eat it, including ramen carbonara, ramen noodle slaw and even ramen burgers.
What Are the Main Types of Ramen?
There are four main ramen varieties named after the type of broth they use:
- Shoyu: Shoyu is the original type of ramen. It features a soy-based broth flavored with soy sauce, mirin, pork or chicken stock, and rice vinegar. Some of the most common toppings for shoyu ramen are marinated soft-boiled eggs, bamboo shoots, corn and bean sprouts.
- Shio: Shio ramen features a clear broth heavily seasoned with salt. It can feature elements from other types of ramen, such as braised pork cutlets, but the salty broth is the key element.
- Miso: This type of ramen features a miso broth base that also includes ground pork, vegetables and chicken stock. Miso ramen has a delicious umami flavor.
- Tonkotsu: Tonkotsu ramen features a rich pork broth that’s incredibly famous in Japan and worldwide. This broth type isn’t to be confused with “tonkatsu,” which refers to fried pork cutlet.
Here’s a quick tip if you’re looking to make a bowl of classic ramen at home. Using quality soy sauce like San-J Organic Shoyu is essential for making flavorful shoyu ramen. Fresh, high-quality ingredients are packed full of flavor, which is important for creating the best ramen broth.
Where Did Ramen Come From?
Although it’s unclear exactly when ramen first appeared in Japan, historians believe 19th-century Chinese immigrants brought an early version of it with them to Japan.
Originally nicknamed “Chuka soba,” early ramen was a simple dish consisting of noodles in broth topped with roast pork. It became popular in port cities like Yokohama and Nagasaki, where workers would buy it from food carts, or “yatai,” and Chinese restaurants.
Rairaiken, the first true ramen shop, opened in Asakusa, Tokyo, in 1910. With the invention of the industrial noodle machine later that decade, ramen quickly became a symbol of Japan’s urbanization.
The Postwar Ramen Boom
Interestingly, ramen’s history is closely tied to some of Japan’s darkest days.
Japan’s 1945 rice harvest was one of the worst in decades. The country increasingly turned to wheat products to feed its war-weary population. Wheat products, such as bread and noodles, became a popular alternative.
During the war, the Japanese government banned outdoor food vendors to control rationing. American troops maintained this ban during their occupation, so many Japanese people turned to black market food carts for “stamina food.”
Finally, government restrictions loosened in 1950. Ramen vendors multiplied throughout the country, and ramen rapidly became one of Japan’s staple foods. It was especially popular with Japanese salarymen who needed a quick, hot meal after long hours at work.
Now, ramen is a bonafide cultural phenomenon. Characters from cherished movies, books and TV shows eat it. There’s even a museum dedicated to ramen in Yokohama.
The Evolution of Ramen
Over the years, regional variations of the classic dish began popping up. For example, chefs in Fukuoka accidentally invented “tonkotsu,” or pork, ramen by letting pork bones cook for a little too long. This resulted in a creamy, cloudy broth that’s now one of the most iconic types of ramen.
Some examples of ultra-local ramen styles include:
- Sapporo: The legendary Sapporo ramen consists of a miso-flavored tonkotsu broth and thin, curly noodles. It usually comes topped with fermented bamboo shoots, or “menma,” braised “chashu” pork, bean sprouts and plenty of veggies. A pat of butter is the secret ingredient, melting into the broth to deepen the umami miso flavor.
- Kitakata: This ramen’s savory soy sauce base and thick, wavy noodles make it unique among other types. Toppings typically include fish cakes, bamboo shoots, braised pork and fish cakes.
- Okinawa: This island style combines thick udon noodles with seafood-flavored ramen broth to create a unique treat. It usually comes with pickled ginger, thick pork rib slices, fish cakes and green onions on top.
When Did Instant Ramen Originate?
Momofuku Ando, the founder of Nissin Foods, created the original instant ramen in 1958. He discovered that by frying the noodles in oil, he could dehydrate them for easy storage. When he boiled the dried noodles, they remoisturized and behaved like fresh noodles.
The original chicken flavor, “Chikin Ramen,” contained a serving of dried noodles, dehydrated toppings and a packet of chicken soup seasoning powder. Although it cost more than a fresh bowl of ramen, its convenience made it appealing to Japanese citizens, and the price eventually dropped due to the high demand.
However, breaking into the United States market, where people were less likely to have easy access to bowls and utensils on the go, proved difficult. In 1971, Ando repackaged his instant noodles in a stylish styrofoam cup to make them more portable for busy Americans — and thus, Cup Noodle was born.
Today, there are dozens of instant ramen brands available in grocery stores around the world. You can find instant ramen in a wide variety of flavors, including shrimp, beef, chicken and miso. More health-conscious brands have also begun producing keto-friendly, gluten-free and vegan options so everyone can enjoy a quick, hearty bowl of noodles.
Instant Ramen vs. Homemade Ramen
So, what’s the difference between instant ramen and fresh homemade ramen? Ultimately, it all comes down to quality. Authentic, homemade ramen is fresher and more flavorful. It also has greater nutritional value.
While some instant ramen comes with dehydrated toppings like seaweed and small fish cakes, there isn’t much in the package. Fresh vegetables and meat add a healthy dose of protein, vitamins and minerals to the dish.
Instant ramen is tasty and great in a pinch, but its lower-quality ingredients and factory-produced flavors just don’t compare to the real thing. That said, you can easily upgrade any instant ramen to be more authentic by making a few swaps and additions.
How to Cook Ramen at Home
If all this talk about ramen is making you hungry, consider experimenting with your own. Making ramen from scratch is a fun way to learn about the dish from the comfort of your own kitchen.
Sourcing quality ingredients is key. Thankfully, you have a lot of options with ramen. For example, you can use either of the following for noodles:
- Fresh noodles: Use fresh ramen noodles for the best results. Normally, you can find them at Japanese or Asian grocery stores. You can also make your own noodles if you have trouble finding them in the store.
- Dried noodles: If you’re pressed for time, or you can’t get hold of fresh noodles, you can usually find plain dried ramen noodles in the international aisle of most supermarkets. Instant noodles will work, too.
You’ll also need ingredients for broth and toppings and any additional seasonings you like.
Easy Ramen Recipe
Here’s a basic shoyu ramen recipe for aspiring chefs of any experience level:
- Make a simple “dashi” by bringing two cups of water and 1/4 ounce dried kelp, or “kombu,” over medium heat. Add in 1/4 ounce fish flakes — “bonito flakes” — and allow to steep for five minutes before straining.
- In a large saucepan, combine your dashi with 4 cups of chicken or pork broth, 6 tablespoons soy sauce and 1 tablespoon each of rice vinegar and mirin. Bring the mixture to a simmer.
- Cook your noodles in a separate pot of boiling water. Cook time may be anywhere from one to three minutes depending on the thickness of the noodles.
- Ladle some broth into a bowl and add a serving of noodles. Keeping them separate until serving helps prevent the noodles from becoming soggy.
- Top as desired and serve. Classic toppings include marinated soft-boiled eggs, or “ajitama,” sliced braised pork, nori or wakame, and chopped green onions, or “negi.”
Want to bring your homemade ramen to the next level? Take the time to make your own toppings from scratch! They’ll be fresher and more flavorful than buying them pre-made.
What Is the Cultural Value of Ramen?
Although it’s only been around for a few generations, ramen is a fundamentally Japanese dish.
For one thing, it represents the culture’s strong work ethic and deep respect for others. Making excellent ramen is no easy feat, and the best chefs dedicate their lives to the craft. As a fast, inexpensive meal, it sustains hardworking Japanese people and their hectic lifestyles.
Ramen shops also reflect the value of privacy in Japan. Traditional ramen shops are designed to allow customers to enjoy their food in peace. Many feature a small row of stools with partitions between each seat. If you’re eating with someone else, you can often fold the partitions back, but if you’re eating alone, the partitions provide a bit of privacy. It’s like a flavorful retreat from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Some have open kitchens, so if you sit at the counter you can watch the chef or their assistant prepare your food right in front of you. Others have hidden kitchens. In these shops, you don’t normally interact with the staff until you receive your food.
What Does It Take to Become a Ramen Master?
Despite its humble status as a convenience food, ramen is a surprisingly complex dish. Years of training go into becoming a true ramen master.
Chefs often dedicate tireless hours to honing their craft, from building the perfect flavor combinations for their tare to making their own noodles by hand. They’re masters of multitasking, often coordinating ingredients for multiple orders simultaneously.
In small ramen shops, chefs are also incredibly attentive. They learn the preferences of their regular customers to provide the best service possible.
Due to this dedication, it’s considered an honor to eat a ramen master’s food.
A Few Tips on Ramen Etiquette
Ramen is best when it’s piping hot, so you need to learn to eat it quickly! Here are some tips to help you master the art of eating ramen.
How to Eat Ramen
Typically, ramen is served with chopsticks and a soup spoon. The trick to eating it is to pick up some noodles with the chopsticks and slurp them up in a few short bursts before biting off whatever noodles are still attached to the bowl.
Most of the time, you’ll finish the noodles and toppings first. If you’re still hungry, you can order “kaedama” (more noodles) to go with the rest of your broth. Otherwise, you can just sip the broth from your bowl as the final step of your meal.
Eating “tsukemen” ramen — plain ramen noodles served with a side of thick soup or dipping sauce — is a little different. Instead of eating straight from the bowl, pick up the noodles with your chopsticks and dip them into the liquid before eating. Then, finish the soup either by using the spoon or drinking directly from the bowl.
Ordering Ramen in Japan
If you’ll be in Japan any time soon, you must stop at a real ramen shop. Many traditional shops offer full service, so you can take a seat at the bar and order. You might even be able to watch the chef prepare your food while you wait. Other shops use a food ticket machine to speed the ordering process along.
Follow these tips to order with confidence:
- Wait patiently: Popular ramen shops often have long lines, so you might need to queue up and wait for a while. Take this opportunity to look over the menu and decide what you want to eat before you approach the machine.
- Order your meal: Use the buttons to pick which type of ramen you’d like. At many shops, you’ll also be able to choose toppings, side dishes and drinks from the machine. Pay for your meal and take your meal ticket to your seat.
- Take a seat: Choose a booth and sit down. Some ramen shops have paper forms you can use to further customize your bowl. Hand this form and the meal ticket to the staff.
- Dig in: When your ramen arrives, it’s time to start eating! If you’re left with broth and you’re still hungry, you can always order more noodles by pressing the button at your booth. Or, you can ask for rice — many ramen shops provide complimentary white rice.
If you find you need help, you can always ask the staff. Ramen chefs know their food inside and out, so you can count on them to recommend something delicious.
Cook Authentically With San-J Soy Sauces
If you’re craving a hearty bowl of shoyu ramen or teriyaki chicken ramen right now, we can help you make one. At San-J, we’re committed to providing healthy, high-quality sauces and seasonings for people who love good food.
San-J Shoyu is certified organic, Non-GMO Project verified and made with no artificial preservatives, flavors or colors added. San-J Tamari is another option for quality soy sauce. Because we use 100% soy and no wheat to brew our Tamari, it’s certified gluten-free. Plus, with several low-sodium and organic options available, you can find a sauce that meets your dietary needs.