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For many non-Asians, especially in the US, ramen is sometimes synonymous with ‘instant noodles’. But those are in fact, a much later invention. Historically, authentic Japanese ramen was created in the late 19th Century by Chinese immigrants in the Yokohama Chinatown, who infused their traditional soup noodles with Japanese ingredients and flavours. The dish fell out of public favour during WW2 but found a resurgence of popularity in the 1950s.
Many classic ramen diners still serve in Japan to this day, each with unique traditional recipes passed down through generations. There’s even a ramen museum near the Tokyo city centre. Every region has their own distinct flavours as well, based on local seasonal ingredients. The simple base of wheat noodles and stock-broth allows it to have many household toppings. There are also modern reinventions without the soup, such as the ramen burger.
Ramen is beloved for its rich umami flavours with a balance of hearty ingredients that makes it a one-bowl meal. Typically, there are four major types of Japanese ramen according to their base flavour: Shio (salt-based), Shoyu (soy-sauce based), Miso (soybean paste-flavoured), and Tonkotsu (pork bone broth). From which, different toppings and seasonings are blended to create unique variants, including the Tonkotsu-based Japanese curry ramen, and miso-based vegetarian Shirataki ramen.
Sapporo Miso Ramen
Miso ramen originates from Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido. Pork-bone or chicken-stock soup flavoured with a stir-fried combo of miso paste, ginger and garlic. Sake, toasted sesame seeds and sesame oil adds extra fragrance to the soup. Spicy chilli bean sauce gives a zesty boost, though it is also cooked without, but served with chilli oil instead. Toppings include chashu pork slices, corn kernels with butter, and bean sprouts. Garnished with green onions and nori seaweed.
Hakodate Shio Ramen
Also from Hokkaido, in the port city of Hakodate, is the salt-based soup ramen of the same name. The clear broth is cooked from pork bones and chicken meat; with a cleaner, lighter taste than Shoyu-based ramen that brings out the meaty flavours. Topped with chashu pork slices, bamboo shoots, blanched spinach and the classic pink-coloured ramen fish cakes called narutomaki.
Tokyo Shoyu Ramen
As the name suggests, this Shoyu soy-sauce based ramen hails from Tokyo and is the most common ramen you’ll find in Japan’s capital city. While its toppings are similar to Hakodate Shio ramen, Tokyo-style ramen has curlier noodles, and its signature umami oomph comes from the dashi and shoyu soy sauce that flavours the chicken-stock soup.
From the southern island of Shikoku, comes the Tokushima Ramen, which originated in the eastern prefecture of the same name. Its soup combines pork-bone and chicken-bones for a thick, umami broth. The signature topping is the pork belly slice, simmer over high heat in a mix of soy sauce, mirin, sake and light brown sugar – for tenderized texture and rich flavour. Crack a raw egg into the soup for extra sumptuous enjoyment!
Tonkotsu ramen is a specialty of the Fukuoka prefecture in the southernmost island of Kyushu. The main taste feature is its soup – pork and chicken pieces boiled and simmered till the natural fats meld into a creamy, meaty and fragrant stock. The hard-boiled eggs are marinated with sake, soy sauce, mirin and sugar for an umami boost. Topped with tender pork fat slices and mushrooms, and seasoned with garlic and shallot oil. Superbly succulent and filling.
Inspired by the Chinese Szechuan Dan Dan noodles, the Japanese Tantanmen is a zesty ramen soup delight with spicy pork mince flavoured with soybean paste and chilli bean paste. The soup is also unique: chicken broth cooked with soy milk and sesame paste, seasoned with rice vinegar, soy sauce, chilli oil, and a spicy-savoury pickled mustard plant called Zasai. Top it with bean sprout and bok choy for greens, and garnish with green onion and toasted sesame seeds for an appetizing aroma.
Known as Hiyashi Chuka, the cold ramen from the Kansai region of Hokkaido is a refreshing summer delight. Instead of hot soup, the chilled ramen is slathered with a rich sauce mix of rice vinegar, mirin, soy sauce and sesame oil. Toppings can include ham, omelette, and just about any veggie you like; including lettuce, cucumber, bean sprouts, corn and tomatoes. Just add Beni Shoga red pickled ginger for authentic flavour. You can also make it into a tasty, satisfying salad without soup.
Invented in Tokyo, Tsukemen can be considered a ‘different take’ of ramen enjoyment. Rather than noodles in the soup, Tsukemen cooks the ramen separately and lets you dip in the pork-broth soup – flavoured with soy sauce, garlic and dashi powder; garnished with nori seaweed and minced onion. Accompanied by narutomaki fish cake, and sublime char siu pork marinated with sake, mirin and soy sauce.