It’s all about Ramen: Regions, Styles and Toppings

  • FOOD
  • Ramen is one of the symbols of Japanese food as we all know, but do you know the types of ramen dishes, their characteristics and where they come from? The 3 most popular types of ramen are Tokyo, Sapporo and Hakata ramens. But that means nothing to a ramen ignoramus, as ramen to him is just noodles in soup, and that couldn’t be further from the truth! There are many types of ramen (instant cup noodles are known in some parts of the world as ramen, but they do NOT on any level qualify as ramen): salt (shio 塩), soy sauce (shouyu醤油), miso (味噌), pork bone (tonkotsu 豚骨), tsukemen (つけ麺), as well as some new-age versions that will be introduced later.

    Let’s get the ball rolling with some ramen terminology:
    • Soup thickness – rich (kotteri) or light (assari). Generally, rich soups are cooked at high temperatures for a long time, and light soups over a lower simmering heat so that the fat is not emulsified
    • Dashi (出汁) – fish broth made from dried fish flakes (bonito/katsuobushi 鰹節) and kelp (konbu 昆布)
    • Miso – fermented bean paste
    • Tare (タレ) – umami-packed flavor essence that is first put at the bottom of the ramen bowl as the “base”
    • Kaedama (替え玉) – additional portion of noodles for remaining broth
    • Ajitsuke Tamago (味付け玉子) – yummylicious brown egg with a golden gooey yolk (the different types of ramen eggs totally deserve a page of their own!)

    And now we’re ready to explore the world of Ramen!

    1. Tokyo Ramen a.k.a Shoyu Ramen

    Tokyo ramen is characterized by soup made from pork and chicken bones, dash, soy sauce, and moderately thick curly egg noodles. The soup is brown and clear, and classifies as assari. It is usually topped with roast pork (chashu チャーシュー), marinated bamboo shoots, fish cake, seaweed, kelp, scallions and of course, the ramen egg. Harukiya (春木屋), a ramen house that has been around for more than 60 years in the surburbs of Tokyo, boasts ramen with authentic clear broth.

    2. Sapporo Ramen a.k.a. Miso Ramen

    Thick, kotteri and lardy soup with miso base is what characterizes Sapporo ramen. It has a bigger variety of topping options, namely seasoned bean sprouts (moyashi もやし), cabbage or corn, which are fried in miso and broth beforehand. Another signature of Sapporo ramen is the pat of butter that is put on top just before serving. The flavor is very intense! For a real deal, there is a ramen alley in Susukino, Sapporo that dates back to 1951.

    3. Hakata Ramen a.k.a. Tonkotsu Ramen

    This creamy, kotteri soup distilled from flavorful pork bones is my personal favorite. Boiled for days on end till the marrow goodness is released, the rich broth is a great coating for the thin, firm noodles. Some famous ramen houses that have evolved into chains are; Ippudo Ramen, Ikkousha Ramen and Ichiran Ramen, which all have origins in Hakata region of in northern Kyushu. You may customise the flavor, noodle firmness, as well as the amount of garlic and spices (I was having Level 10 in the photo!) of the broth. Besides chashu, other unique toppings include the chewy, crunchy kikurage (木耳), also known as the wood-ear or cloud-ear mushroom, pickled mustard greens, green onions, sesame seeds and crushed garlic. In the true spirit of ramen, a hearty meal best had after a drinking session, Ichiran patrons have individual booths with removable partitions, and face a bamboo blind that is retracted when orders arrive.

    4. Hakodate Ramen a.k.a. Shio Ramen

    Shio ramen has its roots in Chinese noodle soups, and was brought to Hakodate by boat. The assari broth may be made from pork and chicken bones, or from dried seafood and seaweed. The noodles tend to be thicker and less firm, toppings are similar to that of Tokyo ramen. This is the lightest of the broths, and makes for a delicious, satisfying meal on a chilly winter day!

    5. Tsukemen

    There is no broth per se in this noodle dish, it comes as; a bowl of thick ivory noodles and a separate bowl of toppings in thick sauce. In Tokyo, there is a stretch of tsukemen and ramen shops right next to Shinagawa station and they are worth checking out!

    6. New age novelty ramen


    Author’s photo

    Japan has always been on the forefront of novelty innovations, so how could we expect anything but the best, even if it only comes to ramen?! Tomato ramen, pineapple ramen, tantanmen, blue shio ramen anyone? I thought tomato ramen at Taiyo Tomato Ramen was surprisingly good, much to my collaborator’s chagrin, who did not think it was all that special :) Ramen in a thick tomato soup with fried eggplant.. Delish! Tantanmen is a derivation of Sichuan spicy noodle soup that with minced meat and ground peanuts, and it’s pretty common in Japan. When it comes to Tokyo, icy cold blue shio ramen made from spirulina extract may be found at Beehive Genki no Moto at Nihonbashi, and pineapple ramen at Papapapapine at Nishi-Ogikubo. There you go!