As inky darkness seeps through the skies and red tasselled lanterns are lit, the people of Japan haunt the recesses of dimly lit izakayas (informal Japanese pubs), street-side ramen shops, ancient tea houses with wooden latticed doors, ramen-ya restaurants and karaoke halls for a simple but delicious bowl of ramen.
Ring-stained wooden tables bear the brunt of perspiring bottles and glasses. Outside in the night air, people sit on red stools noisily slurping bowls of broth and ramen doled out by roadside ramen stalls. Conversations are punctuated with the aroma of umami-flavoured ramen cooking, steaming bowls are ferried to tables for people to dig into a hearty meal after a long day. It’s simple, homely and comforting.
By now, all of us have been introduced to a variety of ramen in the form of instant squiggly noodles with dubious looking dried up bits of veggies which may or may not prove to be pleasant surprises in your bowl of chow. Instant noodles, which afford convenience to millions, have proved to be a boon to many university students, not-so-great-cooks and just lazy sloths in general. So much so, that when a Japanese poll was undertaken to find out which invention was the greatest in the 20th century - a unanimous verdict went in favour of Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant noodles!
In the mid-19th century, the Meiji restoration allowed Chinese immigrants to settle in Japan, who in turn introduced Japan to humble home-cooked ramen. By 1950, ramen was everywhere in Japan; being served to people from portable stalls or vendors hawking their ramen.
From there on Japan made ramen its own, with distinctive flavours of ramen arising from different regions with various soup bases (shio ‘salt’, shoyu ‘soya sauce’, tonkotsu or miso), types of noodles and toppings. Shops in the same region also tweak recipes to add a signature style to their ramen.
Here are the four main kinds of soup bases found in ramen:
Shio (Salt) Ramen
A salt-based soup broth, this ramen is light and almost transparent. The broth is prepared by boiling chicken bones and seafood such as dashi stock, dried sardines and bonito flakes. This is the traditional way of flavouring ramen broth.
Shoyu (Soy Sauce) Ramen
Shoyu is the most commonly eaten ramen and gives off the fragrance of soy sauce and the richness of the stock of simmered chicken bones, seafood and occasionally, pork bones (tonkotsu). Every shop's shoyu broth tastes different because of the soy that they painstakingly make from scratch.
Miso ramen owes its piquant, savory flavour to fermented Japanese soy paste which is the broth's main element. There are types of miso such as charred miso, barley miso, rice miso, white miso and red miso to mention a few. Sauteed vegetables, sweet corn and glistening butter are also added to miso soup making it an irresistible treat.
Tonkotsu (Pork Broth) Ramen
Tonkotsu broth is made by boiling pork bones. With its pungent, sharp smell, its got its fans and haters. The noodles in tonkotsu broth are usually thin and the broth is complimented by onions, chashu pork, bamboo shoots, mushrooms and pickled ginger.
Away from packed ramen noodles lacking in flavour and ubiquitous in local grocery shops and 24/7s, let's look into the raging ramen culture in Japan to appreciate the history and mind-boggling skill that goes into a simple bowl of noodles and broth.
The variations in ramens are vast and differ regionally. Here are a few types of ramen according to Japanese regions that every epicurious traveller must sample.