You might already have a good idea of what ramen is. After all, it doesn’t seem like a complicated dish—just Japanese noodles, soup, pork, and some toppings. You’ve probably even microwaved instant noodles at home. But have you had the chance to try authentic ramen?
If I had asked this question a few years ago, you might have said no. Recently, though, Japanese ramen shops have opened worldwide. Although it’s getting easier to find outside of Japan, there are still some misconceptions about this dish.
When you go to a real ramen restaurant, you’ll get your food within minutes of ordering. Some people wrongly assume that it’s “fast food” and isn’t worth the price. However, traditional ramen shops make fresh noodles daily and spend hours simmering broths. Some Japanese ramen restaurants even have Michelin stars!
Whether or not you’ve eaten it in your home country, don’t forget to try some in Japan. Here, we’ve broken down the ingredients, history, and where you should try Japanese ramen noodles.
According to legend, the neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Shunsui introduced ramen to Japan in the 1660s. Shunsui was a political refugee from China who served as an advisor to Tokugawa Mitsukuni. Shunsui and Mitsukuni became great friends, and people say that Sunsui prepared Chinese lamian for Mitsukuni. However, historians reject this story as a myth created to embellish ramen’s origin.
The widely accepted theory is that Japanese ramen was invented by immigrants in Yokohama Chinatown. In the latter half of the 19th-century, Chinese restaurants served a version of lamian that would later develop into the dish we know today.
In 1945, Japan had one of its worst rice harvests in recorded history, so the USA flooded the market with wheat. Eating Chinese-inspired wheat noodles became a way of survival for the general public. But what makes ramen noodles different from others?
If you go to several restaurants across Japan, you’ll notice that not every shop cooks noodles the same way. They might be curly and yellow, thin and white, or even thick and tan. Which kind is the real ramen noodle? All of them!
The defining ramen ingredient is kansui—an alkaline solution. Kansui contains sodium carbonate, potassium carbonate, and sometimes trace amounts of other minerals like phosphoric acid. It gives the noodle a yellowish tint, but not that gold hue you might know. That color comes from food dye.
Kansui’s purpose is to give the noodles the desired consistency and flavor. The potassium carbonate strengthens the gluten and depending on the ratio makes the texture soft, firm, or chewy. The sodium carbonate adds a distinct eggy flavor that might be subtle or strong.
Therefore, thin and brittle noodles have more potassium carbonate. If they’re thick and chewy, the kansui has a higher amount of sodium carbonate. Chefs can make their dishes distinguishable from others depending on the formula.
Any shop worth its salt makes homemade ramen noodles. You can sometimes watch chefs kneading and slicing the dough by hand, but many restaurants prefer to use automated machines. Whether or not an establishment uses one doesn’t necessarily make it better or worse than another.
These appliances ensure that there is always fresh and consistent tasting fare on hand. Shops can also offer several types of noodles so the customer can choose the thickness or doneness. But the noodles aren’t the only ingredient to consider. Most people chose their favorite place by the soup.
According to the Yokohama Ramen Museum, there are twenty-six varieties of Japanese ramen flavors! In reality, those are mostly regional tweaks that don’t necessarily make a difference to a laymen’s palette. If you’re a beginner, there are four ramen soup bases you should know before you try your first bowl.
Shio Ramen (塩, salt)
As the name suggests, shio broth uses salt, but that’s not the only ingredient. Shio ramen is a clear soup usually made from boiling chicken bones and vegetables and seasoning with salt. Visitors to southern Japan might try Okinawa Soba. It comes in a bowl of shio soup topped with green onions, kamaboko, and ginger.
Shoyu Ramen (醤油, soy sauce)
Shoyu-based ramen is clear and brown. Like shio, shoyu soup uses chicken broth, but might also have pork, beef, or fish meat depending on the region. Shoyu is the most popular ramen flavor in Japan. Hokkaido, Fukushima, Tokyo, and Hiroshima all put a unique twist on this variety.
Miso Ramen (味噌, soybean paste)
The people living in northern Japan wanted a heartier soup to get them through Hokkaido’s bitter winters. The soybean paste gives the broth a thick consistency with a complex flavor. It was so well-received that you can find miso ramen restaurants all over Japan. However, if you’re in Sapporo, make sure you try the real Hokkaido miso ramen at least once.
Tonkotsu Ramen (豚骨, pork bone)
Pork broth ramen is becoming the latest craze in Japan. Not every restaurant serves it because it takes an extremely long time to prepare. Chefs boil the bones until they completely dissolve into a cloudy broth. If you go to Kyushu, don’t miss trying Tonkotsu and Fukuoka’s variation, Hakata Ramen.
Ramen is one of the easiest dishes to order if you don’t speak Japanese. Most shops use a ticket vending machine to streamline service. Just insert your cash, press the button for what you want, and pass the ticket to your server. You won’t have to wait very long before your piping hot meal comes out.
Experts say you should eat your noodles right away. If you let your bowl sit for too long, they can get soggy and lose their flavor. To avoid burning your tongue, you can lift a mouthful with your chopsticks, and let some of the steam off. This manner of eating releases the full flavor profile and activates the taste buds in the back of your throat.
As you dine, you can use the spoon to catch the small toppings or drink some of the broth. You don’t have to drink all of the soup, and many people don’t because it’s high in calories. However, the chefs will take it as a compliment if you finish the whole thing. You can use the spoon or drink directly from the bowl.
Although chefs spend hours preparing the ingredients, they like to keep a quick and steady pace. Once you finish, don’t sit around chatting, especially if other customers are waiting. In other restaurants, Japanese people might sit and talk to let their food settle. In ramen restaurants, they leave as soon as they finish their meal.
With over 51,000 ramen restaurants across the country, you could spend a lifetime looking for the best ramen in Japan. If you want a fun and interactive experience, check out these places that we love!
Asahikawa Ramen Village
Hokkaido is known for using miso-based soup, but if you go to Asahikawa, try the shoyu flavor! The Ramen Village was founded in 1996 when eight local restaurants opened stores on the outskirts of the city. Unlike shoyu broth in the rest of the country, Asahikawa shoyu has a thin layer of oil on top. The added oil keeps the soup hot, and warms you up on a cold day!
Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum
If you’re a history buff and want to learn while you eat, don’t miss this museum near Tokyo. The first-floor gallery is dedicated to the history of the cuisine and how instant noodles became a worldwide sensation. On the two basement floors, you’ll see nine shops featuring regional varieties from all over Japan. The restaurants offer small portions so you can sample as many flavors as you like.
Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum
On August 25th, 1958, Momofuku Ando created the first instant noodles in his shed. His recipe grew into the popular Japanese instant ramen noodle brand Nissin. In the museum, visitors can discover the importance of this invention through interactive displays and fun, hands-on experiences. The most exciting part is that at the end of the tour, you can make your own customized cup of noodles!