(at least I hope so)
I pulled up a really old post I’d written for Cheat’s Ramen back in 2016. And I’m appalled at how silly it was. Yet, I’m pleased at how I’ve grown as far as my knowledge of food and how to cook it is concerned.
I’d bought Rice Noodle Fish for my husband last year and he’d loved reading it. We’ve never been to Japan and of course, we’d love to someday. But until then, reading is all we can afford. An uncle and aunt travelled around Japan for a few weeks recently, and that’s when I decided to read the book myself too. And just before I picked up Rice Noodle Fish to read, I’d finished reading Ivan Ramen and also watched his Chef’s Table episode. Obsession much?
All this said, it was only obvious I had a ramen plan brewing (nay, boiling) in my head. I finally got around to executing it only last week – mostly because the weather, here in Pune, is great for ramen. Unending rains and a chill in the evening air.
So, here’s my not-so-little Ramen 101 post. I really hope I’m not too off the mark or that this is an unauthentic post. I promise I’ve done a lot of reading, and while I haven’t ever been to Japan to eat a bowl of ramen myself, I’d like to believe I’ve done a fair job with making sense of theoretical (reading and video) material and a handful of kitchen experiments.
Let’s break ramen down into it’s components, to understand more about it:
- A broth made of chicken, pork, seafood or any of the various combinations of the three
- Additional flavouring to the broth. This is called “tare”.
- Alkaline noodles (usually wheat)
- Meat, usually pork belly or minced pork
- A variety of toppings (seaweed, bamboo shoot, soft boiled egg, bean sprouts, scallions, chicken or pork fat, or even chilli oil, among others)
There are, broadly, four kinds of ramen based:
- Shio (salt) Ramen
- Shoyu (soy sauce) Ramen
- Miso (fermented soy bean paste) Ramen
- Tonkotsu (pork broth) Ramen
While the first three kinds are based on the kind of “tare” or flavouring used, the fourth actually describes the broth.
On to some basics, then.
The broth used in ramen is usually made using chicken bones (and feet!) or pork bones, along with some other ingredients such as shittake mushrooms, skin-on onions, kombu (kelp) and dried fish (tuna, sardine etc) flakes. The broth is usually slow-cooked over several hours to let the bones infuse their flavours
An interesting thing that came out of excessively reading about ramen was that there exist two terms – tonkotsu and tonkatsu. It appears that “ton” is pork in Japanese. While tonkotsu means “pork bone”, tonkatsu is pork fillet/loin, coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried – almost like a schnitzel that uses pork instead of veal, if I may.
The other thing I learnt was that chicken broth (or any clear broth, for that matter) is called a chintan while thicker, coloured, more fatty broths like one made with pork bones is often called a paitan.
I’ve used the word “tare” before a couple of times already. But what IS it? Loosely put, it’s the flavouring agent. It’s what gives a ramen its saltiness. While it’s pretty straightforward with shio ramen, shoyu and miso tare also add umami to the ramen. Also, it’s worth noting that the tare isn’t only that single ingredient. It is, in fact, often a combination of several ingredients. The shio tare, for instance, is made with sea salt and an apple-onion sofrito. Shoyu contains mirin, sake, dashi and possibly a whole lot more.
The amount of tare added to the broth/soup to enhance it’s flavours isn’t as specific as one might expect in a recipe. It’s more of a thing that comes over years of practice and several tastings. However, adding upto 10% of of the broth’s weight in tare is not uncommon.
Ramen noodles are typically made with only four ingredients: wheat flour, salt, water and kansui. Kansui, in Japan, is a kind of alkaline mineral water that contains sodium carbonate, potassium carbonate and phosphoric acid. But to be able to re-create it at home, we can use a pinch of baking soda and some potassium carbonate (if you have it handy).
Aside: Since I’ve been reading extensively about baking with spent grain and also experimenting in my kitchen with cookies and breads, I’ve learned that potassium carbonate acts as a great leavening agent in grain heavy breads, the kind that use all wheat flour or even other grain like barley or rye. While I’m yet to get my hands on some potassium carbonate to use in my cooking, I assume it adds that little bit of a spring to noodles too.
How does one pair noodles and broth? Turns out, “The heavier the soup, the lighter the noodle you want” rule is what one needs to go by. Therefore, you will often find a heavy pork broth with lighter noodles, while curly and slightly fat noodles might work best with miso.
Soggy noodles are a complete no! and noodles are often cooked only for seconds before they are drained and ladled into a bowl of broth.
More often that not, the meat served on top of ramen noodles and broth is a chashu pork belly. The pork belly is marinated in a mix of soy sauce, mirin, sake, ginger and garlic and then rolled up and immersed in a pot of water and slow cooked in water for 2-4 hours, cooked to the point where it melts in your mouth.
Some recipes also use minced (or finely chopped) pork or seafood.
There are no rules for what you can add to your ramen. Most commonly, a soft boiled egg called “ajitama” is used, along with “nori” (seaweed sheets) and scallions.
Below is a list of things you can add to your ramen (and it is, by no means, a comprehensive one):
- Narutomaki (pink and white spiral fish cakes)
- Bean sprouts
- Chilli oil
- Mayu – Black garlic oil
- Pork fat
- Wilted spinach
- Raw egg
- Enoki mushrooms (or whatever other kind of mushrooms you fancy)
- Spicy Miso paste
- Chopped Onions
There are several other kinds of soup + noodles meals around Japan.
One of them is Tsukumen. It is essentially everything a regular bowl of ramen is, the only difference being that the noodles are served separately. You must dip the noodles into the broth to eat them. Soba (buckwheat) and udon noodles are usually used for this, because they are typically thicker than noodles typically used in ramen bowls. Nori, chashu, bamboo shoots, boiled eggs and green onions are often served as extra ingredients. The broth for tsukumen has a much stronger and more intense in flavour compared to regular ramen broth because it is meant to be a dipping sauce for the noodles.
Tantanmen is another new addition to the ramen world and originated in China as Dan Dan noodles that are served in a similar fashion – in a spicy broth. Dan Dan noodles were so called because they were sold by vendors who carried the noodles and the broth in two separate pots on either end of a long bamboo pole called a dandan. Tantanmen noodles are typically served with a pork mince (that I mentioned a few paragraphs above).
After all of that theory, you’re probably wondering whether I’ve cooked any myself. And how long it takes. I’ll be honest. It’s tedious. But it’s immensely fulfilling. I’ve broken the entire process up into several posts, for ease of reading. Here are all the blog posts in this series:
Additional reading resources:
- Lucky Peach’s Guide to the Regional Ramen of Japan
- The Serious Eats Guide to Ramen Styles
- The Ramen 101 series of blog posts on Ramen Chemistry