When you hear the word “ramen,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? If you’re like most of us, it’s probably a polystyrene cup filled with the salty instant noodles that you ate way too much of back in college. But there’s been a revolution over the past few years, and real ramen — big, steaming bowls of impossibly rich broth, springy noodles, and countless add-ins — has finally become easy to find on this side of the Pacific. Suddenly, generic cup noodles have been replaced with a wide variety of delicious ramen recipes, and it can get a little confusing for those looking to take their first foray into this legendary and comforting dish.
First things first: what, exactly, is ramen? In Japan, ramen is nothing short of a cultural icon. Ramen noodles are typically made from wheat flour, salt, water, and an alkaline mineral water called kansui that gives the noodles a yellow hue and firm texture. Noodles can be thick, thin, hard, soft, straight, or wavy, but, at the end of the day, they need to have the perfect chew and serve as a vessel for the broth.
Technically, a bowl filled with just broth and noodles can call itself ramen, but that’s only half the fun. Just about every bowl of ramen contains a slab of roast pork, called chashu, and a soft-boiled egg. Other typical add-ons include sprouts, scallions, dried seaweed, garlic, and even corn and butter. And if you run out of noodles and still have some broth left, just order an extra serving of noodles, called kaedama.
Ramen is certainly having a moment right now, enjoying a popularity that’s reserved for only the trendiest foods. The “cult of ramen” is populated by the chefs who push ramen to its limits and the fans who wait hours in line for the best bowls around.
In our guide to ramen, the first four varieties encompass the main flavoring (tare) styles — tonkotsu, shio, shoyu, and miso — and the remaining slides detail some of the most popular regional styles, including Tokyu, Kyoto, and Sapporo. Each of these regional styles incorporate one of the major flavor varieties but have unique add-ons. In short, if you didn’t know anything about ramen before reading this article, you’ll know a lot more by the time you’re finished.
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The vast majority of ramen you’ll find are tonkotsu, meaning that the broth is made from boiling pork bones for hours in order to extract their flavor. Tonkotsu broth has a milky hue and is rich and satisfying.
Shio, which literally translates to “salt,” is lighter and less milky than tonkotsu. The stock is made with dried seafood and seaweed, making the end result briny and incredibly rich in umami.