Carefully poke into the soft boiled egg, so the creamy yolk oozes into the broth. A quick swirl of the chopsticks will allow the yolk to mix into the broth adding to its umami-ness. Slurp the broth followed by a mouthful of the perfectly springy noodles. There's clearly an art to enjoying ramen and more importantly, the bliss that a warm bowl of the Japanese noodle-based dish brings is unmatched. We at Food by Gulf News set out to explore how ramen came to be and its current popularity across the world
What makes a bowl of soup ramen?
At its core, ramen consists of four main components: noodles, broth, toppings, and seasoning. The noodles are made from wheat flour, water, and Kansui, a type of alkaline mineral water that gives the noodles their signature yellow colour and chewy texture. The broth can be made from bones, chicken, fish, or vegetables, and is often simmered for hours with various seasonings and aromatics to create a rich and complex flavour.
Toppings can range from proteins such as thin cuts of meat and soft-boiled eggs to greens and vegetables like Bok choy, bamboo shoots, and seaweed. Finally, seasoning is added to taste, with common options including soy sauce, miso paste, and chili oil.
Before looking at how ramen came to be in its complete form as we know it today, we must rewind to when Chinese-style noodles were introduced to Japan.
According to ramenmuseum.nyc, Chinese-style noodles were introduced back in the Muromachi period, which is a period division of Japanese history running from approximately 1336 to 1573. The noodles’ unique color and texture is from adding a baking soda solution, called lye water or kansui, into wheat flour.
While it was not quite yet the ramen we see today, Mitsukuni Tokugawa is widely known to have been the first person in Japan to enjoy ramen. Interested in Confucianism, Tokugawa invited Confucianist Zhu Zhiyu to come to Mito, a city in Japan, where he treated him to homemade udon, a Japanese wheat noodle dish. Records indicate that the noodles were made of a mix of wheat and lotus flour and were served in a broth. The stock reportedly had condiments known as Ushin, made of Japanese pepper, garlic leaves, white mustard, and fresh coriander.
End of meat ban and beginning of modern ramen
In 1856, when the Treaty of Amity and Commerce between Japan and the United States was signed, it opened Japan’s ports to foreign trade and encouraged more immigrants to come in.
As foreign cultural exchange flourished, Japan lifted its 1200-year-old ban of meat, which led to changes in cuisine.
Meanwhile, the Chinese-style noodles were being served in specifically Chinese restaurants, which were popular amongst the wealthy.
Despite being pricey, Chinese restaurants eventually became accessible to the public over decades, according to ramenmuseum.nyc.
As the number of Chinese students studying at Japanese universities increased, access to Chinese restaurants became more convenient. Takeya Shokudo was a student diner in front of the main gate of Hokkaido University.
Wang Wen-chai, who worked there as a cook, was tasked with preparing meals for 180 Chinese students who studied here. They greatly enjoyed Rosu noodles, a dish that consisted of noodles, stir-fried shredded meat, bamboo shoots, and green onions. This dish was popular with Chinese students but was not well received by local Japanese students. The founder of Takeya Shokudo collaborated with Wen-chai and found a middle ground to create a lighter flavoured noodle topped with grilled meat and green onions. In the summer of 1926, the first ramen was developed.
Over time, the dish evolved to become a staple of Japanese cuisine, with different regions and chefs developing their own unique styles and flavours.
Let’s investigate how these regional differences and varieties came to be.
The Great Kanto Earthquake destroyed Japan’s inland and coastal areas on September 1, 1923. This area included Tokyo, where most of the ramen chefs were concentrated in. The earthquake caused many of the chefs to lose their jobs and move elsewhere.
Some moved to the Kansai area, others travelled to Hokkaido, Kyushu, or any other area that had demand. As chefs moved to different regions, they developed their own type of ramen that suited the palates of the locals in the areas they worked in.
Here are some of the different types of ramen found across Japan:
Sapporo-style Ramen: Originating from the city of Sapporo in Hokkaido, this style of ramen features a rich, miso-based broth and thick, curly noodles. It is often topped with butter, corn, and diced meat. The broth is hearty and savoury, with a strong umami flavour from the miso paste.
Tokyo-style Ramen: Also known as 'shoyu' ramen, this style originates from Tokyo and has a clear, soy sauce or shoyu-based broth. The noodles are thin and straight, and the toppings typically include sliced meat, bamboo shoots, and a soft-boiled egg. The broth is light and savoury, with a slightly sweet and salty flavour from the soy sauce.
Kyoto-style Ramen: This style of ramen is characterised by a clear, light broth made from chicken and fish bones, with a hint of yuzu citrus. The noodles are thin and straight, and the toppings are usually minimal, sliced chicken and green onions are most common. The broth has a refreshing flavour, best for those who prefer lighter dishes.
Hakata-style Ramen: Originating from the southern city of Fukuoka, this style of ramen features thin, straight noodles and a rich, bone broth known as Tonkotsu. The broth is creamy and flavourful, with a meaty flavour. The stock is the main star of the dish and toppings are simple such as green onions and meat.
Kitakata-style Ramen: This style of ramen originates from the city of Kitakata in Fukushima Prefecture. It features a light, soy sauce-based broth that is slightly sweet and salty, with straight, medium-thick noodles. The toppings are usually simple, with sliced pork, green onions, and bamboo shoots being the most common.
Most important elements for a great bowl of ramen are the soup and noodles. They define the overall quality of [the] ramen
While there are different variations of the dish, the key still lies in the depth of the broth and the spring of the noodles, according to Japanese chef Masanori Ito.
Ito has been cooking for 26 years, specialising in making ramen, and he is currently the Head Chef at YUi Ramen House in Dubai. He said: “Most important elements for a great bowl of ramen are the soup and noodles. They define the overall quality of [the] ramen.”
For the noodles, there are three different types depending on their texture. “Katame or al dente, Futsu or medium cooked, and Yawarakame or soft. In Japan, ramen restaurants often give choices to the guests for the doneness of the noodles they like,” Ito said.
A bowl full of community and memories
Japanese expat Sara Saifi currently lives in Dubai and grew up in Tokyo. She recalled having a warm bowl of ramen on cold evenings in her mother’s home. Oftentimes, the ramen was delivered to their house by local small-scale restaurants that would also send utensils and a bowl, which had to be returned.
“There were delivery options in the past where they [local vendors] will bring a bowl of fresh ramen to your doorstep. Once we finished eating, we would wash the bowl, spoon, and the board and keep it outside the main gate of the house and they would pick it up the next day,” she said.
There were delivery options in the past where they [local vendors] will bring a bowl of fresh ramen to your doorstep.
However, Saifi said that such options have disappeared due to commercialisation and both with food stall and upscale eateries opening that specialise in making ramen.
Japanese expat Haruka Noji is a logistics worker living in Dubai and whenever he goes back home, he tries these ramen eateries with his friends.
“Sometimes my friends and I discuss which restaurant is the best to go to and we go out to explore as we are in the quest to find the best ramen shop,” he said.
To Noji, the taste of ramen reminds him of home and his mother’s cooking. “My mother used to make instant ramen, especially for a quick lunch on the weekends,” he said.
My mother used to make instant ramen, especially for a quick lunch on the weekends
Now, the 33-year-old reminisces about those times and has ramen in the UAE. “I like the taste of soy sauce and seafood in my ramen, I’ve tried options in the UAE and they’re pretty close to the authentic taste,” he said.
Just like Saifi and Noji, Ito also said that freshly made ramen is now something enjoyed at a restaurant.
“It is not common to make fresh noodles and soup for ramen at home. Instead, we normally buy freshly made noodles and tare (soy sauce seasoning for ramen) at a supermarket, prepare toppings at home, or simply cook instant cup noodles. Ramen places are everywhere in Japan, but I also remember having instant or packed ramen from supermarkets when I was a kid,” chef Ito said.
Currently, thousands of ramen shops are dotted throughout Japan and are a major attraction for tourists and international food bloggers. Many of these shops are small, cozy spaces with only a few tables, where customers can watch as the chef prepares their meal right in front of them. It is common to see people after work or on the weekends slurping up noodles and broth with joy, savouring every bite.
Ramen goes international
These ramen places are not unique to Japan, however. The noodle-based delicacy has made its way to almost every corner of the world, with ramen shops popping up in cities from New York to Paris to Sydney. Part of the appeal lies in the dish's versatility - it can be adapted to suit different tastes and dietary requirements, with vegan and gluten-free options now widely available.
Ramen is not just a dish, but a cultural phenomenon. It is a food that brings people together, whether in a bustling Tokyo ramen shop or a cozy corner of a local restaurant. And with its rich history and endless possibilities for variation, it is a dish that will continue to captivate and delight people around the world for generations to come.
“Ramen is tasty, reasonably priced in general, easy to eat, and also contains many key food groups: bone broth, carbohydrates, meat, vegetables, all in one bowl of ramen, it is a full meal,” said chef Ito.
Ramen versus ramyeon
The popularity of the dish has given birth to its adaptations in other countries and an example is ramyeon from South Korea.
While ramen and ramyeon are born of the same roots, Korean ramyeon and Japanese ramen have distinct differences in flavour, texture, and preparation methods.
In Korea, Ramyeon refers to instant noodles with dried vegetables and artificial flavoring. Ramyeon is served at eateries, too, but cooks use pre-packaged instant noodles, according to The Korea Herald, an English-language daily based in Seoul.
The noodles used in Korean ramyeon are typically thicker and have a chewier texture compared to Japanese ramen noodles, which are usually thinner and have a springier texture.
Korean ramyeon typically features a spicy broth or sauce made from a mix of gochujang (red pepper paste), gochugaru (red pepper flakes), and other spices, whereas Japanese ramen has a variety of broth bases including miso, soy sauce, and shio (salt) which are usually less spicy than Korean ramyeon.
Korean expat Annie Chung owns Hyu Korean Restaurant in Dubai, which serves ramyeon. She said: “Japanese ramen is not spicy, and the noodles are often freshly made. Whereas Korean ramyeon is almost always made with instant noodles, both fried and non-fried, and comes in non-spicy, medium spicy to very very spicy flavours.”
Korean ramyeon is almost always made with instant noodles, both fried and non-fried, and comes in non-spicy, medium spicy to very very spicy flavours.
In terms of flavourings and toppings, ingredients like kimchi, green onions, cheese, and eggs are used in ramyeon.
“Koreans love rice more than noodles, so this [ramyeon] is something that was introduced much later to our diet. Even when we finish a pot of ramyeon we add rice to the remaining broth and eat it,” she said.
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