Ramen: Soul Food Staple
December 15, 2016
Few dishes are more simple than ramen. The soul-food staple that originated in China is little more than a bowl of soup noodles with toppings. But ramen also arouses intense passions. On social media and food discussion boards, noodle fans debate endlessly about the merits of different restaurants, and ramen’s infinite styles.
To the serious ramen eater, one quality is prized above almost any other. “The hardest thing to achieve is consistency,” says chef Kosuke Nagasawa. He and his partner Ka Goto run the restaurant Fuji Ramen in the traditional Tokyo tourist district of Asakusa. “The skills for ramen are not like sushi, or unagi eel. In those jobs you can train for years before you’re even allowed to touch a fish.”
“Almost anybody can make a good bowl of ramen,” he says. “But it’s a completely different matter to reach the same quality, day-in and day-out.” The challenge of maintaining flavor and textures can make or break a restaurant. The long hours of the job are also grueling. “You are always lifting heavy things, and even stirring the cauldrons can be tough,” says Nagasawa.
Ramen soups are cooked for hours. They are usually based on pork bones, chicken, vegetables such as onions, and perhaps dried fish such as sardines. A small ladle of concentrated soy and dashi (fish and seaweed stock) sauce is usually spooned into the broth at the time of serving. The broths themselves include shio (clear salt), brown shoyu (soy sauce), miso soybean paste, or creamy white tonkotsu (pork head and bone stock). Some restaurants also use beef. One famous restaurant offers a dipping soup based on a sort of shrimp bisque.
Competition among ramen shops is intense, so chefs must think carefully about business. To the discerning ramen eater, a satisfying bowl of ramen at a good price is like a heavenly marriage.
The noodles are made from wheat flour. Most restaurants buy them from outside suppliers. Ka Goto makes his own, at night after the store closes. He uses just three ingredients: flour, brine, and powdered egg. He feeds the mixture into a machine which squeezes out a thick ribbon of dough. This is rolled up and left to age overnight. The noodles are cut the next morning. Goto likes making his own, because this way he can control exactly what’s in them. The homemade noodles are also cheaper. “With the money we save we provide much thicker slices of cha shu (roast pork) than other stores,” Goto says.
Other typical ramen toppings include menma (stewed bamboo shoot), nori seaweed, soft boiled egg (many restaurants marinate this in soy sauce), bean sprouts, chopped spring onions, wood ear mushroom and ginger. All ramen shops also provide pepper and the chilli oil rayu, often used to season the side dish of gyoza fried dumplings.
Goto makes two kinds of noodles: one thin and soft, for the standard ramen soup; the other thick and wheaty. The thicker sort of noodles are for tsukemen, which translates as dipping noodles, a style of ramen that first appeared in the late 1950s. The hot soup and toppings arrives separately from the warm noodles. You lift a mouthful of noodles with your chopsticks and dip it in the soup before eating. Tsukemen is a robust meal, with just a coating of sauce covering the starchy, chewy noodles. Most ramen stores (not all of them offer tsukemen) also provide additional servings of noodles, called kae dama.
Japan has many regional cuisines, and the soups mentioned above generally come from certain areas. The city of Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu, for example, is famous for its white tonkotsu pork bone stock. Chefs on the northern island of Hokkaido developed a robust miso ramen with plenty of vegetables, possibly to help people through the bitter winters. The standard soy-based ramen common in Tokyo often uses dried fish in the soup as well as pork. Fuji Ramen serves a lighter tonkotsu style with no fish, but Nagasawa says he adds ingredients such as chicken feet to the stock, for a more viscous soup.
Ordering and Etiquette
Above: ramen written in Japanese.
Language and Machines: If you’re new to eating ramen in Japan, look for the signs. You won’t often see the word “ramen” written in English. The shop sign or noren doorway curtain will say “ramen” in phonetic Japanese as shown on the red lanterns, or “chuuka soba” (Chinese noodles) as in the third picture. Most establishments feature an open kitchen and counter seating and tables. Many require you to buy a ticket for your meal from a vending machine. There will be tickets for each kind of soup, and other tickets for additional toppings. If language is a problem, you could ask the staff for their recommendation by saying “O-susu-me nan desu ka?” The ticket machines save busy staff from having to handle money and change. “It also means we never make mistakes with orders,” says Nagasawa.
When eating noodles in Japan, it’s perfectly acceptable to make a noise. Most people believe ramen tastes better when it’s slurped. This could be due to the contrasting cool air that is taken into the mouth at the same time as the hot noodles, or the way slurping helps the noodles and soup combine. Whatever the science…slurping is worth trying! Using your chopsticks and spoon, lift a mouthful of noodles and soup and suck it in with a sort of shoveling motion. It’s remarkably satisfying. Indeed, slurping is so integral to ramen that most Japanese people will think there’s something strange if they see people eating in silence.
Tip: A chef will adjust the richness of the soup or texture of the noodles for you. Some diners prefer a lighter broth, as many restaurants add lard or oil before serving. Ask for less oil by saying, “Abura suku-name de”. If you like your noodles more al dente, say, “Men wa kata-me de”. Most chefs will be pleased to accommodate you. On finishing eating, diners leave the counter with a nod to the chef and the words, “Gochi-sou-sama-deshita” - “Thanks for the meal.”
Address: 1-24-5 Asakusa, Taito-ku Tokyo
Text: Mark Robinson
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