As the days and nights get colder, we seek hearty bowls of warm nourishment. In Japan, the answer is: Ramen. Originally from China, this dish was ladled into Japanese cuisine in the late 19th Century, and most notably in 1910 through a restaurant in Yokohama, one of Japan’s three Chinatowns (The other two being in Nagasaki and Kobe.) At that time the dish was called lamien, but with the Japanese pronunciation it became known as ramen. Of course, noodle soup was nothing new to Japan, but the addition of kansui, an alkaline solution that gives ramen noodles their colour and texture, provided the turn-key ingredient to launch its popularity.
Today, every region of Japan boasts its own specialty-ramen. One could ostensibly itinerize a “Ramen Tour” of Japan to taste the regional and cultural differences spanning the country. With that in mind, grab your spoon and take a look at all the different kinds of ramen that you can prepare at home or taste on your next visit to Japan.
There are four main types of ramen, and one relative new comer, categorized by their base.
- Shoyu Ramen is a chicken broth flavoured with soy sauce. This is the most common base, and what is typically served when not specified.
- Shio Ramen is a light, clear chicken broth—although sometimes also flavoured with pork—seasoned with salt.
- Miso Ramen is a thick broth richly flavoured with soybean paste. It is synonymous with Sapporo style ramen.
- Tonkotsu Ramen is creamy white broth flavoured with chicken broth, pork fat and boiled-down pork bones. This is popular in Kyushu.
- Kare Ramen, made with pork bones and seasoned with curry, is not traditional, but has become popular in southern Hokkaido.
The two major styles of ramen in Hokkaido are the central Asahikawa Ramen, which is shoyu-based, and Sapporo Ramen, which is miso-based. Asahikawa Ramen, from the north of Hokkaido, is oily and the noodles are thin and wavy. It is topped with chashu (braised pork belly), menma (dried and fermented bamboo shoots), green onion and egg. Sapporo-style, from the centre of the Prefecture, is one of the most popular in Japan. It is hearty and includes thick noodles, corn, pork lard and local specialties from vegetables to stir-fried chicken and pork. Often a layer of hot oil is added to retain its heat. Hokkaido winter temperatures reach Canada-cold, and this is the nourishment of choice to keep warm during those frigid months. Further south, in the Iburi Subprefecture, Muroran Curry Ramen is a sweet and spicy curry-flavoured pork bone broth with thick curly noodles and topped with barbecued pork, wakame and bean sprouts. At Hokkaido’s southern tip, Hakodate, salt-based broths are popular.
Morioka ReimanMorioka, Iwate is known as the “Kingdom of Noodles” in Tohoku region. Naturally, it has its own distinct style of ramen. This one is served cold. A clear beef broth contains sliced beef, glass noodles, a hard-boiled egg, vegetables like carrots, tomato and cucumber, a kick of kimchi and even fruit, from local watermelon to pears and apples. This is perhaps the most nutritious of all the ramen, and very satisfying.
This is the ramen of choice in Fukushima. It begins with a light shoyu and chicken stock base, is flavoured with pork bones and dried sardines, filled with wide, flat, chewy noodles, and topped with green onions, menma, and chashu. So popular (it’s one of Japan’s “Big Three”), there are more ramen shops per capita in Kitakata, Fukushima than anywhere else in Japan.
Shoyu-based and flavoured with dashi fish stock, Tokyo Ramen is ubiquitous in Japan. The noodles are medium thick and wavy. It’s essence is made distinct by the inclusion of bonito flakes and kelp. Tokyo is also known for a ramen dish called Tsukemen, which involves serving the noodles cold or at room temperature in a separate bowl of broth to give them extra flavour before adding them to the soup.
Typically a sweet and salty pork-belly stock seasoned with soy sauce, a variety of combinations are used for the broth using pork bones, chicken bones and vegetables. The colour of the broth can range from dark (more soy) to yellow (more chicken bone) to white (more pork bone.) It is topped with slices of roast pork, onions, sprouts and one raw egg. In addition, a bowl of rice is usually served with it, just to soak up all that goodness.
Throughout Japan, as in Hokkaido, there are micro-regional variations within regions. For example, in the northern Kyoto City neighbourhood of Ichijouji, restaurants serve Ichijouji Ramen, which is known for its thickness. In summer months, in both Kansai region and in Hokkaido, a dish called Hiyashi Chuka consists of ramen noodles served cold along with thinly cut strips of a colourful array of toppings like ham, boiled chicken, tamagoyaki (egg omelette), cucumbers and tomatoes mixed with a refreshing savoury tare sauce of rice vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil. Each region highlights their own local product in their ramen, so in the Shiretoko region of northeast of Hokkaido, a soothing bowl of soup with thick noodles includes the bounty of local seafood.
Based in Hiroshima, this is also shoyu-based and flavoured with pork lard and dashi fish stock, but the fish stock is derived from freshly-caught local seafood. The noodles are thin, straight and firm, and the usual suspects of green onions, chashu and menma are served on top.
Named for its destination of origin, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka, this is tonkotsu ramen. Thick and creamy, it is heaped with chashu and thin noodles that are a little more al dente. It is a little cloudy, and chicken stock, vegetables, dried sardines, kelp and dried mushrooms are added. Kumamoto Ramen, in the neighbouring Kumamoto prefecture, is influenced by Hakata Ramen, but is distinguished by its thick noodles and infusion of fried garlic and garlic oil. Kagoshima, in Southern Kyushu, is renowned for its pork, so Kagoshima Ramen would undoubtedly be based on tonkotsu ramen. Its broth is cloudy, and contains vegetables, including local kelp, as well as dried mushrooms and dried sardines.
Despite it’s tropical climate, Okinawa is as renowned for ramen as in the colder regions. Ramen noodles were, historically, known as Chinese Soba. Due to the Chinese influence in Okinawa these noodles became known as Okinawa Soba, or Soki Soba. While they are derived from buckwheat their texture is more like udon. This shio-based soup includes thick, wavy noodles and is topped with kamaboko (fish cake), green onions and soft broiled-pork or boneless pork ribs, and is enhanced by Konbu (seaweed,) katsuobushi (fermented and smoked skip jack flakes) and pickled ginger for a dynamic profile of flavours.It is typical to slurp ramen to show appreciation, but however you enjoy it, immersing one’s palette in a luscious bowl of this Japanese comfort food is just what the doctor ordered for a calm rejuvenation.
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Publisher of DINE and Destinations magazine.