Ramen (ラーメン) is a food that most of us first encountered as college students or when we were in need of a quick meal that required no more than some hot water and three or four minutes of waiting. In reality, ramen is a hearty Japanese dish with more flavors and style variations than you can count. Suitable for any occasion from a quick lunch to a late night food fix, exploring and trying as much ramen as possible should be on the agenda for anyone in Japan. You won’t find this flame-charred ramen in the supermarket back at home.
Photo: Erik Jacobs on FlickrOnce your stomach starts churning, it is best to head out onto the town in the late afternoon or early evening. Many ramen shops will offer specials (割引) or have free menu items (無料) to accompany their ramen during this time of day. These often include kimchi (キムチ), pork dumplings (餃子), discounted beer(ビール), and rice bowls(丼).
This is an example of several items added to a bowl of ramen to make a huge meal for less than 900円.
Photo: Erik Jacobs on FlickrFew things hit the spot for me like a hot bowl of ramen and a cold beer with friends or coworkers following a long day at work or out on the town. I would like to share some of the basics of ramen in Japan with you so everyone can enjoy ramen like a local and explore the limitless possibilities which ramen offers on every street and alley across Japan.
Many times English will be on the menu for your convenience.
Photo: Erik Jacobs on FlickrBut many times Japanese is the only option.
Photo: Erik Jacobs on FlickrAs soon as you have pulled back the curtain and slid open the door to a ramen shop, you have entered an exciting and unique culinary realm.
Once the aroma of ramen and the cheers of いらっしゃいませ (Welcome to our store!) hit your nose and face, it is time to throw out all the rules and noodle-eating etiquette you learned as a child! Eating ramen in Japan is much different than having noodle dishes anywhere else in the world.
First and foremost it is okay to slurp, hiss, and make a lot of noise when you eat your ramen! In Japan, it is considered good manners to eat large bites of noodles and to do it in a quick and noisy fashion. If you observe how Japanese eat ramen, they will quickly slurp their noodles from their chopsticks and make a lot of noise in the process. It is also considered poor manners to bite off ramen or cut them down to size with your teeth, so be prepared to slurp the noodles you pull out of the bowl until they are all in your mouth! Just be careful not to get any of the broth on your shirt.
These noodles are too good to be eaten quietly!
Photo: Erik Jacobs on FlickrIf you want to compliment the chef on the quality of his bowl of ramen, be sure to finish off the broth and enjoy every last drop of the succulent soup! Sometimes ramen shops will have hidden messages on the bottom of ramen bowls that will only be visible when you finish the soup!
This bowl had a hidden “thank you” message waiting for you if you finished the soup!
Photo: Erik Jacobs on FlickrHalf the fun of learning to love ramen is learning how to eat it like a local.
As you will quickly find out during your travels in Japan, there are different kinds of ramen shops across the country. Some are standing ramen shops, in which you stand at a counter, inhale your ramen, and quickly move onto your next destination. These are often popular late at night or with salary men. This kind of shop has a high customer turnover rate and patrons are expected to quickly place their order, eat, and move on to their next destination. Milling about at a shop like this to chat with your friends is not a great idea.
There are also many chains and popular local sit-down ramen shops that have a high turnover rate. When you enter one of these establishments, people will often be lined up near the door waiting to grab a seat while patrons feverishly slurp down their meal. Being quick and diligent at these shops is a great idea.
Photo: Erik Jacobs on FlickrA third type of ramen shop also exists and is different than the aforementioned. Sometimes you may encounter a small, family-run noodle shop or a small ramen shop that does not have a high turnover rate. At these places, the atmosphere is often good and patrons will stay for a long time, chatting with the shopkeeper and ordering several items off of the menu, not just ramen. I find these places more enjoyable and delicious than chain ramen shops and standing ramen shops because of their intimate setting. If you stick around long enough, you can try to get a feel for the neighborhood or the local people.
In an intimate setting like this, it is best to hang out for a while and try to talk with the staff.
Photo: Erik Jacobs on FlickrNo matter if you are there for ten minutes or an hour, sit down (or stand up) and enjoy every last bite of your savory ramen meal!
Survival Kanji and Words
As Japan continues to expand as a popular tourist destination, some ramen shops in major cities will offer English menus. However, many shops still only have Japanese menus. If a shop is very small or you are in a small town far away from where tourists go, there is less of a chance that they will offer an English menu.
Fear not! I have compiled a list of useful words and phrases that should help you navigate an intimidating Japanese-only ramen menu. Hopefully these will help you if you ever encounter any problems when you go to a ramen shop that is off the beaten path.
ラーメン – ramen
醤油ラーメン – shoyu ramen – Soy sauce-based ramen dish.
塩ラーメン –shio ramen- Salt-based ramen dish, often with vegetables.
味噌ラーメン –miso ramen- Miso-based ramen
豚骨ラーメン –tonkotsu ramen- Pork-based ramen
つけ麺 –tsukemen- Noodles you dip yourself
サービス –sabisu- Japanese take on the word “service.” Complimentary menu item.
麺 – men- This character means “noodle”
Photo: Erik Jacobs on Flickr
すみません –sumimasen- Excuse me; this calls staff to you to place an order.
ください –kudasai- Please
大盛り –oomori- Large Size
おかわり –okawari- More please/ drink refill.
お会計お願いします –okaike onegaishimasu- Check, please.
あっさり –assari- Lighter broth, not very thick.
こってり –kotteri- Thick, chunky broth.
辛い からい –karai- spicy
細麺 –hosomen- Thin noodles
太麺 –futomen- Thick noodles
固いめん –kataimen- Harder noodles
やらわかいめん –yawarakaimen- Softer noodles
のり -nori- dried seaweed
ネギ –negi- scallions/spring onions/green onions
もやし –moyashi- bean sprouts
卵 たまご –tamago- eggs
煮卵 –nitamago- boiled egg (one of my favorites)
ナルト –naruto- Japanese fish cake
チャーシュー –chaashuu- pork slices
ごま –goma- sesame
Other Menu Items
ビール –biru- Beer
お茶 –ocha- green tea
餃子 –gyoza- Fried pork dumplings
キムチ –kimuchi- Japanese-style kimchi
ごはん –gohan- Rice
Nothing goes better with a bowl of ramen than gyoza.
Photo: Erik Jacobs on FlickrSometimes a rice bowl with egg can be a good compliment, too.
Photo: Erik Jacobs on FlickrNow you know enough to be dangerous. Get out there and enjoy all the ramen that Japan has to offer!