Ramen: A Japanese Obsession
In the 2009 Japanese movie Nankyoku Ryorinin, a group of scientists trapped in an isolated observation post in Antarctica do not encounter a shape shifting space alien, but face a much more compelling problem: They run out of ramen.
Ramen is a Japanese obsession. Amazon Japan lists over two thousand published books on ramen. There are over thirty-two thousand specialized ramen shops all across Japan. If you count non-specialized restaurants that also serve ramen, the number is said to surpass two hundred thousand. And that is evidently not enough to fill the demand because there are over one thousand kinds of instant ramen you can pick up at your local convenience store or supermarket.
Ramen noodles are made from flour, salt, and kansui. Kansui is an alkaline ingredient originally collected from inland lake salts, but currently artificially made. It is basically a mix of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and a small amount of potassium carbonate (pearl ash). It is the ingredient that gives ramen noodles their translucent quality.
The oldest known record of noodles made with kansui being served in Japan dates back to 1488. But ramen did not really take hold in Japan until the late 19th century. The general consensus is that it began to be served in Yokohama Chinatown about that time, but similar claims are made about Nagasaki, Kobe, Hakodate, and elsewhere. Although ramen is now an international word, the etiology is in dispute. The most popular theory is that it is derived from the Chinese word “lā miàn”, which literally means “stretched dough”, although that is not how the modern ramen noodle is made. The Chinese call modern ramen “Japanese lā miàn”.
There are thousands of variations of ramen, and you can argue that no two are the same. But it is generally acknowledged that ramen can be grouped into five basic types. Here is a quick rundown.
1. Shoyu Ramen
Shoyu ramen (literally “soy sauce ramen”) is probably the oldest type of ramen. As the name implies, the clear broth, usually of chicken stock but sometimes pork stock, is seasoned with soy sauce and has a brownish color. It is widely served across Japan and especially prominent in Tokyo. The noodle tends to be curly and somewhat translucent. Curly noodles are called “chijiremen”, and they are deliberately made this way to enhance the texture. This is the most basic type of ramen. Ramen noodles are usually topped with slices of roasted pork, boiled egg, chopped chives, fermented bamboo sprouts, seaweed, and other toppings.
2. Shio Ramen
Literally, this means “salt ramen”. The clear soup is without soy sauce. The word “salt” also implies the sea, and shio ramen from the northern regions sometimes use seafood broth instead of chicken stock or pork stock. This less oily alternative to conventional ramen is sometimes referred to as Hakodate ramen and is said to have started there.
3. Miso Ramen
Add miso paste to the soup and you get miso ramen. Morito Omiya, a restaurant owner in Sapporo, is widely credited for inventing this innovation in 1963. Because of this, miso ramen is widely associated with the city of Sapporo and Hokkaido in general. Miso ramen is richer and thicker than the seafood based shio ramen. Butter or lard is sometimes added to the soup to further make the soup rich and creamy. The noodles are usually thick and straight.
4. Tonkotsu Ramen
Tonkotsu literally means pork bone, and the soup is a clouded pork stock. This is the default ramen of Kyushu. The soup is creamy white and not clear because pork bones are boiled at high temperature to allow the gelatin to dissolve into the stock. The soup tends to be thick and rich. The noodles are very thin and straight. They also contain less kansui, which means that the noodles tend to expand if you leave them in the soup for too long. This lead to the practice of “kaedama”. Kaedama is when you eat the noodles and order another helping of noodles which is dropped into the same soup left in your bowl. A kaedama is cheaper than ordering another whole bowl of noodles, and saves on the soup, but most importantly helps you eat your noodles without giving them time to get soggy. In most places in Japan, you just order a larger bowl of noodles when you are extra hungry. But in Kyushu, people tend to order a regular sized bowl and order another helping of noodles to be added to the same bowl after they have finished the first helping of noodles. There is much dispute about where tonkotsu ramen originated. Citizens of Fukuoka, who proudly call their city by its feudal name Hakata, insist on calling this variation Hakata Ramen. Citizens of Kurume further south, however, call their variation Kurume Ramen and like to point out the subtle differences.
5. Taiwan Ramen
A relatively new entry that is increasingly popular is called Taiwan ramen. Taiwan ramen did not originate in Taiwan, but was developed by a Taiwanese restaurant owner in Nagoya. In Taiwan, the same dish is known as Nagoya ramen. The soup is similar to shoyu ramen and the noodles are also standard chijiremen. But the noodles are topped with chopped pork and leeks, and it does not contain any of the usual toppings you find in most ramen.
6. Honorable Mention: Chanpon
Chanpon is not considered a kind of ramen, but a different dish altogether. It uses a soup similar to tonkotsu ramen and noodles that are thick and straight. It is topped with a stir fried mix of vegetables, meat, and seafoods. Chanpon originated in Nagasaki and probably predates ramen as we know it. The name derives from a pan-Asian word that means “to mix up” or “to blend”. There are similar sounding words in Korean, Mandarin, Cantonese, Malay, and Indonesian that mean the same or similar things. In Okinawa, the word “champroo”, which also means “to mix up”, refers to a stir fried dish of vegetables, pork, and sea foods, without the noodles and soup. Many ramen shops also serve chanpon, but there are some shops that specialize in chanpon and do not serve ramen.
Ramen also varies with the kind of extra toppings you add. Ramen with extra chives or leeks is called “negi ramen”. Ramen with extra roasted pork on top is called “chashumen”. Ramen topped with wonton dumplings is called “wantanmen”. The variations are endless. But the five basic types remain the same.
Ramen has spread around Japan and you can now find Hokkaido style ramen in Kyushu, and Kyushu style ramen in Hokkaido. But restaurants cannot survive without catering to local tastes. So a tonkotsu ramen in Tokyo tastes different from a tonkotsu ramen in Fukuoka. Purists decry the absence of an authentic reproduction of their native ramen in places like Tokyo or Osaka. But the ramen shops of the big cities are making innovations of their own. Some shops are blending clear seafood stock with clouded pork stock. Some are putting butter in shoyu ramen. You can even find Taiwan ramen with tonkotsu soup. An increasing number of ramen shops are serving extra hot ramen with large quantities of red pepper in the broth. Some people may call these abominations, but ramen itself was originally a Chinese dish imported to Japan and modified to suit local tastes. There is no sense in being a traditionalist about it.
And now that ramen has been exported to China and the Chinese are consuming “Japanese lā miàn”, they have put their own twist on it and are currently serving Sinofied versions of Japanese ramen. I think you can safely say that the cultural cross pollination has come full circle. But wait. There are now ramen shops in Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, even France, Germany, and North America. Maybe one day those variations will be imported back to Japan and become modified and naturalized again. We may soon see the opening of the first Swedish ramen shop in Tokyo.