Previously I had waxed poetic about Hong Kong ramen houses, so today let’s talk about the ramen from Japanese ramen houses. This style of ramen has found a surge of popularity here in the States these past few years. Once again I must start out by stating that the best ramen comes from restaurants that only serve ramen. Just like Phở, Japanese ramen broths are works of art that must be simmered slowly for a long time to bring out the full flavor of the ingredients. There are three types of broth, Shio or salt flavored which is the most simple and basic, Shoyu which incorporates soy sauce into the broth, while last but not least is Tonkotsu which uses pork bones to make a rich and creamy broth. These broths are each delicious in their own right, giving the ramen a different flavor, umami, and mouthfeel. From these three broths each Japanese ramen house, or Ramen-ya, puts a unique spin on their bowls of ramen for a signature flavor and personal touch. They will all start with similar toppings, and then it is up to the Ramen-ya to add extra special toppings to give the ramen their riff. I was lucky enough to have some very excellent ramen in Japan at Ramen-yas where the broth has been going for weeks, if not years, and the chefs just added more ingredients and dashi to the broth to keep the consistency and continuity. Needless to say, the Ramen-yas in the States are not on the same level yet, but they have their own excellent flavor profiles and run a good game on their own merits.
Shio (salt), Shoyu (soy sauce), and Tonkotsu (pork bone) are the broth flavors that are predominant here in the States. Shio ramen starts with a good chicken stock that uses a whole chicken, not just the bones, in order to achieve a really good body and foundation for the soup. The clarity of the broth is achieved by a 3-step process, so the next step is to have a good quality Kombu dashi, or seaweed consommé. Seaweed is what gives umami to a lot of Japanese dishes. Here it bolsters the lean chicken broth to give it some more depth. The last but not least part is the Tare, a sweet sauce made from soy sauce, mirin, sugar, sake and sesame oil. It is floated on top of the ramen like an oil cloud of fragrance and flavor, though it is up to the ramen eater as to how much or little they want in their soup. Basic, yes, but simple, no. For a twist, people in Sapporo add miso to the broth and thus we have a fourth flavor. By adding miso, the clear Shio broth becomes a dense, cloudy taste bomb that changes the entire character of the broth, making it a much heartier soup that will definitely stick to your ribs. This version is perfect for the long cold Sapporo winters whereas the lighter Shio version is great for summer!
Shoyu broth uses the bones of the chicken but adds in pork bones for the extra oomph in flavor. It also uses aromatics like leeks, garlic, and ginger as well as a lot of Kombu and dried Bonito (dried fish) flakes and soy sauce. This gives the Shoyu broth a much more complex flavor and richer mouthfeel. This is the most commonly found type of broth; it is definitely a winner for people who like a direct hit to their taste buds. Though there are Kombu and Bonito in the broth there is no fish smell at all. The aromatics and the soy sauce give the broth a sublime fragrance that wafts from the bowl and makes your mouth water before you even taste it. You can build your ramen masterpiece however you like with the toppings.
Tonkotsu is the ultimate in true broth making. Generally made with all different kinds of pork trimmings and bones, they are cooked for hours on end until all the flavor from the marrow and fat are imbued into the broth. Then, just like with the Shoyu broth, various aromatics are added along with different types of vegetables like whole daikons, carrots, and onions. While simmering, the last drop of their goodness is extracted and strained and what you get is a creamy, cloudy beige liquid that is both delicate yet robust in flavor. The sweet milkiness of Tonkotsu broth is like a light, thin white gravy that flows around the noodles, making the bowl of ramen a heady meal that is chock full of comfort, similar to the feeling you get eating your Mom’s homemade chicken noodle soup. Sometimes one bowl is not enough!!!
Now, these toppings that I keep mentioning are never ending with their variety. Depending on the Ramen-ya the protein could be char siu or ground pork, shredded chicken or fish, fish cakes, shrimp and even squid. There will always be a nitamago, soft boiled eggs with yolks still deep yellow and molten. On top of that, there are fried shallots, garlic and leeks, marinated lotus roots, bamboo shoots, buttered corn and pork crackling. Each Ramen-ya has their own variation of toppings and it is up to you to craft your own quintessential ramen bowl.
Search out a Ramen-ya near you and make your own version of noodle paradise. Each mouthful will be a little bit of flavor heaven.