Ramen: A Primer

Ramen from Ramen Hiroshi, Walnut Creek (Photo Credit to Mads)

What is Ramen?

Ramen is a Japanese dish that consists of usually wavy, chewy noodles in a bowl of (usually) broth. There are many styles across Japan’s various regions that range from different noodles to different styles of broth to not even having broth at all. Ramen is incredibly versatile and diverse and what suits one person will not necessarily suit another. 

The noodles are what give the food its name and is derived from Chinese hand-pulled noodles brought over by immigrants in the 18th Century. The noodles can be thin or thick, straight or wavy, but they’re always chewy and bouncy, owing to a very basic (in the chemical sense) solution that gets added during the construction process. There are a decent number of YouTube videos that outline the process from a home-cook perspective, but this series by Alex is an easy one to recommend because it goes in-depth into noodles and noodle construction (and subsequently drying them for instant noodle purposes) in a readily understood format . 

The soup component is made of broth (usually Dashi, a stock made from seaweed and dried tuna flakes), tare (a concentrated flavoring sauce that can be soy, salt, or miso, amongst other things), and Oil (which can come from any number of sources). Oil is a vital component of the mouthfeel and flavor depth of the broth because it captures and carries flavor much better than water does. Some broths are clear, some are milky white, it’s all a matter of personal preference. 

And then the toppings. Slices of Chashu (roast pork) is classically included, while Kakuni (slow-braised pork belly) is a fairly popular offering in the states, as well as kikurage (wood ear mushroom), nori (roasted seaweed); the list goes on and on and on. Toppings, while not necessary for a good bowl of ramen, add a ton of variety and fun to the bowl, making it more of a treasure hunt than a meal. If you’re like me and have a very easily fatigable palate, ramen with a ton of toppings is a great food. Some regional varieties even have slices of butter as a topping, and anyone who says “more butter” is good in my book. 

Tonkotsu Ramen from Izakaya Sozai, San Francisco

Ramen and Japan

As a small aside before we move on, it’s important to mention that ramen is intimately tied to the modern formation of Japan. Not in the way that we should, or could, replace our understanding of the actual people and their history, but in the way that all food is political. The name for the noodles used to be chuuka soba/shina soba(Chinese soba), the roast pork (chashu) comes directly from char siu. There’s a legacy of immigrant life carried forward in this dish; it’s fundamentally the same as American Chinese food. We must also understand the negative views of the Japanese against Chinese immigrants in the 20th century as “bad people” who brought “crime and drugs.”

Interestingly, the proliferation of ramen as a metropolitan staple has a ton to do with World War 2, as tends to be the case with Japan. With rice shortages following the war coupled with American occupation and cultural imperialism, the push for wheat-based foods (like noodles) was only inevitable. Couple that with all the soldiers returning from doing capital-C Colonialism in China (don’t think I’ve forgotten) being well familiar with wheat noodles, it was a perfect storm of cultural currents that pushed ramen into the space of being a “modern” food. 

Ramen Styles

There are more ramen styles than you can count, but for the sake of general understanding, there’s three regional styles, and two alternative preparations to understand.

Shoyu Ramen with Duck Chashu from Mensho SF, San Francisco

Tokyo Style is the Iconic Ramen. Soy-sauce tare, dashi broth, and thin curly noodles, topped with sliced pork and naruto (sliced fish cakes with a pink swirl design). It’s the ramen that most weebs are familiar with because it’s Boruto’s Dad’s favorite food, and is the food after which he’s named. 

Miso Butter Corn Ramen from Himawari, San Mateo

Hokkaido Style is famous for being saturated with delicious, delicious miso to fend off the cold Hokkaido winters. This is where they put the slices of butter on, folks. 

Hakata Deluxe from Marufuku, San Francisco

Hakata Style is the one most commonly lauded stateside and one of the most trendy styles in Japan. Its key characteristics are thin, straight noodles and thick, milky pork-bone broth boiled to hell and back for the better part of a day, and in some cases, forever (Tomita Ramen constructs their soup as a ratio depending on the age of the broth, carrying it forward every day, essentially making it a perpetual stew). People dedicate a lot of time to perfecting tonkotsu ramen, and it’s likely a large part of the increasing cultural presence of ramen as a “gourmet” food, much like the craft beer scene in the US. 

Tsukemen from Waraku, San Francisco

In addition to these iconic styles, two other ways you might see ramen served are Tsukemen and Tantanmen. Tsukemen is dipping ramen, where the broth is more concentrated and served separately from the noodles and toppings, the intention being to let you dip and slurp as you go. The thicker, more concentrated broth sticks to the noodles and you get more flavor per square inch than anything else. Plus, it’s fun. 

The other style worth mentioning is Tantanmen. Tantanmen (or dandanmien) is actually a Japanese version of a Chinese dish with a sesame paste base thinned out with either chicken stock or soy milk and seasoned with spiced, ground meat (beef or lamb is traditional). Tantanmen is worth mentioning because it’s utterly different from any other kind of ramen, and is closer to the roots of where the dish actually came from, so it’s an interesting bit of cultural exchange. Also it’s really tasty. 

Ritualized Eating

If you were to ask me if there’s a proper way to eat ramen, I’d tell you there are suggested ways to eat it, but ultimately it’s really up to you to enjoy your food the way you do. As a general tendency, I try very hard to not imply absolutes in my feelings about foods, because I feel that all food has its place. The fermented urine shark, the maggot cheese, and, yes, even American Singles

That being said, to eat ramen, the recommended way is to slurp those noodles up, less than you think would make a full mouthful, and get them all the way in your mouth before chewing. You’re not actually meant to be biting them short unless you have to. And then have fun! Drink some soup, eat some toppings, eat some noodles. 

When eating ramen I always start with the chopsticks. This is just a personal thing, but whenever I get chopsticks, I fold the wrapper into a chopstick holder. There’s plenty of tutorials online to teach you that, but I’ll put together a video later to show you how I do it. I get a surprising amount of use out of the chopstick holder because I fidget a lot and like putting my chopsticks down to use the spoon, etc. According to my friends, I also have a tell where I’ll pick up the chopsticks food-side up, then twirl them down into the right position before tapping twice on the table. To be honest, I had no idea I did this until my friend Paul pointed it out. 

The order I start ramen is as follows: Smell it first, then taste a spoonful of soup, try a small portion of noodles, try each topping, then back to noodles. And then go buckwild from there. Sometimes ramen is a lovely affair, sometimes it’s a battle that doesn’t end until the last drop of soup is gone. 

Grading Scale

In keeping with the grand tradition of tier-lists, the grading scale for ramen in my mind goes as follows: D – C – B – A – S 

If you’re familiar with any kind of competitive game, you’ll recognize how this works. For those of you that aren’t, S-tier is an import of sorts from Japan and exists as a way to tack on an extra ranking to allow for a wider variation of expression in scoring. I like tier lists mostly because I don’t really like numerical scoring applied to subjective experience. Tiers give a lot of wiggle room to explain the how and why, rather than the highness of number trumping all. Of course, I’m not avoiding this entirely with the tier-system, but it just feels better to me. 

D-Tier Ramen is ramen that really isn’t worth eating. There’s no price that justifies the experience of eating it to the point where you should just stay in with a nice bag of instant noodles, instead. 

C-Tier Ramen is ramen that’s okay, but, again, nothing special. Ramen that is outrageously priced can also fall into this tier on the sheer value proposition of whether or not you should have just stayed in with a nice bag of instant noodles. Seriously, get a Japanese or Korean brand of instant noodles and have at it. 

B-Tier Ramen is good ramen. The kind of place that serves a nice, comfortable bowl, is usually not super crowded, and, hopefully, isn’t too expensive. The kind of place you would frequent if you lived really close by.

A-Tier Ramen is great ramen. I’d consider ramen in here to be daily driver ramen. As in it’s worth driving like 15-25 minutes away every day to have lunch. Well-worth eating and will leave you satisfied. You might even drink up the soup.

S-Tier Ramen is where the special stuff lives. It’s usually the kind of place that garners a line out the door 20 minutes before opening. If you wanted to say “hey this is what ramen can be,” it probably lives in S-Tier. I consider it worth driving up to an hour, but that’s an arbitrary number based on my geographical constraints, so take it with a grain of salt. 

Akamaru Modern from Ippudo, New York

Grading Criteria

Flavor is king when it comes to ramen. Above all else, the main thing I will be looking for and basing tiers on is flavor. Of course, things like variety of menu and pricing are things I look at, they’re not what is going to set the baseline for a judgement in my mind. Things I don’t really look at are decor, ambience, and service, because they’re not really relevant to my experience eating food. While I do understand the impulse for people to want to be treated nicely, let’s be honest, I’m going out to shovel food into my face, not to be pampered by someone who barely makes minimum wage. Plus, service is such a variable thing even in the same restaurant that I just, sort of, don’t really get the point. 

And while this won’t be a part of scoring, I will be reporting on the sink in the bathroom of each establishment. There’s no good reason for it, it’s just something I seem to notice when I walk into a bathroom. 

In terms of the ramen itself, I’ll be looking for flavorful broths with good mouthfeel, noodles that complement the broth and are delicious and chewy (though personally I prefer mine a little on the “harder” side), and excellently prepared toppings. 

And that’s it! Here’s to a long and delicious journey through the wilds of ramen!

Wagyu Beef Ramen, Osaka