Big in Japan: An Ode to Ramen (Part III)

This week, Big in Japan will be bringing you a four-part series on the most perfect of foods. Part I of the series aimed to debunk the myth of ramen as being mere instant noodles. Part II of the series traced the hundreds of years of history behind this savory snack. Today’s column will break down the different varieties of ramen noodles and stock.

I really, really love ramen.

If you think about it, variety is indeed the spice of the life, especially in the kitchen. In the modern era of Pan-Asian, Latin Fusion and Nuevo American, we are all secretly becoming closet gourmands. Of course, all of these self-aggrandizing culinary styles can’t match the sheer variety of flavors and styles of ramen, Nature’s most perfect food.

Still think a bowl of ramen is just soup and noodles? Don’t believe me that no two bowls of ramen are created equally? Allow me to educate you on the high culinary art that is ramen.

Truth be told, ramen does consist of soup and noodles, though this is a gross simplification to say the least.

In regards to the noodles, ramen is made from four key ingredients: wheat flour, salt, water, and a type of mineral water known as kansui (かんすい). Just like New York City bagels get their taste from the local tap water, ramen noodles get their yellowish color and firm texture from kansui. Without kansui, which is bottled according to rigorous government standards, ramen noodles would be mere noodles.

As with fine Italian pasta, the best ramen is always homemade. At real ramen shops, fresh noodles will be made on the premises, and cut according to the chef’s preferred style. Thick or thin and flat or wavy, the shape of the noodle is pivotal. Needless to say, everyone has their own favorite type, though I swear by thick, wavy noodles, which manage to soak up the soup like no other.

The basis of ramen soup is chicken or pork stock, though chefs add everything and anything from tuna flakes, apples, kelp, seaweed, miso paste, dried sardines, wild mushrooms, onions, soy sauce, sake, etc. As you can imagine, the exact recipe of a given ramen stock is closely guarded, and the best ramen chefs inherit the trade secret from their parents and grandparents.

Generally speaking, ramen soup can be divided into four categories:

Shio (salt, 塩) The most basic and traditional of ramen stocks is light in color, and is the Japanese equivalent of your grandma’s chicken soup.

Shōyu (soy sauce, 醤油) The next step up in complexity, this extremely popular ramen stock is made by adding soy sauce to shio broth, and is medium to dark in color.

Tonkotsu (pork bone, 豚骨) Cloudy white and unmistakable in appearance, this comfort food is made with pork bones that have been crushed and boiled down.

Miso (fermented soybean paste, みそ) A unique Japanese creation, this dark and creamy stock is a rich blend of shio broth and miso paste.

In Part IV, I’ll highlight a few regional specialties, and share some of my own recipes.

Getting Hungry? Check out our delicious photo gallery of Japanese food. %Gallery-6477%

** Special thanks to Flickr users ngader (damn good ramen), malias (a steaming cauldron) and akakumo (kimchi beef ramen) **