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

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. Part III of the series broke down the different varieties of ramen noodles and stock. Today’s column will highlight several regional specialties, and will teach you how to make some great ramen at home.

I really, really, really love ramen.

There’s no shortage of great ramen shops in Tokyo. From the 300 yen (US$2.50) early-morning, after-clubbing special to the 1200 yen (US$10) special night-out affair, ramen is as varied as it is delicious. To really appreciate the different manifestations of Nature’s most perfect food however, you’re going to have to leave the capital and explore the countryside.

There’s a world of great ramen out there. Let’s explore some of the highlights.

Hokkaidō ramen (北海道ラーメン) With long, snowy winters and sub-zero chills, the northern island of Hokkaidō is famous for its comfort food, and their homegrown ramen is no different. With a thick, rich base of miso paste and local butter, and topped with fresh seafood and sweet corn, a hot, steaming bowl of Hokkaidō ramen is the perfect accompaniment to a cold, blistery day.

Hakata ramen (博多ラーメン) Originating from the city of Fukuoka, this hearty ramen features thin, curly noodles floating in a creamy, white broth of boiled and crushed pork bone. The dish is distinctive for its unusual toppings, which include pickled ginger, crushed sesame and fresh greens.

Kitakata ramen (喜多方ラーメン) The city of Kitakata in northern Honshū has the highest per-capita number of ramen shops in the country. Not surprisingly, their local variant of ramen is delicious, and features thick, curly noodles that are served in a medium-hued broth of pork and tuna stock.

Tōkyō ramen (東京ラーメン) Although it’s possible to sample just about every type of ramen in the capital, the original Tōkyō ramen consists of thin, curly noodles in a light, soy-flavored broth that is typically dressed up with seasonal vegetables, a boiled egg and slices of pork.

Ie-kei ramen (家系ラーメン) Originating from Yokohama, one of ramen’s original ports of entry into Japan from China, this increasingly popular dish is identical to Tōkyō ramen with the exception of its thick, straight noodles.

Unfortunately, if you don’t live in Japan, it’s near impossible to hunt down authentic ramen, though that doesn’t mean you can’t experiment in your own kitchen. Although I’ve tried to emphasize that instant noodles are not real ramen, that doesn’t mean you can’t dress them up and approximate the real thing.

So here’s what you do.

Boil some instant noodles in a big pot of water, and then add them to a soup of your own making. You can flavor the broth to your liking with the addition of chicken and beef stock, though don’t be afraid to get creative. A fresh egg and some mirin (Japanese cooking wine, みりん) goes a long way, though I’m partial to fresh lime juice and a few slices of habanero chilies. For toppings, don’t be afraid to add fresh vegetables such as bean sprouts, wild mushrooms and baby corn, and definitely go heavy on the minced garlic and onions.

Go wild in the kitchen, and feel free to post some recipes here.

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

** Special thanks for Flickr users pepewk (Hard at Work), Carl Johan (Tasty!) and LeeBrimeLow (Chopped Ingredients) **