Ramen rules: Tim Anderson deconstructs Japan's famous noodle soup

​A Japanese favourite with Chinese origins, this noodle soup has no definitive version — it’s all about variation, with an array of different styles to try across Japan and beyond.

This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveller (UK)

To call ramen the national dish of Japan would, on one hand, be perfectly valid. But on the other hand, it’s kind of cheating, because ramen isn’t really just one dish — it’s more of an umbrella term for hundreds, if not thousands, of dishes, albeit ones that share a common genealogy and key characteristics. It’s better to think of ‘ramen’ as a term like ‘pasta’ — yes, there are obvious and important connections between the various pasta dishes, but that doesn’t mean lasagne al forno and tortellini in brodo are the same thing. Similarly, a clear yuzu-scallop shio ramen is very different from a rich and spicy tan tan men.

With its many stylistic and regional variations, ramen encompasses a huge range of flavours, textures and styles. Like many Japanese art forms, it can be beautifully restrained and minimalistic, but it can also be aggressive: a gut-punch of animal fat and salt. There’s no version that might be described as ‘the’ ramen — no platonic ideal of the dish. Quite the contrary — to truly understand ramen, you have to embrace its galactic diversity of form, flavour and geography.

A very basic definition of ramen might be: alkaline wheat noodles in a well-seasoned meat broth, with toppings. Of course, this doesn’t really capture its singular deliciousness, nor its many complexities, but it’s instructive in conveying how ramen has been able to evolve into so many different things. It’s also helpful in delineating what it isn’t. In the Anglosphere, ‘ramen’ is sometimes used incorrectly as a catch-all term for any dish comprising noodles in soup, which has led to errors at supermarkets and high street food chains, such as labelling products ‘ramen udon’, which is like calling something ‘spaghetti fusilli’. Ramen is, by definition, not udon — even though, superficially, they may seem similar. 

The alkaline salts (sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate) used in ramen noodles — together known as ‘kansui’ — aren’t found in any other Japanese noodle, so they’re perhaps the most important element. Kansui gives the noodles their distinctive, springy, toothsome texture and also provides a hint as to ramen’s ancestry. The origins of kansui and its use in noodle-making can be traced back to the mineral-rich salt lakes of Mongolia, a technique that was then adopted into Chinese cuisine, ultimately finding its way to Japan via Chinese migrant scholars and labourers. According to popular folk etymology, ‘ramen’ is a Japanese version of the Chinese ‘lamian’, however, this seems to be a misconception, as ramen is rolled and cut, whereas lamian is shaped by stretching the dough, and doesn’t contain kansui.

Historian Barak Kushner, in his book Slurp! A Social and Cultural History of Ramen, writes that ‘it is virtually impossible to peg down one single explanation that substantiates the appearance and naming of similar dishes all over the country at almost the same time’. He explains how various Japanese corruptions of Chinese words independently led to people calling Chinese noodles ‘ramen’, and how the word doesn’t have a direct analogue in Chinese. Indeed, early ramen or ramen-like dishes actually went by different names, most commonly shina soba or chuka soba, both meaning ‘Chinese soba’ (soba being thin Japanese buckwheat noodles). The former term, however, is derogatory and no longer used.

Ramen’s various historical threads are important in understanding how it was able to evolve in such divergent ways. The amount of deviation from any classic recipe is often dictated by cultural expectations, and more ‘traditional’ Japanese dishes, such as udon or soba, have less variation. This is down to both diner demand and how preparation methods are passed down. While there are certainly numerous kinds of udon and soba throughout Japan, there aren’t nearly as many varieties of these as there are of ramen, because ramen has always been much less narrowly defined.

The sociologist Koichi Iwabuchi wrote of what he calls ‘cultural odour’: the perceived cultural identity of a given thing as determined by its subtle, contextual and sometimes intangible characteristics. In the early days of ramen history, its ‘odour’ was distinctly Chinese. But Japan has a long history of adopting and adapting all things non-Japanese, and when it comes to foreign foods, Japanese chefs (and diners) are less bound by the strictures of tradition, so creativity, novelty and variety tend to come into play more often. Japanese chefs all over the country took ramen and made it their own, forever transforming it from a Chinese to a decidedly Japanese dish. To borrow another term from Iwabuchi, ramen is a ‘glocal’ dish — one that comes from abroad and incorporates global elements, but becomes localised through customer demand and the innovations of the people who make it.

Regionality is a hallmark of Japanese cuisine and ramen is a prime example of this. In Kyushu — often considered the spiritual home of ramen — the dish remains close to its Chinese roots. Dating back to the 1890s, champon — a Nagasaki speciality piled high with stir-fried vegetables, meat and seafood — was one of the very first ramen-like dishes to be served in Japan. Elsewhere, in Kyushu, the hakata-style ramen — featuring thin noodles in a rich pork broth — is possibly the most globally influential style, having been the key dish of ramen booms in international cities such as Los Angeles, London, and Hong Kong. In the city of Sapporo, meanwhile, ramen incorporates miso as well as butter and sweetcorn, indicative of Hokkaido prefecture’s European-style agriculture practices, which began in the late 19th century.

There’s a story in every bowl, whether it’s the story of the chef and his or her community, or that of external forces that dictate what ingredients are used. In fact, ramen might never have become the phenomenon it has were it not for the influx of cheap US wheat flour following the Second World War.

Making ramen is a labour of love. It requires the lengthy boiling of bones for the broth, the making (or sourcing) of good-quality noodles, and the preparation of various toppings, such as chashu (braised pork) and ajitama, or ‘ramen eggs’ — both of which are tricky things to master in their own right. Because of the time and skill required, this is a dish rarely made by home cooks in Japan. But any overview of this Japanese classic would be incomplete without mentioning one of the greatest innovations of all time: instant ramen. Originally developed in 1958 by Taiwanese immigrant Momofuku Ando, instant ramen (dried noodles and soup, which can quickly be rehydrated with hot water) represents much of what’s important about the dish: it’s affordable, convenient, comforting and endlessly customisable.

When entrepreneur Yoji Iwaoka opened the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum in 1994, he designed its central space as a recreation of a Japanese street scene from 1958, to commemorate the invention of instant ramen. For Iwaoka, and so many others in Japan, instant ramen — and ramen in general — is a profoundly nostalgic food. Although the post-war years in Japan were marked by hardship and frugality, they were also a time of optimism and rebuilding; this was food that provided cheap, quick, salty comfort during trying times. The Ramen Museum also brings ramen shops from all over the country into its central ‘downtown’ food court, reframing them as part of a living history and imbuing even modern iterations of the dish with a sense of nostalgia.

In his book The Untold History of Ramen, George Solt describes ramen as a ‘food of opposition’ because of its many contradictions. It’s a thoroughly modern food that nevertheless remains symbolic of a bygone era. It’s reminiscent of home cooking, but it’s rarely homemade. It’s inexpensive, with working-class immigrant roots, but it’s produced to a high standard of craftsmanship by obsessive artisans. It can be viewed as both Chinese or Japanese and as a local, national and transnational food all at the same time. These complexities are what make ramen so fascinating, so infinitely delicious and so enduringly popular. And they’re what make ramen a strong contender for the title of Japan’s national dish.

Recipe: Tokyo shoyu ramen

This recipe is based on a version served at Harukiya, a legendary Tokyo ramen shop. It’s a clear broth, glistening with chicken fat, seasoned with dried sardines and bulked out with noodles, lean pork and a few toppings that you can source online or at an Asian supermarket. If you can’t find chicken feet, substitute with the same weight in extra wings. The broth and chashu can be made up to four days ahead and kept in the fridge.

Serves: 4  
Takes: 1 hr, plus 10 hrs hands-off cooking/chilling 

100g chicken feet 
1 chicken back
6 whole chicken wings 
1 pig’s trotter, chopped (ask your butcher to do this)
20g iriko (dried sardines), guts 
and heads removed
1 onion, peeled and quartered
50g fresh ginger, sliced 
10x10cm sheet of kombu 
seaweed, rinsed
10g bonito flakes
2 tbsp dark soy sauce
3 tbsp light soy sauce 
2 tbsp mirin
1 tbsp sea salt flakes
600g fresh (or 400g dried) medium-thick wavy ramen noodles
80g menma (a condiment made from fermented bamboo shoots)
2 spring onions, thinly sliced
1 sheet of nori seaweed, cut into 
4 squares
soy-marinated eggs, to serve (optional)

For the chashu (braised pork)
4 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp light soft brown sugar
500g pork loin

1. Start at least a day before serving. Heat oven to 120C, fan 100C, gas ½. Add the chicken feet, back and wings to a large casserole dish with the trotter, iriko, onion, ginger and 1.8 litres of water. Simmer on a medium heat for 30 mins, constantly skimming the surface until no new scum rises to the top. If any bones are uncovered, add more water then cover with a lid. Cook in the oven for 5 hrs.

2. Remove from the oven and discard the bones, then pass the broth through a fine sieve. Add the kombu and the bonito flakes and leave to infuse for 1 hr. Pass through a sieve again and discard the solids.

3. Measure the liquid. You’ll need 1.4 litres of broth, so top up with water if you need to. Chill in the fridge overnight. 

4. For the chashu, heat oven to 140C, fan 120C, gas 1. Stir the soy sauce and sugar in a bowl until the sugar dissolves. Score the pork and rub the soy mix all over. Roast in the oven for 30 mins, or until a meat thermometer reads 57C. Leave to cool, then chill in the fridge overnight.

5. The next day, remove the solidified fat from the surface of the broth and reserve. Use a ladle to scoop out the broth and transfer to a separate container, leaving behind any bits at the bottom to ensure the broth is clear.
When you’re ready to serve, add the broth to a large saucepan and place over a medium-high heat. Bring to a simmer and add the soy sauces, mirin and salt. 

6. Meanwhile, gently melt the reserved broth fat in a small saucepan or in the microwave. Thinly slice the chashu. Cook the noodles according to the packet instructions, then drain.

7. Divide the broth and noodles among four bowls, then top each with the sliced chashu, menma, some spring onion and a good drizzle of melted fat. Place a nori square on the side of each bowl, add a halved soy-marinated egg (if using) and serve piping hot.

Taken from Tokyo Stories: A Japanese Cookbook, by Tim Anderson (£26, Hardie Grant)

Published in Issue 16 (summer 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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