Everything you could ever want to know about ramen in Japan
8:32 pm… Monday, November 12th, 2018:
Clank… splash… pshhhh…
I’m sitting at the counter of a popular ramen chain in the Western end of Tokyo — the suburbs essentially. Where the hustle and bustle of Tokyo life mesh with more down-home, country living. Life is more ‘normal’ here. People are friendlier, less busy, more personable.
The sounds coming from the kitchen a mere two feet in front of me are mesmerizing. I’m staring at the methodical dance to craft every bowl of ramen to perfection — but not really paying attention.
Do you know what I mean? When you’re in the zone, sort of staring blankly at something, totally focused with all senses, but not really watching intently.
It’s a cool evening but the warm, steamy room filled with the aroma of tonkotsu is so comforting. It’s loud, but not in an annoying way. More like when you get sleepy from the pitter-patter on a rainy night.
Every sound has meaning. The slurping of noodles from happy customers loudly enjoying their meal. The clanks of pans, ladles, and noodle baskets preparing the ramen. And the steamy pshhh sounds bring it all together in harmony.
This is ramen… and you’re going to learn everything there is to know about it — and then some.
What is ramen?
If you Google “what is ramen?” Wikipedia is going to tell you:
“Ramen […] is a Japanese dish. It consists of Chinese-style wheat noodles served in a meat or (occasionally) fish-based broth, often flavored with soy sauce or miso, and uses toppings such as sliced pork, dried seaweed, menma, and green onions…” —Wikipedia
You probably already know what ramen is, or at least you think you know what ramen is. Japan takes this simple dish to a whole new level.
What you need to know is it is possibly the most diverse noodle dishes you can’t imagine. I say “can’t” because you simply cannot fathom the variations of ramen waiting to be discovered until you actually come to Tokyo and experience it for yourself — it’s mind-boggling.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are 51,000+ ramen shops in Japan (that we know of). Want to hear something crazy? They all serve a variation of four baseline types of ramen.
What!? How can that be!?
Let’s go over the types of ramen in the next section. Are you ready? While there’s only four, there’s a lot to cover.
I remember when I first arrived in Japan about 22 years ago. The very first meal I ate was miso ramen. I recall wandering around some confusing, windy alley streets and when we arrived I somehow instinctively knew we were there.
It was just this tiny little place, but a bigger than life atmosphere. We called it the “big bear ramen” (the logo on the sign was a bear, creative, I know).
The thick, creamy soup was amazing and for the next five years or so I ate nothing but miso ramen — when I ate ramen that is.
Miso ramen is hearty, earthy, and fulfilling — with a slight hint of bitter. A pleasure to eat every bite. Here’s a fantastic video where a chef shows how he makes miso ramen (note: I don’t want you to watch this like a recipe, but to see and hear this chef describe it).
What is miso?
Miso (みそ) is soybean paste made from a fermenting process that flavors the mixture and turns it into a paste. It is what gives the miso ramen its thick, hearty, earthy texture and flavor.
What is the difference between white, yellow, and red miso?
The various colors of miso come from what it is mixed with during the fermentation process.
White miso is mixed with rice which lightens the color and brings it a sweeter, lighter flavor. Sometimes white miso is used as a dip for vegetables, rather similar to peanut butter and celery.
Yellow miso is a mixture using rice and barley. You’ll find many varieties of this and you can tell how much of which it has by the color. A lighter yellow will have more rice while darker yellows will have more barley.
Red miso is essentially entirely mixed using barley rather than rice.
A good rule of thumb when it comes to the color and how it tastes is the darker the color the stronger, deeper, richer and more bitter the flavor.
Is miso ramen vegan-friendly?
Miso is generally considered vegan and vegetarian-friendly, yes. However, miso ramen probably isn’t unless specifically stated so by the shop.
Almost all ramen in Japan is derived from some form of meat, usually pork, chicken, or fish — kicking it off the vegetarian menu, unfortunately.
Shio ramen is a much lighter flavor than miso. In fact, it’s the lightest, easiest to eat flavor of all the varieties of ramen available in Japan.
I’ll order shio ramen when I don’t feel like eating heavy since it seems less filling and healthier (even if it isn’t).
Here is another video where Chef Ivan Orkin describes shio ramen… and again, I want you to watch this for the experience, not necessarily the recipe.
What is shio?
Shio (しお) means salt in Japanese. I know what you’re thinking right about now.
“What does shio ramen taste like? Like some sort of salt water with noodles?”
No, even though it is called shio ramen, there are many other ingredients that come together to form the base. Things like chicken, fish, pork, vegetables, and a plethora of spices — just like any other type of ramen.
To me, shoyu ramen feels like the in-between ramen — between shio and miso, though it does not have miso in it.
It is darker and richer than shio ramen, but lighter and smoother than miso ramen. The flavor stands for itself, I don’t want you to think it really is something between the two.
There is actually a Michelin star ramen shop serving shoyu ramen in Tokyo. Here’s an interesting video showing some Americans trying the shop, but ultimately having a preference for another type of ramen — which I will discuss in the next section.
What is shoyu?
Shoyu (しょゆ) is the Japanese word for soy sauce. It’s made a lot like miso. In fact, it is technically the byproduct created during the fermentation process when creating miso.
Tonkotsu ramen is my new favorite ramen. It’s hearty, rich, creamy, and gives ramen shops the opportunity to be creative and show off their exceptional craft.
What is tonkotsu?
Tonkotsu (豚骨) is pork broth but directly translates into pork bone. Some shops will boil the pork bones for days to pull every ounce of flavor from them. This stuff is amazing and is exactly what I meant by tonkotsu giving every shop the opportunity to be creative.
You likely won’t find two tonkotsu ramen shops with the same flavor (unless they’re from the same chain of restaurants).
Pro Tip: you know you’ve found a great tonkotsu ramen shop when the place smells strongly and vaguely similar to gym sock. 🙂
I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about instant ramen, but I did say “found at your local supermarket” too. I want to mention the instant ramen found in convenience stores in Japan.
It takes instant ramen to a whole new level. It’s practically not even instant anymore either. When you open some of these “instant” ramen bowls, they have separated packs of ingredients.
Sure, they’re mostly dried, sized, and ready ingredients. You’ll simply add water and add the packs of ingredients at the specified times as described in the instructions — which can often be a challenge since they’re in Japanese.
But the end result is what I would say is between the instant ramen you’re probably used to (like Top Ramen) and a real bowl of ramen from a shop.
They’re much pricier than the cheap instant ramen you’ll find at your local supermarket too. Sometimes ¥500 for a bowl of “instant” ramen at a 7-Eleven in Japan.
Popular Regional Ramen
Hakata ramen comes from the Hakata district of Fukuoka — the birthplace of tonkotsu ramen. As you can probably imagine, Hakata ramen is a tonkotsu flavor.
It will also feature thin noodles and frequently you’ll find Hakata ramen shops which allow for noodle refills. Yes, just toss them an extra ¥100 and they’ll drop a fresh basket of noodles into your bowl.
To understand Sapporo ramen you must first know that Sapporo is in Hokkaido, the northernmost region of Japan. It’s the coldest area of Japan.
Sapporo is the birthplace of miso ramen. Some would attribute the idea to the temperature of the area — with miso ramen apparently retaining the most heat — warming patrons who needed a hot break from the snow-piled streets and frigid cold.
Where Hakata is the birthplace of tonkotsu and Sapporo of miso… Kitakata could be where shoyu ramen was invented — due to the abundance of shoyu in the storehouses in the area (however, this hasn’t been proven).
You could even consider Kitakata the ramen capital of Japan because it has more ramen shops than any other area of Japan. Which is crazy to think about because walking around Tokyo you can find multiple ramen shops on nearly every block.
Kitakata ramen is also a bit fishier than other ramen varieties as niboshi, dried sardines, forms part of the broth. The noodles tend to be curly due to the water content when they’re made.
And so on, and so on…
I could go on and on about regional varieties of ramen, but you will probably grow tired of it. Why?
Because ramen is different between regions, between shops within regions, and even from chef to chef within the same shop sometimes!A
A quick note about spicy ramen – While some ramen shops will offer a signature spicy ramen, generally the Japanese don’t seem to enjoy really spicy food. What they may call “spicy” likely won’t seem very spicy to you.
However, there are some ramen masters who have developed spicy ramen challenges using insanely spicy ingredients ready to test the most dedicated spice aficionado.
Update… check out this video of Paolo showing his top 5 ramen shops in Shibuya. #4 on his list is Ichikakya Red — a tourist-friendly shop specializing in spicy ramen.
Ajitsuke Tamago (味付け卵) — is a boiled egg that is marinated in a soy sauce mixture, making the egg brown in color and full of flavor.
Batā (バター) — this means butter in Japanese and is an option at some ramen chains. At Manshugyouza, a common chain, their most popular menu item is misobatā ramen (miso and butter). It’s fantastic!
Beni shōga (紅生姜) — is pickled ginger. It’s usually cut into slices and appear pink to red in color.
Chashu (チャーシュー) — is braised pork. Most ramen will have a slice or two in every bowl. However, you can also specifically order ramen with extra chashu on top.
Kamaboko (蒲鉾) — this is the pink swirly slices you’ll sometimes find in your ramen bowl. They’re essentially slices of a processed seafood “cake.”
Kōn (コーン) — this is corn, often a topping found in the big chain ramen shops. I haven’t been able to confirm if corn is used in the creation of the broth — as it’s a closely guarded secret by owners — but it very well could be used and then strained away.
Menma (めんま) — is dried and fermented bamboo shoots, which are then reconstituted in a sauce mixture which often varies from shop to shop.
Moyashi (もやし) — means bean sprouts in Japanese. Some shops will really heap on lots of moyashi (I’m talking a huge moyashi mountain on top of the ramen).
Negi (ねぎ) — is Japanese green onion (or scallions). On ramen, it is sliced into small rings and piled on top. Some shops will offer a “green onion” ramen where there is a very large pile of scallions on top.
Ninniku (ニンニク) — this is garlic. Some shops will offer dishes with garlic in them, but more will simply have minced garlic on the table for you to add as much as you like.
Nori (のり) — is dried sheet of seaweed. Most ramen shops will add a sheet of this to the bowl. Some will add large sheets, but most are a small square.
Seabura (背油) — means “back fat” in Japanese. It’s the pork lard used in the broth and some shops will let you add more as a topping.
Tamago (卵) — means egg. In the case of ramen, it would be a softly boiled egg sliced in half. This is a very common item across almost all ramen shops.
The Ramen Noodles
The noodles found in Japanese ramen are originally Chinese wheat noodles. Though the reliance on China for wheat has faded, ramen noodles are still created from wheat flour.
You will discover there is quite a lot of variety in the noodles too. Some made by hand in the shop, some curly because of added water to the mix, some thin, thick, hard, and all the ranges in-between.
What are ramen noodles made of?
I have to pull this quote from Wikipedia because it sums this up perfectly:
“Most noodles are made from four basic ingredients: wheat flour, salt, water, and kansui (かん水) a type of alkaline mineral water, containing sodium carbonate and usually potassium carbonate, as well as sometimes a small amount of phosphoric acid.” —Wikipedia
Thick or Thin
I wanted to discuss the thickness of the noodles because some shops will give you a choice (most don’t). These are the words to use:
Futomen (太麺) — is thick noodles.
Hosomen (細麺) — is thin noodles.
Firm or Soft
Katamen (硬麺) — is hard noodles. Essentially they’re boiled a bit less so the noodles are firm or chewy.
Futsu (普通) — this is not soft noodles. It means ‘normal.’ Typically people do not order soft ramen noodles in Japan. If you want your noodles softer, let them soak a bit in the soup before eating.
Kae-dama (替え玉) — this is a Hakata ramen specialty. It is essentially a refill of the ramen noodles. Because often you’ve finished the noodles but still have soup left and an appetite for more.
Of course, this wouldn’t be complete without an amzing video to see more about the noodles right? Chef Ivan Orkin has a fantastic video about hand-made, artisanal ramen noodles.
How to use a ramen ticket machine
What is the ticket machine?
Oh, that darn ticket machine has thwarted many a would be ramen lover visiting Japan. Most have TONS of buttons and no English — though newer machines are touch screen and do offer English!
So what do you do if there isn’t any English and the smells filling the room are calling your name?
How to use the ramen ticket machine
Compare. Yes, just good old-fashioned comparison. Further down in this guide there is a section titled “Ramen Language Cheatsheet.” Click here to jump to it — use it to find the ramen you want.
Look at the cheat sheet, study it a bit so you become a little familiar with it so when you’re in front of the machine you’re not stumbling to find the kanji you need — possibly holding up the line in a busy restaurant.
When you are in front of the ramen machine just take a look at the Japanese words on the buttons and compare with the cheat sheet — then pick the one you want.
And don’t worry, Japanese people are super nice — there’s nothing to worry about if you do end up holding the line up a little bit.
Let’s move on to some questions and answers. There are loads of interesting questions I got when interviewing visitors for this guide.
Helpful Guide: If you end up at a ramen shop that does not have a ticket machine and you need to order from the menu — and you’re unlucky enough the shop doesn’t have any English on the menu either, follow my guide “How To Order Just About Anything In A Restaurant In Japan.”
These are questions that don’t quite fit nicely into the sections above, they are frequently asked about ramen in Japan. Plus a whole bunch of questions I received while researching for this handbook.
Let’s get started with a history lesson.
Is ramen Japanese or Chinese?
The ramen as it is now is a distinctly Japanese dish but does have roots in China — using Chinese wheat noodles. During the Cold War, the U.S. imported wheat to Japan which brought about the ramen renaissance and the end of reliance on Chinese wheat. [source: The New Yorker]
What is the most popular flavor of ramen?
This is hard to answer simply. It would be great if I could tell you one specific ramen was the most popular, but you’re going to find the popularity winner varies by location in Japan.
In the Tokyo area (at least in the Western side of Tokyo), it seems as though shoyu ramen shops are more common — which leads me to believe shoyu ramen is likely the most popular in this area.
However, shio ramen is the origin story for ramen in Japan. Given its fresh, simple flavor and the fact it’s on the menu at nearly every ramen shop I’ve visited, I would guess shio ramen is the most popular overall.
What is the difference between ramen and pho?
If you’ve read to this point you already have a thorough understanding of what ramen is. So let’s take a look at the similar Vietnamese dish pho and compare:
- Pho is typically a beef based soup with rice noodles. Ramen is usually a pork based soup with wheat noodles
- Pho will have toppings like basil, cilantro, and lime. Whereas ramen will use moyashi, menma, negi, tamago, and chashu
Of course, just like ramen, pho has a ton of variety as well.
What is the white thing with a pink swirl in ramen?
This is kamaboko cut into thin slices.
What type of ramen does Naruto eat?
Since Naruto’s favorite ramen shop was Ichiraku Ramen, and their style of ramen is miso — it would appear the ramen Naruto ate is miso chashu — judging from the amount of pork chashu slices on top.
SoraNews24 has a fun article about visiting the shop made famous by the popular Naruto manga.
What is tsukemen?
The easiest way to understand tsukemen is to think of it as ramen with the noodles and soup separated. You get a dish of noodles and a bowl of soup to dip the noodles in before slurping them down.
Sometimes the soup is hot, but it doesn’t have to be. During the hot summer months, menus often swap in cold soups to help cool patrons and provide some relief from the intense heat.
What is tantanmen?
Tantanmen is a Sichuan Chinese noodle dish called Dan Dan noodles. It’s a spicy, creamy, rich flavor — and is a relative newcomer to the Japanese ramen scene.
You’ll find it on menus seasonally, usually during the colder fall/winter months.
What’s on the table in a ramen shop?
When you sit down at the table in a ramen shop you’ll quickly find there are quite a few condiments and such available. What is all this stuff?
You’ll find the normal settings such as chopsticks, tissue paper, toothpicks, and small saucers.
On the list for condiments are things such as shoyu, vinegar, kosho (black pepper), togarashi (red pepper), minced garlic, and sliced shoga (ginger).
Some shops will up the ante by offering their own special sauce mixes, or even pickled radish. A shop nearby my home has diced takuan available — a sweet pickled daikon radish.
Why are ramen noodles slurped?
It’s not just to make a loud sound. Interestingly, the slurping actually has a purpose. Ramen noodles are hot.
So hot they can burn you. But you don’t want to wait for them to cool off because the noodles will soften too much.
Slurping, as it turns out, cools the ramen while entering your mouth — and has a bonus feature: it wafts the aroma into nasal cavity improving the flavor.
Is ramen healthy?
Hmm… this is a great question. On one hand, many varieties of ramen will have copious amounts of vegetables on top. Certainly, that is healthy. However, ramen isn’t exactly low calorie and most shops aren’t thinking about health when crafting their signature ramen that draws patrons.
Instead, they’re shooting for the best flavor and that often means more salt than one would consider healthy.
There is one caveat though. Ramen found at the ramen restaurants is far healthier than instant ramen.
Is miso bad for you?
No, miso is not bad for you. In fact, there are a few health benefits of miso such as a plethora of minerals and vitamins plus health gut bacteria. [source: BBC Good Food]
It does have somewhat high salt contents so you will want to be careful when using miso in your cooking — and keep that in mind when ordering at your favorite local ramen restaurant.
Is there gluten free ramen?
Yes! There are some, but not many, gluten-free ramen shops in Japan! Here’s a funny one named “Gluten Free Ramen.” Yes, that is its name. Here’s a link to the map so you can get directions — it’s in Chiyoda.
There are others and I will add them to TokyoSpark in the future.
Are you supposed to eat the seaweed or does it dissolve into the soup?
Yes, you eat the seaweed. It will become very soft, but I actually have never seen anyone trying to let it dissolve in the soup before eating.
There are a couple varieties of ramen where the seaweed is not the standard square sheet placed on top — rather it is ground up bits of seaweed. But even then, it isn’t dissolved into the soup, the bits are eaten.
Ramen Language Cheat Sheet
What follows is simply a list of words in English and their Japanese counterpart. With one thing to note: some will have kanji, some won’t. This is because while the word may have kanji, the Japanese don’t use them regularly.
Words (in alphabetical order)
- Bamboo – めんま (menma)
- Bean Sprouts – もやし (moyashi)
- Braised Pork – チャーシュー (chashu)
- Butter – バター (batā)
- Corn – コーン (kon)
- Garlic – ニンニク (ninniku)
- Green Onions- ねぎ (Negi)
- Noodles – 麺 (men)
- Pork Bone Broth – 豚骨 (tonkotsu)
- Ramen – ラーメン (ra-men)
- Salt – しお (shio)
- Seaweed – のり (nori)
- Small (mini) – ミニ (mi-ni)
- Soybean Paste – 味噌 (miso)
- Soy Sauce – しょゆ (shoyu)
- Thick Noodle – 太麺 (futomen)
- Thin Noodle – 細麺 (hosomen)
- Ticket – 切符 (kippu)
- Can I get a small portion? Do you have a mini size? — This is actually easier than you might think, say “mini saizu arimasu ka?” (me-ni sa-E-zoo ah-lee-ma-sue ka)
- Do you have a loyalty card? — This is asked by asking if the shop has a stamp card, say “stampu kado arimasu ka?” (su-ta-m-pu ka-doe ah-lee-ma-sue ka)
- Do you have spicy miso? — Some shops will have a signature spicy dish and to ask if they have something spicy say: “karai miso ramen arimasu ka?” (ka-la-E me-so la-men ah-lee-ma-sue ka)
- Is takeout available? — Put your finger on the menu item you want and say “kore wa mochikaeri dekimasu ka?” (koh-ley wa moe-chee-ka-e-lee de-key-ma-sue ka)
My Favorite Local Place
Are you in the Western suburbs of Tokyo? If so, there’s this awesome little tonkotsu ramen shop called Hopu-Ken in Musashimurayama that I’m sure you’d enjoy.
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