More than just a meal in 3 minutes, Ramen has taken the world by storm! But how much do you know about this famous Japanese dish? Also, don’t miss our recommendations for ramen shops recommendations in Tokyo!
Ramen, ramen, ramen…Where to begin on those bright yellow noodles in a lip-smacking pool of savory deliciousness?
Ramen has become ubiquitous, from instant packets to formal dining. Japanese ramen chains, such as Ippudo and Ichiran have expanded globally and pushed the standard of quality Japanese ramen. David Chang and Ivan Orkin have popularized ramen in the U.S. with their endeavors, while many Japanese ramen chefs have ventured abroad to share their perfected ramen dishes.
In this Japanese ramen guide, we won’t go into ramen deviations such as Tsukemen, Hiyashi Chuka, Maze Soba, and Abura Soba. The realm of ramen is far too vast to compile into one article! Instead, we’ll discuss the types of ramen based on three main components: broth flavors, noodles, and toppings.
At the end of this Japanese Ramen Guide, you will find ramen shop recommendations in the Tokyo area.
Table of contents
What is Ramen?
Ramen (ラーメン) is a Japanese adaptation of the Chinese Lamian (拉麺), long wheat noodles. While there are several theories on how and when it arrived in Japan, ramen has always been cheap and filling, the food of champions for blue-collar workers.
There are, of course, ramen shops awarded with Michelin stars and basked in media glory. But there are countless more shops hidden behind train stations and department buildings, tucked in inconspicuous alleyways, or sandwiched among rows of food stalls. Fatigued office workers and hungry students, the old and the young, men and women press against each other at the counter, facing the bustling kitchen as their meal is prepared. Ramen is soul food and fast food in the home country.
From broth to noodles to toppings, ramen varies based on region and specialties. It is near impossible to scratch the surface to compile a comprehensive guide to ramen in a single post, but here is a start to get you drooling and dreaming of your next ramen adventure.
For more on the history and evolution, check out the Cup Noodle Museum, Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum in Yokohama, NYU professor George Solt’s research, or this post by Kenji López-Alt.
Types of Ramen
Ramen Broth Flavors
The three primary broth flavors of ramen are Shio (塩), Shoyu (醤油), and Miso (味噌). These are also the building blocks that ramen shops use to develop flavors. This is where shops become creative and secret recipes are born. Ramen masters add their ratio of umami-rich ingredients to the broth, such as dried seaweed, seafood, animal bones, charred vegetables, lard and fats, and aromatics.
What About Tonkotsu, Tori Paitan, and Niboshi?
Where do Tonkotsu (豚骨), Tori Paitan (鶏白湯), and Niboshi (煮干し) fall in the list? Tonkotsu is a pork bone broth, and Tori Paitan is a chicken bone broth, but they are not flavors. While some ramen experts categorize tonkotsu as a separate category, tonkotsu and tori paitan use shio or shoyu as a base broth flavor, then add that milky soup made from boiling the bones for hours.
Niboshi is dried anchovy broth with a cloudy grayish color due to the anchovy particles. It has a strong fishy flavor that some may find offputting, which is why it has not gained international attention like tonkotsu. Like tonkotsu, the base is shio or shoyu.
As Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats summarizes in this article on why tonkotsu is not listed as a broth flavor, “It’s sort of like saying “there are four basic types of pizza: Neapolitan, Sicilian, New York, and pepperoni.”
Light colored to the point of almost translucent, shio ramen is salt-based ramen broth. It’s also the lightest in terms of oil as it is boiled down to concentrate the flavor. Ramen shops would then dress up the broth with additions such as chicken, seafood, seaweed, and pork bones.
Check out the JOC recipe for Shio Ramen
Not your table soy sauce, shoyu ramen is usually made from the shop’s blend of secret ingredients. Depending on what is additionally swirled into the broth, it could partake a clear brown color that’s light on the tongue or a dark cloudy color that’s dense and thick.
In Tokyo, shoyu ramen is an old-school classic that reminds many of mom’s homemade ramen or that non-descript ramen shop from childhood.
Check out the JOC recipe for Spicy Shoyu Ramen
The most umami-rich of the three ramen and the heaviest, miso ramen has a bolder and more complex flavor. Miso ramen originates from the northern island of Hokkaido, but its popularity has spread across the country, where there are as many miso ramen broths as there is miso.
Check out the JOC recipe for Miso Ramen
Those eggy yellow ramen noodles consist of four ingredients: wheat flour, salt, water, and kansui (a type of alkaline mineral water).
While the vivid color may trick you into thinking eggs are involved, the color is due to the mineral composition of kansui. It can be thick, thin, wavy, and straight. Some shops churn out their noodles in-house, while others outsource their supply.
A pizza without toppings is delicious, but ramen without toppings is a lonely bowl of noodles! Ramen toppings range from blanched vegetables, hearty cuts of meat and seafood, and thick sauces quickly topped right before serving.
Unlike the Chinese char siu, Japanese chashu (transliteration of char siu) omits the roasting and simmers the meat block for hours in a sweet soy sauce. Chashu is usually served sliced, but some torch the meat until crispy and cut the meat into cubes.
Check out the JOC recipe for Chashu
Menma is seasoned lacto-fermented bamboo shoots. Light brown, they are long brown strips with a texture between crunchy and fibrous.
Seaweed: Nori 海苔, Wakame わかめ
You may see sheets of nori in your bowl, slightly soggy by the time the bowl arrives. Wakame is another type of seaweed that’s most likely in miso or shio ramen. They add texture and an ocean-y saltiness.
To learn more about seaweed, read Discover Seaweed: The Essential Ingredient of the Japanese Diet.
Bean Sprouts もやし
The bean sprouts in ramen are precooked, either blanched or stir-fried (unlike in Vietnamese pho where it is topped raw to be “cooked” in the hot broth). Not only does it bulk up the dish, but the crunchy texture is a palate cleanser between each bite of savory noodles.
Check out the JOC recipe for Spicy Bean Sprouts
Eggs are a must in a bowl of ramen, whether whole or sliced in half, seasoned or plain, soft-boiled or firm. Ajitsuke Tamago 味付け卵 (shortened to Ajitama 味玉) are marinated eggs in soy sauce and mirin. Hanjyuku Tamago 半熟卵 are soft-boiled eggs. Both Ajitsuke Tamago and Hanjyuku Tamago have custardy creamy yolks.
Check out the JOC recipe for Ajitama and Hajyuku Tamago
Best Ramen Shops in Tokyo
Since writing this post in 2017, the ramen scene in Tokyo has dramatically changed, making way for new styles and fusions, offering gluten-free and allergen-free options, and welcoming the hungry tourist crowd. It’s hard to keep up with the changing ramen scene!
Following the theme of this ramen post, I’ve categorized the recommendations based on broth flavors. Check out my favorite ramen shops in Tokyo, and I hope to rub elbows at the counter with you someday!
- Menya Kaijin 麺屋 海神
- RECOMMENDED: Arataki Shio Ramen (あら炊き塩らあめん)
- Taishio Soba Touka 鯛塩そば 灯花
- RECOMMENDED: Taishio Soba (鯛塩そば)
- Afuri 阿夫利
- RECOMMENDED: Shio Ramen (塩ラーメン), Yuzu Shio Ramen (柚子塩ラーメン), Ooba Kaoru Ume Shio Ramen (大葉香る梅塩そば)
Regardless of the time, there’s always a line at Afuri. If you’re a big fan of yuzu, you’ll be delighted by the citrus kick in the light chicken-based broth. Make sure to order the pork chashu on the side – it’s chargrilled to order. They also offer a vegan bowl that’s hearty and delicious.
Afuri has many shops around Tokyo, so it’s not difficult to head to the nearest one. They are open until midnight to quell a hungry stomach before catching the last train.
- Konjiki Hototogisu 金色不如帰
- RECOMMENDED: Soba (Shoyu) そば (醤油)
- Kiraku 喜楽
- RECOMMENDED: Chukamen (中華麺), Char siu wonton men (チャーシューワンタン麺)
- Isshin 維新
- RECOMMENDED: Toku Shoyu Ramen (特醤油らぁ麺)
You never know what good ramen is until you compare it to a mediocre one. That’s how I feel, especially with simple no-frills shoyu ramen.
The interior and exterior of Ishin in Tokyo omit the fanfare, despite receiving many awards and accolades. But the shoyu ramen is nothing but; a silky smooth and clear shoyu soup so good that you will drink every last drop.
- Ichifuku 一福
- RECOMMENDED: Miso Ramen (味噌らぁめん)
- Ramen Dining Do Miso らーめんダイニング ど・みそ
- RECOMMENDED: Toku Miso Kotteri Ramen (特みそこってりラーメン), Toku Shiro Miso Kotteri Ramen (特白みそこってりラーメン)
While shio and shoyu dominate the ramen scene of Tokyo, there are many good miso ramen shops. Ramen Dining Do Miso specializes in kotteri (thick opaque soup base) that’ll hit your cravings for a hearty bowl and leave you in a happy food coma.
Instead of heading off to a particular ramen shop, why not eat your way through the different styles and varieties of ramen steps away from each other? Check out “ramen streets,” featuring popular ramen shop outposts, an easy way to slurp multiple bowls without running around town.
Tokyo Ramen Street 東京ラーメンストリート
Conveniently located outside the ticket gate of Tokyo station, the biggest train hub in Tokyo, Tokyo Ramen Street hosts seven ramen shops from around the country, plus a popup shop that changes every 101 days. It’s a worthy detour even if you’re not traveling through the station!
KITTE Ramen Battleground KITTE ラーメン激戦区
Another ramen street in a building across from Tokyo station is the KITTE Ramen Battleground, featuring five ramen shops. It gets crowded during office workers’ lunch and dinner hours, so avoid peak hours. There’s an outpost of Tomita Ramen, of the documentary Ramen Head fame.
Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum 新横浜ラーメン博物館
A ramen-themed amusement park, eat, learn, and make ramen at Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum. It also offers ramen-making lessons (advanced reservation necessary, see website for details) if you’re curious to learn more. The ramen shops also offer half-size portions, so you can easily work your way through the lineup.
Did You Enjoy this Japanese Ramen Guide?
We hope this article has stirred your curiosity and your senses! Share with us your favorite ramen shops (doesn’t have to be in Tokyo) in the comment box below.