More than just a meal in 3 minutes, Ramenラーメン has taken the world by storm! But how much do you know about this famous Japanese dish? Read this Japanese Ramen Guide to test your knowledge. Also, don’t miss our recommendations for the best ramen shops 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 have popped up around the world such as Ippudo and Ichiran. Non-Japanese chefs, such as David Chang and Ivan Orkin, have popularized ramen in the US, while many Japanese ramen chefs have ventured abroad to share their perfected ramen dishes.
While you may happily (or grudgingly) go out of your way to plonk $15 for a bowl of ramen outside of Japan, here in the home country, ramen is soul food, drunken food, fast food.
There are of course ramen shops awarded with Michelin stars and basked in media glory, but there are many more shops hidden behind train stations and department buildings, tucked in inconspicuous streets, or sandwiched among rows of food stalls, where salarymen and 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.
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, but nonetheless, here is a start to get you drooling and dreaming of your next ramen adventure.
At the end of this Japanese Ramen Guide, you will find ramen shop recommendations in the Tokyo area.
Japanese Ramen Guide
What is Ramen?
Ramen (ラーメン) is a Japanese adaptation of the Chinese Lamian (拉麺). To call it “ramen,” it must consist of wheat noodles and a soup. While there are several contested theories on how and when it originally arrived to Japan, ramen has always been cheap and filling, the food of champions for blue-collar workers.
In this Japanese ramen guide we won’t go into the details of ramen deviations such as Tsukemen つけ麺 (ramen with dipping broth), Hiyashi Chuka 冷やし中華 (cold ramen), Abura Soba 油そば (soupless ramen tossed with oil based dressing) among others, as the realm of ramen is far too vast to be compiled into one article. Instead, we’ll discuss the types of ramen based on 3 main components: broth flavors, noodles, and toppings.
Types of Ramen based on Broth Flavors, Noodles & Toppings
Ramen Broth Flavors
The 3 main 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 own ratio of umami-rich ingredients to the broth, such as dried kelp or seafood, animal bones, charred vegetables, or aromatics.
Why no Tonkotsu (とんこつ) or Tori Paitan (鶏白湯)? They are broth bases, not flavors. Tonkotsu is a pork bone broth. Tori Paitan is a chicken bone broth, seasoned with salt, soy sauce and other seasonings, and simmered for hours with aromatics to extract the collagen from the bones.
As Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats wonderfully 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 the saltiest of them all and the lightest in terms of oil as it is boiled down to concentrate the flavor.
Not just your table soy sauce, shoyu ramen is usually made from the shop’s blend of secret ingredients. Depending on what else is 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.
Check out the JOC recipe for Spicy Shoyu Ramen
The most umami rich of the three ramens and also 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 different miso ramen broths as there are miso (the paste).
Check out the JOC recipe for Vegetarian Miso Ramen
Those eggy yellow 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 comes in various shapes and lengths: thick, thin, wavy, straight. Some shops churn out their noodles in-house while others outsource their supply.
A pizza without toppings is delicious on its own, but ramen without toppings is a lonely bowl of noodles! Ramen toppings range from blanched vegetables and seasonings to hearty cuts of meat and thick sauces, which are quickly topped right before serving.
Different from the Chinese char siu, Japanese chashu (transliteration of char siu) omits the roasting and instead simmers the meat block for hours in a sweet soy sauce. Chashu are usually served sliced, but some places torch the meat until crispy and cut the meat into cubes.
Check out the JOC recipe for Chashu
Menma are lacto-fermented bamboo shoots, which are usually imported from China. Light brown in color, 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 in front of you. Wakame is another type of seaweed that’s most likely in miso or shio ramen. If you want to learn more about seaweed, check out this post on the blog.
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 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 (also known by its shortened name 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 are characterized by the custardy creamy yolks.
Best Ramen Shops in Tokyo
Google “best ramen in Tokyo” or scroll through Instagram and you’ll get a never ending list of ramen places recommended by food bloggers, celebrity chefs, and locals! The list is endless and perhaps overwhelming (although drooling over food photos never gets old) as there are thousands of shops around town. To get you started on the search for your favorite bowl, I’ve compiled a list of ramen shops along with their specialty.
Following with the theme of this ramen post, I’ve categorized the recommendations based on broth flavors. Check out my three 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)
It seems like there’s always a line at Afuri, regardless of the time. If you’re a big fan of yuzu, you’ll be delighted by the kick of citrus in the light chicken-based broth. Make sure to order the pork chashu on the side – it’s chargrilled to order.
Afuri has many shops around Tokyo (you can even find one in Portland!) 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. Also a favorite of David Chang and Dominique Ansel.
- 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 omits the fanfare, despite receiving ‘Bib Gourmand’ nod in 2015 by the Michelin Guide, along with countless other awards. But the shoyu ramen itself 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 still many good miso ramen shops to explore. Ramen Dining Do Miso specializes in kotteri (thick opaque soup base) that’ll hit your cravings for a hearty bowl – and may leave you in a happy food coma.
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.
Did You Enjoy this Japanese Ramen Guide?
Kayoko happily grew up in the urban jungle of Tokyo and in the middle of nowhere East Coast, U.S. After a brief stint as a gelato scooper and a slightly longer employment at an IT company, she decided to drop her cushy job to enroll in culinary school. Kayoko resides in Tokyo with her husband, a penguin pillow, and many half-dead plants. More from Kayoko →