Ramen Guide: Everything You Need to Know About Ramen
Welcome to another JAPAN LIFESTYLE GUIDE, courtesy of DISCOVER DEEP JAPAN! Occasionally we like to take a break from weightier life topics to inform you about things that may well be equally important to your journey in Japan. Naturally you need to eat while you’re here, right? Unless you live smack dab in the middle of Shinjuku or Roppongi, chances are that you aren’t surrounded exclusively by familiar comforts and all-English menus.
Let’s talk ramen!
Today, our topic is ramen! For some, ramen is not just simple sustenance, but a way of life. Entire magazines are devoted to finding the best bowl of noodles, and restaurants like the ever-popular Ramen Jiro regularly have lines around the block. Let’s learn about how you can get the best ramen experience possible.
What is ramen, anyway?
Whether it be calledラーメンorらーめんor even “larmen,” you will likely be enjoying the same bowl of noodles. There is also chuuka soba, a term that, despite the name, has nothing to do with soba noodles, and these days tends to be used interchangeably with regular ol’ ramen. Reimen, despite sounding similar, is actually Korean in origin (where it is known as “naengmyeon”) and different because of the noodles, which may be made from potato or arrowroot starch instead of buckwheat. They also tend to be somewhat spicy, and are usually served cold. Then there’s hiyashi chuuka, which is said to have originated in Sendai, and is ramen minus the soup, which is served cold and resembles something of a Japanese pasta salad in its presentation. It’s also typically only served in summer.
Flavor of ramen, flavor of love
So, once you determine you are in fact eating ramen, is all ramen built the same? Not at all! Ramen is typically distinguished by the base ingredient for the soup, of which the main flavors are: shoyu (soy sauce), miso, tonkotsu (pork bone), shio (salt), as well as lesser- known flavors like niboshi, (a soup flavored with dried sardines) chicken, or shrimp. When people think of typical “ramen taste” it usually refers to shoyu or tonkotsu ramen, or a mix of the two. Obviously, shoyu ramen has a taste reminiscent of soy sauce, and tonkotsu ramen is not recommended if you are vegetarian or kosher / halal. Shio ramen usually has a lighter flavor that won’t leave you feeling as full afterwards. Miso ramen is considered by some to be the only “true” Japanese ramen, as it originated in Hokkaido, but it tends to be more strongly flavored with a thicker, creamier broth, a style similar to paitan. Those that like it usually prefer it above all other types of ramen (like me), while others won’t go anywhere near it.
Ramen shops can seem peculiar as far as ordering is concerned. Often it is not simply the case of looking at a menu and pressing a button, or ordering off a tablet. Instead, it can sometimes feel like you are speaking a different language as you choose your ramen, size and toppings. For example, hosomen are thin noodles while futomen are wide. Ramen typically includes vegetables like onions and menma (fermented bamboo shoots), but if you want extra you may hear someone use the term “mashi.” Otherwise, having everything be “futsu” is perfectly fine and won’t result in you being banished from the shop. Say katame for firmer noodles, while yawarakame is the opposite.
Japan is sometimes known as a country of strict manners, and eating ramen is no exception! You are unlikely to encounter many Soup Nazis when ordering this particular bowl of soup, however some owners do have a reputation for a certain strictness. Aside from how you order, basic good manners apply: when you finish your ramen put the bowl back on the upper portion of the counter, wipe down your area, and don’t forget to slurp your noodles! Ramen tends to be thought of as Japanese fast food, if only because most people eat fast! This does have a certain practicality, however, as your noodles will get soggy if you take too long to eat them. For this reason some people prefer tsukemen, where the noodles are served separately and are dipped into the soup.
A few humble recommendations from your friends at DDJ
So where is the best place to eat ramen? Judging from popularity alone, you may think it was Ramen Jiro, a chain which has become rather infamous in recent years. They have gotten a lot of exposure lately due to their massive portions of especially fatty and meaty ramen, as well as their dedicated fanbase, known affectionately as “Jirorians.” Though they may be able to go to their local Jiro regularly, for many Jiro is something of a novelty, and they usually only go once, with a story to tell for a lifetime.
Many ramen shops will serve a variety of flavors of ramen, but it is common for the best places to specialize in one particular flavor. Though you may need to go to Sapporo to find the most truly delicious bowls of miso ramen, one excellent choice for those in west Tokyo is Misomaru Ramen in Kunitachi. It is a particularly strongly flavored miso ramen which isn’t for everyone, but they are very generous in terms of size and cost performance.
Niboshi ramen may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Ito Ramen in Oji has won accolades from ramen publications for their niboshi chuuka soba. It is easy to miss this shop, as it is tiny and far from a train station, but the lines out the door attest to how good it is! They do tend to run out of their “niku soba” so come early if you want extra meat with your noodles.
Oreryu Ramen is known for their salt ramen, but their large menu includes many interesting ramen combinations, and everything I’ve had there was unfailingly delicious. They have a few locations, but I can specifically recommend the one close to Iidabashi station.
But really, there are simply too many amazing ramen shops to recommend. Grab yourself a copy of Ramen Walker magazine or the like and hear it from the experts themselves! Wherever your journey may take you, we hope it will be a delicious one!
There are plenty of other unique facets of Japanese foodie culture- click HERE for information on Japanese izakaya cuisine!
Ramen Walker on youtube (Some videos in English)
All about different Ramen Jiro locations in English