A tangle of noodles, heady broth, tender strips of pork belly—these are some of the staples of Japanese ramen. And it’s definitely not the ramen you ate in college.
For starters, like other Japanese cuisine, authentic ramen is both a culinary and aesthetic endeavor.
“Ramen is a newer art form than sushi or soba or tempura,” said Chef Shin Thompson of Chicago’s Furious Spoon. “Those art forms have been around for hundreds of years, so people can say, ‘This is what’s good.’ With ramen, that’s not the case.”
That attention to aesthetics can be found throughout the dish. And with options that go beyond chicken, beef, and spicy chicken, choosing components for a bowl of ramen can be a dizzying experience. We’ll break them down for you.
The BrothThat stuff you had in college? Savory Kool-Aid. Authentic ramen’s broth is far more flavorful. The most common ramen broth is tonkotsu, whose rich, creamy texture is made by steeping pork bones until their marrow is extracted. More modern takes on broth include chicken- and veggie-based versions.The SeasoningRamen bowls can be made with unseasoned tonkotsu, or chefs can change things up with tare, which Shin translated as “flavoring.” Shoyu flavoring uses a soy-sauce base, whereas a richer, darker miso-based broth creates a heartier bowl. The lightest flavoring is sea-salt-based shio. The Noodles“I prefer my noodles to have more of a bite,” Shin said. And he’s not alone. Good noodles turn to mush minutes after they’re added to the broth, so you won’t find ramen bowls for takeout at serious ramen shops. That’s also why slurping is a sign of appreciation—you’re eating that bowl quickly to enjoy it at its best. The Fat“This is what most Americans aren’t too familiar with,” Shin said. Chefs add fat to ramen broth so it sticks to the noodles. Lard is most commonly used, as is the case at Furious Spoon, with the exception of its veggie broth, which opts for garlic oil.
The ToppingsToppings are never carelessly thrown into a bowl of ramen. Rather, chefs meticulously arrange them, paying particular attention to the interplay of texture, flavor, and aesthetics. Chashu, thin-sliced braised pork belly, provides the dish with a tender, buttery texture. Fermented bamboo, or menma, and pickled mushrooms add a refreshing zing. Bean sprouts, green onions, and red cabbage lend the meal its crunch and color. Other common toppings include deep-green strips of nori, poached egg, and the pink-and-white swirl of naruto, or fish cake.
These ingredients are the foundation of ramen bowls, but it’s chefs’ special touches that make the bowls unique. For example, Furious Spoon uses the machine Chef Shin transported from Osaka, Japan, to make its noodles each day. In addition, the chef heats up his signature bowl of ramen with a fiery blend of habaneros and chilies he’s dubbed Fury Sauce.
But he still sticks to tradition in many ways, whether it’s the chopsticks sitting at every table or his cardinal rule: never pack a bowl to go. You’ll have to slurp it down right then and there. Photos by Andrew Nawrocki, GrouponTake a look at these guides to improve your Japanese dining experience:Six Rules for Sipping Sake
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