Ramen Crash Course

Ramen is a Japanese noodle soup dish that has Chinese origins. Ramen can be found all over Japan with each region have its own style of ramen. The four main soup bases for ramen are shoyu, shio, tonkotsu, and miso. These days, many places use a combination of the various soup bases. Toppings vary depending on soup bases and also region. For example, fried garlic bits are popular in Kumamoto style ramen. Hakata style ramen top their bowls with beni-shoga. Hokkaido is famous for their butter corn ramen. The same can be said for noodle type. They can be thin or thick, straight or crinkly, chewy or al dente.

Below are some ramen terms, separated by categories.

Soup

Assari あっさり – Asari means “light”. Basically, the thickness of the soup. Assari soups are more light and less oily. Shoyu and shio ramen are usually assari.

Kotteri こってり – Kotteri means “thickness”. Basically, the thickness of the soup. Kotteri soup are more thick, fatty, chunky, etc. Most tonkotsu are kotteri.

Miso 味噌 – Miso is fermented soybean paste that’s used in seasoning food, sauces, soups, etc. Miso paste is mixed with some stock for this soup base. Miso is the relative newcomer. Which I find interesting since miso is a Japanese staple. There’s already miso soup, so why did it take someone so long to figure out that they could add it into ramen too?! Sorry. Tangent. It can also come in the form of spicy miso. Miso ramen originated from Hokkaido.

Niboshi 煮干し – Niboshi are dried baby sardines. This soup base is usually on the assari side. The soups can be anywhere from a little hint of the sardines or really fishy.

Torigara 鶏ガラ – This soup base is made from chicken bones. Basically, chicken broth. It doesn’t have as much depth as tonkotsu but it isn’t as oily/fatty.

Shio 塩 – Shio means “salt” in Japanese. So this soup base is made from salt mixed with stock. Despite its name, it’s not necessarily salty. It’s usually light and very clear in appearance. While it doesn’t taste like Cantonese noodle soups, its appearance resemble Cantonese noodle soup bases (think wonton noodle soup).

Shoyu 醤油 – Shoyu means “soy sauce” in Japanese. Shoyu is, you guessed it, a mixture of soy sauce and stock. Common toppings tend to be nori, bean sprouts, naruto, and menma.

Tonkotsu 豚骨 – Not to be mistaken for tonkatsu, which is deep-fried pork cutlets. Tonkotsu is a soup base made from boiling down pork bones for hours to create a thick and heavy stock. Depending on the restaurant, some tonkotsu places let you choose or will ask you if you prefer assari or kotteri. Also depending on the place, it can smell pretty bad. It’s a specialty of Kyushu (the southern most of the four main islands of Japan). Especially Fukuoka, most notably, Hakata in Fukuoka.

Noodles

Hakata-style noodles – Hakata has their own style of noodles. They’re thin and straight. Thinner than even regular thin ramen noodles. They’re also more pale than regular ramen noodles which are more on the yellow side.

Noodle firmness – Most places don’t ask you for your noodle firmness preference, but Hakata-style ramen places do. Some places might have their own variations on the terms, but below are the basic terms.
Barikata バリカタ – More firm (al dente)
Katame かため – Firm
Futsu 普通 – Normal
Yawarakame やわらかめ – Soft. What’s wrong with you?!!

Toppings

Beni-shoga 紅生姜 – Beni-shoga are thin strips of pickled ginger. You know, the pink thing you take off of your Yoshinoya beef bowls. They’re usually found in Hakata-style ramen.

Chashu チャーシュー – Ah, the quentissential ramen topping. Sliced braised pork belly. It can be sliced thinly or thick. Lean or fatty. Tender or more on the “firm” side. The best chashu, IMO, are more fatty and melt-in-your-mouth.

Menma メンマ – Menma are fermented bamboo shoots. Usually, they come in uniform block shapes. They’re usually firm and a little pungent (ever so slightly).

Moyashi もやし – Japanese for bean sprouts. Usually found as a topping on shoyu ramen. Adds a “crunch” texture to the ramen.

Naruto ナルと – Not to be confused with the anime character Naruto. Naruto is a sliced white fish cake that has a pink swirl in the middle. However, both get their name from the Naruto Whirlpools. Other than color, it doesn’t add much to the ramen, IMO. It’s too small and thin and bland to make a difference.

Nori のり – Nori is a sheet of dried seaweed/laver. You know, the thing you wrap sushi in. Some places brand their restaurant’s name on their nori. A nice presentation.

Wakame ワカメ – Wakame is a type of edible seaweed. While nori is dry, wakame is wet. It can impart a little taste of the sea to the ramen.

Wood ear – Kikurage 木耳 in Japanese. Wood ear is a black edible fungus. Usually cut into thin strips in ramen. It’s usually found more in Chinese cuisine than in Japanese. I like them because they give a nice “crunch” texture to the ramen. I’ve only seem them in Kumamoto style ramen.

Variations

Abura-soba 油そば – “Oil-noodles”. Not to be confused with actual soba (buckwheat) noodles. In this context, “soba” just means “noodles”. It’s a soupless ramen dish. The noodles and ingredients sit on top of some kind of sauce. You then mix everything together when you’re about to eat. True to its name, the sauce is mixed with oil.

Chuka soba 中華そば – “Chinse noodles.” Not to be confused with actual soba (buckwheat) noodles. In this context, “soba” just means “noodles”. It’s basically ramen. I think it’s ramen with Chinese-style noodles. It’s usually shoyu based ramen. I’m not entirely sure on the semantics.

Maze-soba まぜそば – “Mix(ed)-noodles.” Not to be confused with actual soba (buckwheat) noodles. In this context, “soba” just means “noodles”. Very similar abura-soba. But while abura-soba‘s sauce is oil-based, maze-soba isn’t. Usually, the sauce is more thick and condensed.

Reimen 冷麺 – Not to be confused with a misspelling of ramen. Reimen means “cold/chilled noodles.” It’s a soupless cold ramen dish with complimentary ice cubes. Usually served only during the summer time. Only some places have reimen on their menu.

Tsuke-men つけ麺 – Dipping noodles. A noodle dish where the noodles are separated from the broth. The noodles are dipped into the broth. The noodles tend to be more thick and chewy and the broth more thick and concentrated.

Condiments

Kosho こしょう – Pepper. Usually white pepper. Usually found in shoyu ramen places or for the fried rice.

Ichimi 一味 – Literally “one flavor.” Basically, chili powder. To be used with the gyoza sauce, to taste. It’s usually seen more often as a condiment at udon and soba shops than at ramen shops.

Mayu マー油 – Toasted/burnt sesame and burnt garlic oil. It gives the ramen a nice toasty garlicy aroma. If you see it, most likely it’s Kumamoto-style ramen.

Rayu ラー油 – Chinese chili oil. It’s barely spicy. It’s not meant to be used in the ramen. To be used with the gyoza sauce, to taste. However, if the in-house rayu looks even remotely spicy, I put that on everything and anything.

Shichimi 七味 – Literally “seven flavors.” A blend of chili powder, sesame seeds, ground nori, etc. To be used with the gyoza sauce, to taste. It’s usually seen more often as a condiment at udon and soba shops than at ramen shops.

Sides

Chahan チャーハン – Fried rice. Some places called their fried rice chahan (from Chinese naming), others called it yaki-meshi (Japanese naming). I’m not entirely sure if there is an actual difference.

Gyoza ギョウザ – Potstickers. Pan-fried dumplings.

Kara’age 唐揚げ – Bite-sized fried chicken. The batter can range from thin to crispy.

Yaki-meshi 焼きめし – Fried rice. Some places called their fried rice chahan (from Chinese naming), others called it yaki-meshi (Japanese naming). I’m not entirely sure if there is an actual difference.

Regional Styles

Hakata ramen – Hakata take their ramen serious, yo! With each order, they ask you for your preference. You should be insulted if they don’t ask you. Noodles – soft, normal, firm? Soup base – thin, thick? Maybe even ask you your preference for the saltiness and fattiness level. I find it simply amazing how the cooks keep track of everyone’s preferences and each person’s noodle cooking times all in their heads. Hakata ramen are tonkotsu with Hakata-style thin straight noodles. Their tonkotsu is usually off-white color. Usual toppings are chashu, beni-shoga, lots of sliced green onions, and sesame seeds. Another Hakata custom is the staff announces everything. They shout out as customers come in and leave, shout out the orders, shout out when someone asks for the bill, etc. And the rest of the staff shouts back the confirmations.

Hokkaido butter corn ramen – Hokkaido is known for its agriculture. Famous for its butter and its corn. So why not add both into their ramen. The butter gives the ramen soup a nice richness while the corn gives it a nice sweetness when you chew them.

Kumamoto ramen – While Hakata is the most famous tonkotsu ramen, I actually like Kumamoto (tonkotsu) ramen much better. Why? Because they love their garlic. And so do I. Also, I don’t like Hakata-style noodles. They’re too thin for my personal tastes. Usual toppings for Kumamoto ramen are fried garlic bits and/or fried garlic chips, wood ear, and maybe even some some garlic oil or mayu. Common condiments are sesame seeds and minced garlic.

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