Like other famous preparations that started local and went global, you can practically consider ramen its own food group. Similar to how India contributed her curry and Italy bequeathed the beloved pizza, Japan gifted her ramen and its elegant simplicity to the world culinary canon.
But ramen’s simplicity belies its complicated classifications. Ramen can fall into categories defined by seasoning, broth, heaviness and even shop — eat at enough ramen-ya, or eateries that specialize in ramen, and you’ll find the same ramen tastes slightly different at each. Combine the authenticity you get from a good ramen-ya with your own style and make your own quality ramen at home by starting with a luxurious broth.
Quality ramen starts, and some say ends, with the broth. You have four main types of ramen broth: shoyu (soy sauce), miso (fermented soybean paste and sake lees), shio (salt) and tonkotsu (pork bone), the only genuine “broth” of the four in the true sense of the word. Like a cross between a rich pork stock and pork gravy, tonkotsu broth combines creamy and lush mouthfeels with a staggering amount of umami and heartiness.
Making your own tonkotsu broth costs little more than time — you can find pork bones and fatback for next to nothing at most butcher shops. It takes about 18 hours to render as much fat, protein and calcium as possible from the ingredients, so expect one to two days of cooking time.
Shoyu, shio and miso broth take under 30 minutes to make but you need chicken stock and dashi on hand. If you don’t have chicken stock or dashi and don’t have time make your own, you can use the low-sodium or sodium-free varieties found in most supermarkets. Lower sodium broths give you more control over the seasoning.
Now the fun starts. At this point you have a creamy, rich broth packed with umami, but no seasoning. First, bring as much broth as you will use to a low simmer in a saucepan.
Add salt or Japanese soy sauce for a baseline seasoning. Use both, if desired, but always season to taste, a little at a time. It’s better to under-season than over-season — you can always add more seasoning, but you can never take too much away.
Next, add secondary flavorings. Chili oil for a little heat, a touch of freshly grated garlic or a few drops of black garlic (mayu) for pungency and sesame oil for a complex, roasted flavor make a good start. Consider dicing and adding the reserved fatback, too.
Prepare the toppings. Listing all the possible ramen ingredients would prove impractical. Instead of following a list, follow a few guidelines to make the perfect bowl for you.
- Consider textural contrast. For crunch, try chopped and roasted peanuts, menma, a fermented Japanese variety of bamboo shoots, or kimchi. For a unique, snappy element, add sliced cloud’s ear mushrooms (ara-ge-ki-kurage).
- Add freshness. Fresh, green ingredients like scallions, baby spinach and microgreens amp up ramen’s aesthetic appeal and inject it with vibrancy.
- Choose a main ingredient. If you’re into seafood, glutamate-rich sakura ebi, also called cherry blossom shrimp, are a fabulous addition you can find in most Asian food stores, as are mussels, squid and salmon roe. Meat lovers can’t go wrong with shredded beef from braised short ribs or roasted duck.
- Be resourceful. Don’t hesitate to scour your fridge for leftovers or for that little something you don’t have enough of to make a full meal but would fit perfectly in your bowl.
Go with the pros when it comes to ramen noodles. Achieving the delightful texture of a quality ramen noodle isn’t possible with home equipment. That said, you have a few choices out there.
Sun Noodle produces over 100 types of fresh noodles, and makes custom noodles for the top ramen-ya around the world. You can buy Sun Noodle ramen noodles in well-stocked supermarkets and Asian specialty stores. To cook fresh ramen noodles, simmer them in the broth for about two minutes.
Myojo Chukazanmai produces the more familiar dehydrated block of noodles similar to those you can buy at supermarket for less than a dollar — with one major difference. Common supermarket noodles undergo a simultaneous frying-dehydrating process. On the other hand, Myojo Chukazanmai’s noodles undergo air-drying, which makes a substantial difference in taste and texture. Air-dried ramen noodles about four minutes to cook.
Add the cooked noodles and broth to your bowl, then add the toppings. Heat the ingredients that need heated, such as beef, separately before adding them. Don’t pile the ingredients haphazardly. Instead, take a classic Japanese approach to plating and arrange the ingredients separately and neatly, with an eye to aesthetics.
Like shaved truffles and those brilliant jewel-like edible flowers you find on oh-so-many dishes coming out of gourmet kitchens, you can consider ajitsuke tamago, the famed Japanese marinated soft-boiled egg, a luxury food garnish when it comes to ramen. Savory and umami-rich, ajitsuke tamago are the crowning jewel of a well-made bowl of ramen.
Just before serving, or eating, your ramen, slice an ajitsuke tamago in half from top to bottom and set it yolk-side up in the bowl. The yolk makes an amazing secondary sauce that bolsters the creaminess of the broth.