Japan's wonderful world of ramen
When people talk about Japanese food, ramen is usually at the top of the conversation. Tempura, sushi, sukiyaki are well-loved Japanese dishes, but for me, nothing beats a steaming bowl of ramen.
Loved by Japanese and foreigners alike, ramen is fast, tasty and reasonably priced. Growing up in Japan, I have fond memories of cooking up some instant noodles when home alone, stopping by a ramen shop with friends after junior high school baseball practice, and slurping down a tasty bowl after a night of drinking. I thank the gods for creating my beloved ramen.
Ramen, basically a bowl of noodles, vegetables, meat and broth, was introduced to Japan by the Chinese after opening its ports in 1859, according to the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum. Soon after, Chinese restaurants were commonplace on Japan’s streets. Japanese locals, fond of this bountiful bowl of goodness, began to set up their own independent ramen operations, selling noodles from carts on the street.
It took many decades to mold the dish into something distinctly Japanese. Today, there are more than 100,000 ramen shops throughout Japan.
The main difference between Japanese and Chinese ramen is the broth. While the broth used for Chinese ramen is used in other soup dishes, the Japanese create broth specifically for ramen. But ramen is extremely diverse in Japan, with noodles coming in various shapes and lengths. They may be fat, thin, flat, straight or wrinkled. Many regions of the country have invented their own unique style of ramen.
For most of Americans living in the U.S., their only contact with ramen is a cheap cup-of-noodles. But when they come to Japan, their eyes are lit by the parade of tastes and flavors that good ramen shops offer.
“The Ramen business is very diverse and chaotic now,” said Masashiro Nakano of the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum. “The mainstream now is Tsukemen and Jiro inspired ramen. More people seem to look for reasonable price large bowls of ramen.”
Nakano was quick to point out that ramen is slowly starting to make a name for itself in big cities in the U.S. and across Europe.
“A Ramen boom has started in New York and Los Angeles around 2008,” said Nakano. “It has been spreading to other states as well. L.A. has the most ramen shops with about 300. In New York, Americans started to open ramen shops after being inspired by Japanese ramen and have come up original ramen tastes geared toward Westerners.”
In Japan, most ramen shops stay open late so folks can enjoy a large bowl after a night of heavy drinking. And if you’re eating alone, ramen is ideal. Keep your head down and slurp away. You’re in japan, so it’s OK to slurp.
Noodling on Okinawa
On Okinawa, even though are more than 200 shops, the island does not have a long history with ramen. But locals have slurping down noodles for centuries, albeit “Okinawa soba.” The difference between Okinawa soba and ramen is the soba broth is clear and has a pork and bonito flake flavor, while ramen has a variety of broths.
Locals were not interested in the ramen culture before 2000, according to Ryuji Takaetsu of the Okinawan ramen shop Tsudo, which first opened in 2002 and now has five locations on Okinawa.
“There was no ramen culture on Okinawa until around 2000,” Takaetsu said. “However, the big trend of ramen in mainland Japan has slowly spread to Okinawa. Today, local people think ramen and Okinawa soba are totally different foods and are now welcoming the ramen culture.”
The owner of Tsudo opened shop on Okinawa after he was trained at the famous Tonkostsu (pork broth) ramen shop Ippudo in mainland Japan in 2000.
“The ramen shops on Okinawa are rapidly increasing,” said Takaetsu. “There are some local shops and some chain shops from mainland Japan. We are probably the first ramen shop in Okinawa to start homemade ramen. Okinawa people like to eat pork very much, so pork broth soup is popular here.”
Types of Ramen
Miso: Sometimes called “Sapporo Ramen,” it features a broth that combines large amounts of miso (soybean paste) blended with oily chicken or fish broth. Miso ramen broth is known for its robust, tangy flavor. Sapporo ramen, named after the largest city on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, usually features butter, corn, bean sprouts, ground pork and chopped garlic. The noodles are typically thick, curly and slightly chewy.
Tonkotsu ramen: This style has a cloudy soup made with a heavy dose of pork. The color can range from pale white to dark brown, depending on what ingredients are added to form the broth. Tonkotsu ramen is known for its extremely rich broth. It is originally from Kyushu.
Shoyu ramen: This style of ramen is often referred to as “Tokyo style” ramen. It features a dark, relatively light soup that derives its color from a soy sauce base. It also includes fish stock and sometimes has a strong fishy taste that can range from salty to sweet.
Tsukemen: Tsukemen is a type of ramen which noodle and soup are served separately. It is “dipping ramen.” You get a bowl of noodles and dip the noodle into the soup. The soup can be vary from shop to shop, but is pork and chicken based. Tsukemen gives you more fresh texture of noodles because they’re not soaked in the soup like other ramen.
Tomato ramen: Japanese ramen turns Italian. The broth is made from tomatoes, which gives the ramen a rich and little sour taste. Tomato ramen is considered healthier than normal ramen because there’s less salt. Popular among females, you can add cheese as a topping.
Shio ramen: Shio ramen features a thin, light soup that has a salty flavor (shio is the Japanese word for salt). The broth is made with pork but not enough to make it cloudy or thick. Shio ramen relies much more on the flavor of the condiments as the soup itself is thinner than the other types.
Jiro inspired ramen: The original Ramen Jiro shop opened in 1968 and has picked up hard core fans. And former apprentices have opened more than 30 sister branches. Each shop serves its own take of the original Jiro ramen recipe. The soup is mainly made from pork/soy sauce broth. The noodles are very thick and chewy. You can choose the fatness, amount of vegetable and the hardness of noodle. You will be surprised when you eat Jiro ramen because it’s huge. It contains a large amount of suspended fat, so this may not be something for the healthy food lover. But Jiro ramen will fill you up for sure.
A bowl of bliss
Ramen in the movies
“Tampopo (Dandelion),”a 1985 comedy dubbed the first “Japanese noodle Western,” examines the relationship between people and food through a series of vignettes revolving around the story of a widow who goes on a quest to learn how to create the perfect bowl of ramen in order to reopen a noodle restaurant. Among the stars is Ken Watanabe, now known in the U.S. for his roles in “The Last Samurai,” “Inception,” “Batman Begins” and “Letters from Iwo Jima.” Scenes from the film, subtitled in English, can be seen on YouTube.
To slurp or not to slurp
In Japan, it is not only polite but it is virtually required to slurp noodles when you eat them. First, it’s a way of bringing air into your mouth to cool off the hot noodles. Second, it enables you to have some soup at the same time, adding some flavor to the blandness of the noodles. Third, it’s hard to eat the long strands with chopsticks without slurping them up in sections (imagine eating spaghetti without twirling it on your fork). This is the case even when eating cold noodles. Irregardless of these reasons, if you ask Japanese people why they slurp their noodles, they will invariably say, “Because they taste better that way.”
How to eat ramen
Despite the Japanese penchant for establishing rules to govern every aesthetic experience, there is no “right” way to eat ramen. Some people focus on the noodles first, some on the slices of pork or vegetables, and others on the soup. There does seem to be some agreement, however, that you should not delay too long in eating the noodles because they will get too soft and cool off. The important thing is to just enjoy the food and eat it while it’s hot. For a funny take on how to eat ramen, check out the “Noodle Master Scene” from the movie “Tampopo” on YouTube.
Ramen shops in Okinawa
Tsudo, Chibana branch
The popular ramen among military community member is “Otoko” ramen (870 yen), which features a tender pork base broth. If you want something spicy, you should order extra spicy miso as a topping. They have five locations in Okinawa.
Open: 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Address: 6-10-1 Chibana, Okinawa-shi
It is located in Chibana Max Value shopping center. About a 20-minutes driving from Kadena Air Base and Camp Foster.
Stripe Noodles, Chatan
Good news for Americans. They feature a special ramen called “steak ramen” (980 yen). The steak is topped on the noodle in soy sauce base soup. If you are a vegetarian, try the tomato ramen. An English menu is available.
Open: Mon – Fri: 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. / 5:30 p.m. – 10:30 p.m., Sat & Sun: 11 a.m. – 10:30 p.m.
Address: 100 Kuwae, Chatancho, Nakagamigun
It is located on Route 58 near Kuwae bus stop. Within 15 minutes from Kadena Air Base.
Tsukemen Jinbei, Chibana
If you want to taste what tsukemen is like, this is the place. Enjoy dipping fat noodles into a thick rich pork broth soup. You may have to wait in the line because it’s a popular. And get there early because the shop closes for the day when the tsukemen is sold out.
Open: 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. (The shop is closed when it’s sold out)
Address: 5-13-18 Chibana, Okinawa-shi
It is located on Route 329 by the MOS BURGER in Chibana. Within 15 minutes driving from Kadena Air Base.
Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum
Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum in Kanagawa is a ramen-themed amusement park that offers visitors an opportunity to taste the best ramen from all over Japan. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, more than 150,000 foreign have visited, according to the museum’s website.
Entering the museum, is like entering a world ruled by ramen. You’ll likely leave with a newfound reason why ramen is so much loved by Japanese.
The interior of museum is made to resemble a small Japanese town in 1958, which is the year the instant ramen was invented. There’s a time-capsule candy shop, two old-style bars dispensing regional brands of sake, and old Japanese songs are played in the museum. With the nostalgic feel of old Japan, the main attraction is nine ramen shops from around Japan, each serving its own distinctive variety of noodles.
“The ramen museum is the place you can enjoy ramen from all over Japan in one day without catching plane,” said museum worker Keisuke Kousa. “We chose the ramen shops in the museum based on historical background of the shop, the reputation from local people, how much the shop contribute to ramen culture in Japan.”
But the museum is branching out. Muku Zeweite, a ramen shop from Germany, is open in the museum for limited time. A Japanese owner opened his original ramen shop in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2010 and ranks in the top 10 of 1,700 restaurants in Frankfurt, according to the Trip Advisor website.
In the museum, each bowl of ramen costs between 800 yen and 1,000 yen (about $8 - $10). But they also have a half size bowl for 500 yen to 600 yen so that visitors can sample more than one.
As matter of fact, I had four half-size bowls when I visited. I was stuffed, but I was happy.
The museum is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends and Japanese holidays. Tickets cost 300 yen for adults, and 100 yen for children and seniors. Once inside you can choose your noodles and side dishes by purchasing additional tickets at an individual shop’s vending machine.
Also remember that the vendors change every season. If you visit regularly you can try different shop flavors each time you go. And you have to check out the museum’s gift shop.
Access by car is easiest by heading for JR Shin-Yokohama Station, close to the huge Yokohama soccer stadium. Once you get there, you can park in the museum parking lot. Or by train, you get off at JR Shin-Yokohama Station, and it takes about 5 minutes on foot.
For more information about Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum, visit www.raumen.co.jp/ramen/