When it comes to Japanese cuisine, ramen is about as quintessential and far-reaching as it gets. Originally invented in China, ramen was introduced in Japan in the 1860s and took off from there. With such variation in everything from broth base to toppings, ordering ramen—and knowing what you’re getting!—can be a daunting task. This guide breaks down each element of the popular noodle soup so you can venture to Japan and order with confidence! Happy eating!
Shio: Shio is salty and light (almost translucent) in color. It is the least oily of the broths because it’s boiled down to concentrate the flavor.
Shoyu: This base begins with chicken broth (or sometimes pork, beef, or fish broth depending on the region) that’s then flavored with soy sauce. Shoyu can range from a light, clear brown base to a dark, cloudy color with dense flavor. This is generally the broth served when the menu does not specify base flavors.
Miso: Miso, or fermented bean paste, possesses a bold, tangy-sweet flavor. It originated in Hokkaido, where the harsh winters necessitated a hearty ramen, but it can be found almost anywhere in Japan.
Tonkotsu: This milky broth from Fukuoka is made by simmering pork bone for upwards of 8–12 hours.
Rich (kotteri) or light (assari)
Kotteri broths are thick, sticky, often opaque, and filled with emulsified fats, minerals, and proteins from boiled bones. Assari are clear and thin, generally flavored with vegetables and fish, or bones cooked for only a short period.
Ramen noodles are made of wheat flour, salt, water, and kansui—an alkaline mineral water that helps give the noodles their characteristic color and bounce. These noodles come in various shapes and lengths and chefs select them based on their springiness, texture, and ability to absorb broth.
Chashu: Blocks of pork simmered for hours in a sweet soy sauce. You’ll usually find these sliced, but some restaurants serve what’s called kakuni—pork crisped with a torch and then cut into cubes.
Menma: Light brown strips of lacto-fermented bamboo shoots. They have a nutty, slightly sweet flavor and a texture somewhere between crunchy and fibrous.
Wood ear mushrooms: Dehydrated fungi that are rehydrated and sliced for a crunchy texture and earthy flavor.
Seaweed (nori and wakame): Nori, commonly used in sushi, is served as a garnish in thin, dried sheets. Wakame is rehydrated and chopped before being added to ramen.
Moyashi: Precooked bean sprouts that are either blanched or stir-fried. Their crunchy texture serves as a palate cleanser between each bite of noodle.
Tamago: Eggs served whole or halved, soft- or hard-boiled. Hanjuku Tamago and Ajitsuke Tamago are common types, both soft-boiled, with the latter marinated in soy sauce and mirin.
Kamaboko: A cured, processed, red-and-white fish cake that comes sliced on top of seafood-flavored ramen. When it’s formed into a spiral, it’s called narutomaki—reminiscent of the whirlpools in Japan’s Naruto Strait.
Benji shoga: Bright red or pink pickled ginger sliced into thin strips.
Butter: Adds creaminess and depth.
Corn, cabbage, scallions, enoki mushrooms, grated garlic, and stir-fried vegetables are common additions to miso broths. Seafood-flavored broths often feature scallops, shrimp, mussels, and crab.
How to Order
Many establishments use the vending machine method for ordering and paying for you meal. In these cases, you purchase a meal ticket at the machine by the entrance before being seated.
How to Eat
Use chopsticks and a Chinese soup spoon for the smaller toppings and broth (though it’s perfectly acceptable to drink the soup directly from the bowl). Because the noodles get soggy quickly, they should be eaten immediately—usually within five minutes of being served. If you order ramen to go, the noodles will come on the side so you can add them when you’re ready to eat.
The slurping sound you’ll likely hear from other diners helps to cool down the ramen and enhance its flavors. You do not need to finish the entire bowl to be polite, though chefs will consider it a compliment if you do. Some restaurants will give you kaedama (an extra serving of noodles) to add to any remaining broth.
Traditional Tokyo ramen is typically a pork and chicken broth base seasoned with shoyu, with wide, slightly curly noodles. Broths are often flavored with dashi, which is made from dried, smoked bonito flakes and sea kelp.
Best Places for Ramen in Tokyo
- Konjiki Hototogisu
Miso ramen is the star of the show here, but chicken, fish, or pork broth are also common. These are frequently flavored with akamiso (red soybean paste) and garnished with stir-fried beansprouts, cabbage, corn, and ground pork.
Best Places for Ramen in Sapporo
This variety originates in Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu, which is famous for all things pork. Hakata ramen is tonkotsu at its finest, with the pork cooked at a rolling boil to make the broth rich and opaque. It is then seasoned with shio and topped with such ingredients as chashu (pork belly), wood ear mushrooms, and spicy mustard greens.
Best Places for Ramen in Hakata
- Ichiran Canal City
- Hakata Issou
Pork and chicken broth bases are the standard in Kyoto. Topped include roast pork, bamboo, scallions, and nori.
Best Places for Ramen in Kyoto
- Honke Daiichi Asahi
- Sen No Kaze