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Ramen makes the world a better place

Don’t know your ramen broth from your tare? Read on.

Ramen makes the world a better place

I love ramen, big time. I never met a bowl I didn’t love (and I’ve eaten a few). But for something so simple – hello, we’re just talking ‘soup noodles’, here – ramen’s a bit of a complicated beast. So much history, so many regional ramen recipes, so many sub-variations and so much constant evolution. Personally, I’m obsessed. Where to begin to fully understand ramen?

First, let’s correct the historical record

Ramen noodles are associated with Japan but their story didn’t start there… noodles in a soupy broth is a Chinese concept, said to have travelled to Japan sometime around the start of the 20th century via Chinese migrants.

close up of bowl of ramen with mince pork, half a boiled egg and boy choy in creamy broth.

My easy tantanmen ramen. All the noms.

And how’s this for a fun fact: the super-famous tonkotsu ramen was invented by mistake in 1947 when a chef over-boiled his stock, creating the thick, milky, white broth we all know and lap up today. Don’t you just love a culinary wreck that actually turns into a whole, new delicious thing? Today, there are around 22 different styles of ramen in Japan, featuring variations in broth, type of noodles, toppings, saltiness etc.

Ramen was initially an expensive dish and didn’t get popularised until after World War II, when failed rice harvests caused massive food shortages. These were remedied by floods of cheap wheat flour importations and, as a consequence, ramen became an affordable, and very common, street dish for workers. In 1958, the instant noodle was invented and the rest, as they say, is slurpy, slippery, savoury, satisfying history.

Let’s start deconstructing a bowl of ramen

A bowl of ramen comes together across a few steps. First, there’s the broth. Which is considered w-a-y more important than the noodles, BTW. There are three basic types; a clear, light chicken broth, a deeper-flavoured pork and chicken broth, and the tonkotsu one, made by boiling pork and water for up to 48 hours for that rich, milky consistency. 

The broth can be used with the noodles as-is, or pimped with a flavouring called the ‘tare’. This is the ‘secret sauce’ the chef puts in the bottom of your ramen bowl and it’s usually something simple like miso, a spicy paste, shoyu (soy sauce) or shio, which just means ‘salt’. But shio can be a bit more complex than just ‘salt’, incorporating kombu, shiitake, sugar, mirin and/or bonito too. Whatever the broth and tare, there should be oodles of flavouricious complexity, with plenty of umami goodness  and texture in evidence.

close up of a grey bowl with cheesy french onion ramen recipe by marion grasby

What a mash-up: Cheesy French Onion Ramen Noodle Soup

Basically, the lighter, chicken broth is used for shio and shoyu ramen, the pork-chicken number can be enhanced with mushroom, seaweed, miso and bonito to really amp up the umami for a richer ramen, while the tonkotsu, with all that fat and collagen boiled back through it, might just get extra, simpler touches like sesame oil or a dash of chilli. 

But really, it’s kind of about the toppings

Marion Grasby’s homemade chashu pork, with four slices in the foreground

Did someone say homemade chashu pork?

Then, there are the noodles themselves. Ramen noodles are made using wheat flour treated with an alkaline substance called kansui. In combination with water, kansui triggers chemical changes in the flour proteins (gluten), resulting in finished noodles that are springy, chewy and slightly soda-ry in flavour. It also turns them a bit yellow (no, that colour isn’t from egg).

overhead shot of soy sauce eggs sprinkled with shichimi togarashi

Soy sauce eggs: a must-have ramen topping, IMHO.

Lastly, there are the toppings, arguably the business end of things. These are where ramen can get really interesting and save you from a fate worse than total carb overload; proteins such as chashu pork, soy sauce eggs, tofu, katsu chicken etc, along with veggies, balance things out. Spring onion, bamboo shoots, mushrooms and sprouts are common veggie add-ons but the sky’s the limit really, with corn, spinach, silverbeet, roasted tomato or pumpkin, bok choy and all the Asian greens suitable too.

There are some insane bowls of ramen out there

close up of a plastic container of instant noodles with assorted ramen toppings

Even your store-bought ramen bowls can be zhooshed with the right know-how.

I love ramen and have cooked a fair few different versions. I’ve used everything from corned beef, chicken wings and my own homemade chashu pork for the protein topping, plus variations using Korean flavours, Mexican-inspired birria beef and even cheesy French onion. And tantanmen ramen, which is the Japanese spin on spicy Sichuan dan dan noodles. I even have a shoyu ramen recipe made entirely in the microwave. 

You can (and totally should) play around with your own fave flavour sets and you’d be in good company when you do. In Tokyo, there’s a cafe that makes coffee ramen (coffee noodles in a coffee-flavoured broth with a banana, kiwifruit, ham, steamed fish cake, egg and ice cream topping; I kid you not). Others make ‘pie’ ramen, each bowl covered with a dome of crispy pastry. And yes, there’s even a chocolate ramen in Japan, with chocolate melted through the soy stock and a chunk of chocolate nestled amidst the savoury, pork-led toppings… so, yeah. We haven’t really even scratched the surface of possibilities here yet.

Best ramen recipes to bowl you over

Marion's Kitchen is for everyone who finds joy in flavour and happiness in every bite. Marion's Kitchen is for everyone who finds joy in flavour and happiness in every bite.

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