Ramen Basics for the Noodle Novice

Japanese ramen ingredients

Forget about Top Ramen—you're not going to be ordering this Japanese noodle dish by choosing from Oriental, Shrimp, or Picante Beef flavors. Here are the details you need to know in order to get a great bowl of ramen.

BROTH
Shoyu: Broth mixed with soy sauce for flavor. It's one of the most common styles and is popular in Tokyo.

Shio: Broth seasoned with just salt instead of a heavier flavor such as soy sauce, making it a more delicately flavored soup. It originated in Hakodate, says Rickmond Wong, a.k.a. rameniac, who runs the website of the same name, so it is sometimes referred to as Hakodate ramen.

Miso: The broth is mixed with miso for flavor, making it cloudy, salty, and supersavory. The style is popular in Sapporo, says Wong, where it is usually topped with corn and butter.

Tonkotsu: A rich, fatty, milky-looking broth made by long-boiling pork bones to extract the marrow.

TOP IT OFF
The bowl will come with some standard toppings. Additional toppings you might see include:
Chashu: slices of boiled or grilled pork; usually from the belly or shoulder
Negi: scallion-type onion
Menma: bamboo shoots
Bean sprouts
Kikurage: wood ear mushroom
Nori: seaweed in sheet form or in pieces
Corn
Butter
Tamago: egg, usually boiled and sliced in half
Beni shoga: thin strips of red pickled ginger that, Wong says, often top tonkotsu ramen
Kamaboko: fish cake, usually white with a pink swirl
Chicken karaage: fried chicken
Shichimi: a blend of seven spices (see our recipe if you want to make it yourself) that you might find on your table in a shaker jar; it's mostly chile pepper with a few other spices/flavorings such as orange peel and sesame seeds

Not sure what toppings and broths are a good match? Wong has an extensive map of Japan's regional ramen styles on his website that's well worth checking out to get ideas, such as butter and corn with miso broth (Sapporo style) and chashu, kikurage, and negi with tonkotsu ramen (Hakata style).

If you want to specify how your noodles are cooked: katame = firm, futsu = regular, yawarakame or yawarakame de = soft.

HOW DO YOU EAT IT?
"There are some clichés," says Wong. The big one is slurping your noodles. "It's just a practical way to cool the noodles," he says. But it's not mandatory. One that does hold true though—and applies to Japanese food in general—is that, after breaking your wooden chopsticks apart, it's bad manners to rub them together to get the splinters off. It implies that the establishment has low-quality chopsticks, and actually can offend people, Wong says.

Chowhounds have some advice on eating ramen as well. Sam Fujisaka says that technically you should eat it two-handed: The chopsticks go in the right hand, the spoon in the left, and the "idea is to consume the soup with the spoon in a slow tango with the chopsticks eating of the solids." To keep a bunch of broth from splashing all over you if you're slurping, MeAndroo suggests getting the first part of the noodles into your mouth, then holding onto the remainder of the noodles with your chopsticks just above the broth. "This keeps them moving upwards into your mouth instead of outwards to create a splash zone." Ultimately, asodat agrees with Wong: "Ramen's an informal food, so there's no real etiquette to be observed while you eat it: that's why slurping is ok, even encouraged."

HOW DO YOU IDENTIFY A GOOD RAMEN PLACE?
The fellow who runs the Ramen Tokyo website (and who wishes to remain anonymous) suggests finding out if the noodles are made in-house, called jikasei ("homemade"). Wong adds that the "number one thing is complexity," i.e., the ramen shouldn't just taste like salt. "A good bowl will have a sweetness, a savoriness, a lot of umami."

Chef Noriyuki Sugie, who ran a pop-up restaurant called Yatai Ramen Twist at Los Angeles's Breadbar, says that he thinks a place's shio ramen is a good gauge of quality because it is the plainest version, without the strong miso or soy flavors to cover up the flavor of the broth itself. Sugie is part of the growing trend of chefs making creative, neo-ramen styles. He's made foie gras ramen, a vegetarian tomato ramen, and ramen inspired by classic French-braised oxtail. Other modern bowls of ramen being slurped up around the U.S. include San Francisco–based Hapa Ramen's local/sustainable-meets-contemporary-technique-like-sous-vide ramen, called a Big Daddy Ramen Bowl, which includes fried chicken nuggets, slow-cooked pork, and slow-cooked eggs. It all fits right in with ramen's origins as a dish brought to Japan by Chinese immigrants and riffed on by the Japanese to make it their own, says Wong. The new thing in Tokyo right now is "double or triple," called tonkotsu gyokai, he says. "Usually what it is is a thick pork-bone soup blended with traditional dashi ingredients [seaweed and dried fish], to make this thick but fishy soup. It's always evolving; it's not a static cuisine."

Roxanne Webber is the former senior features editor at CHOW.com.