Ramen is a full gastronomic experience in a single bowl
Jan 18, 2023
HOW TORamen is a full gastronomic experience in a single bowl
Ramen is a paradox; both exceptionally simple and forever complex. Today ramen is on Michelin-starred levels, and when prepared with care, each bowl offers a full culinary treatise on flavor and creativity.
A ramen connoisseur will inevitably sip a spoonful of the stock before tucking into the noodles or tasting the accompaniments. Tasting the broth is enjoyable and serves as a litmus test for the base flavors incorporated. This practice is also similar to preparing the palate through a warming, clean broth before kaiseki cuisine or other fine dining experiences.
Japanese ramen is founded on different styles of stock, including soy sauce, miso, chicken, seafood/fish and the infamous tonkotsu. Each delivers a different flavor profile and all of them are delicious. Soy broth could be considered the most traditional, and cheap bowls in the 500-yen range offered throughout Japan with minimal accompaniments like chashu, menma and naruto will almost always be soy based.
Miso is popular in northern Hokkaido, featuring corn and butter toppings, and miso also pairs well with spicy supplements to make a fiery bowl that warms to the core.
Chicken stock features in many types of professional ramen as often as it does in stocks in other countries, and its clear, clean flavor is exceptionally slurpable.
In Japan, where fish and seafood-based stock is popular and ubiquitous, chicken and fish / seafood hybrid broth can result in some of the most crushable, delicious soup ever conceived. If your ideal bowl should be drunk down to the last drop, this combination is for you.
On the other end of the spectrum, tonkotsu broth (lit. “pork bones”) is the result of many day’s work simmering pork bones and extracting their marrow to create a thick, lavish stock. The soup originated in Fukuoka/Hakata, and there, it’s found in an ameliorated form with a creamy, luscious mouthfeel, and enjoyed in moderation.
Second in charge: Noodles
Ramen noodles come in a number of forms – from thin to thick, egg based or purely wheat and alkaline based. (In conception the base ingredients are wheat flour, salt, water and kansui, a type of alkaline mineral water, but egg may be substituted for kansui.)
How al dente they’re enjoyed is up to the diner, but enjoying chewy, al dente noodles alongside the broth, then opting for kae-dama (a second, or even third, serving of noodles) is a classic approach at Japanese ramen joints.
The science behind the perfect ramen noodle has been explored in profound detail in the US by chefs like David Chang and Ivan Orkin. The alkaline nature of the ramen noodles prevents them from soaking up excess liquid, allowing them to stay bouncy and delicious in a bowl of soup.
Last but not least: Toppings and accompaniments
Ramen broth and noodles are the stars of the powerful gastronomic experience, but the toppings and accompaniments can help take any bowl to another level.
At the top of the pile gingerly rests the soft-boiled egg, often prepared in the Japanese aji-tama style (lit. “flavor egg” – soft boiled, peeled and marinated in soy sauce). A perfectly prepared soft-boiled egg is a feast for the eyes and the stomach.
Chashu, or char sui, definitely makes its case for an upper-echelon topping as well. The slow-roasted pork belly is a labor of love, and giving it a quick sear or charcoal grill makes for an unctuous, satisfying addition to any bowl of ramen.
A number of toppings fit into a final category – menma (lacto-fermented bamboo shoots), taka-no-na (spicy pickled greens), naruto (fish paste sliced thin with a pink and white swirl pattern), bean sprouts, green onions, corn, butter, sesame seeds, garlic, ginger, white pepper and more.
Aside from its foundation of quality broth and springy, fresh noodles, the gastronomic showcase that ramen delivers can be customized to your liking.
Of course, the infamous $1 Maruchan packets got many of us through college, or times we were low on funds. But if you’re looking to understand ramen on a deeper level, why not try your hand at creating a sumptuous bowl at home? The flavors, techniques and knowledge involved will help step your Japanese culinary game up.