We all love ramen. But have you ever wondered in between slurps what makes it so special? Let’s take a closer look at how ramen is made and why people all over the world just can’t get enough of it.
The five elements of ramen
Basically, ramen consists of broth, noodles and toppings. However, explaining what gives the dish its unique "ramen-ness" requires breaking things down a bit further.
A finished ramen broth is basically a combination of soup, tare (sauce) and fats and oil. The soup is created by boiling ingredients in water where umami and flavor are transferred. The soup is only seasoned once it’s mixed with the tare during the cooking process.
The most popular broth styles include tonkotsu (pork bone), chicken and seafood soup. (The base ingredient is often mentioned in the soup name.) Tonkotsu ramen uses pork bone and tori-paitan ramen uses chicken bone. Other typical ingredients are seafood-based like katsuo-bushi (dried bonito flakes) and niboshi (dried sardines),and flavored vegetables such as garlic and ginger to name just a few.
Tare is the seasoning for ramen soup. Tare is classified into three types: shoyu (soy sauce) tare, shio (salt) tare, and miso tare. Tare isn’t used just to add saltiness but to also increase flavor. It’s often made by extracting and condensing umami from various ingredients- particularly kombu kelp which is rich in glutamic acid. The tare is prepared separately from the broth and combined with the broth in the bowl. It’s rare to season the soup in a pot because the salt concentration is not stable. The names of shoyu ramen, shio ramen and miso ramen are derived from the tare used in each ramen.
Oils and fats
Most ramen soups use added fats and oils which increases richness and flavor. Originally, the animal fats and oils extracted from the bones and meat were simply added to the ramen without much thought. But over time, putting the right fats and oil into a dish at the right time at the right amount has become commonplace. The amount and preparation of extracted animal fats and oils depends on the type of ramen being created. In some cases, the backfat of pork is heated until it becomes soft, filtered with a colander and granulated. It’s not uncommon to prepare flavor oil separately. For example, because garlic is fat-soluble you get more flavor when you add it to oil rather than to broth.
Ramen noodles are made by adding water and carbonated water to flour and kneading them to make dough- then thinly rolling the dough and cutting it. Other ingredients such as eggs are also used. The quality of noodles varies depending on the type of flour, the rate the water is added, the thickness of the dough, the thickness and shape of the cut, and the degree of noodle aging.
In general, thin noodles are often combined with lighter soup, and thick noodles are used with thicker soup. This is due to the difference in the surface area between the two. The larger the surface area, the larger the noodles that come in contact with the soup. The balance between the noodles and the soup also changes depending on whether the noodles are straight or curly. Previously, it was thought that curly noodles were better covered with soup. Nowadays, it’s accepted that straight noodles are better because the soup gets between the noodles due to capillary force. In the end, the ramen chef decides which noodles to use based on the overall balance of the dish.
In ramen terminology, any ingredients other than noodles and broth (a combination of soup, tare, oils and fats) are basically classified as toppings. Popular toppings include chashu pork, menma, nori seaweed, wood ear mushrooms, green onion, egg and so on. In most cases, the toppings are cooked separately and cut and placed on top of the noodles right before serving.
Many ramen shops allow you to add toppings to your ramen-chashu and ajitama (soft-boiled seasoned egg) are particularly popular.
Traditional ramen cooking procedure
Ramen is prepared by combining the aforementioned five elements in the following order:
- Put tare and oil in the bowl
- Then warm soup in a bowl
- Add the boiled noodles in the bowl
- Place the topping on the noodles
There are some exceptions to this rule. Sapporo ramen and tanmen are made by stir-frying vegetables and minced meat and adding soup and tare to them. Simply put the boiled noodles in a bowl, pour the soup into it and place the stir-fried ingredients on it. This ramen is especially appealing because the aroma of the stir-fried ingredients transfers to the soup. As another exception, the timing of adding fats and oils is often before or after step 4 instead of step 1.This sequence is often used for ramen that adds granular pork backfat.
Advantages of ramen structure (5 elements)
When cooking ramen, this five-element structure ensures there are fewer variables that can adversely affect quality and taste. When the typical ramen shop opens, all soup, tare, oil, noodles, and toppings are prepared beforehand. When an order is placed, the cook can then combine them and doesn’t have to spend valuable time adjusting things during the cooking process. For example, the amount of fire on the chashu, the balance of soup and tare and so on. After chashu is prepared, it can be cut and then the chef can determine the right balance of broth and tare in advance so the appropriate amount can be weighed after the order is placed. Especially in Japan, where ramen is considered a fast food - getting the order out quickly and correctly is important.
The evolution of ramen based on this structure.
The overall balance of flavor, aroma and umami is important in creating ramen. By isolating the five elements we can ensure the quality of each and elevate the entire experience.
Originally, tare was the biggest factor in the taste and quality of ramen. Some shops even had a "secret tare" and wouldn’t disclose the recipe.Compared to now, the taste of tare was dominant in the early ramen and improving the quality of the tare was the greatest means of improving the quality of the ramen as a whole.
Eventually, chefs started focusing on the soup itself - not just the tare- to improve the ramen experience. Many people in the early days of ramen had very little cooking experience. Often they were trained or taught recipes at nearby shops. Perhaps that’s why ramen was once a very regional dish and the reason many local ramen shops were born and established in various places. However, the transmission of information via mass media caused a ramen boom and the presence of ramen shops throughout Japan accelerated. As a result, new forms of ramen are popping up everywhere as information about new ingredients and cooking techniques are shared.
Over time, ramen chefs started focusing on fats and oils to add richness and aroma. In particular, adding flavor oil to a light soup with low oil content gives the ramen a more complex, layered taste. After discovering the difference between water-soluble and fat-soluble scent components, chefs could match the right flavor to the right soup for maximum effect.
What about the role of toppings in ramen culture? For example, chashu pork. Chashu was originally roasted but later boiled because it was more easily prepared as small ramen stalls became increasingly popular. If the pork is boiled then it makes sense to boil it in soup or soy sauce and use it as tare for ramen. However, as ramen evolved, people started focusing on the chashu itself as a means to level up their ramen and new ways to prepare it. For example, cooking chashu by a sous vide method has become increasingly popular in recent years.
This is a good example of how the advances in cooking science and kitchenware have affected what we know as ramen. Because of the five element structure, such technology can be incorporated easily to improve each component. Today, even a simple $10 bowl of ramen uses the latest cooking techniques and ideas.
The idea of "Washoku Japanese cuisine" and the evolution of ramen
In Japan, there is a dish called "Chikuzen-ni" which is essentially simmered chicken and vegetables. At first blush, it seems like a very simple dish. However, instead of just adding vegetables to the soup stock and simmering them, each vegetable is properly prepared, cooked and then assorted. It's a very time-consuming procedure but illustrates Japanese cuisine’s desire to maximize the deliciousness of each individual ingredient first - to make the total dish that much better.
Originally, ramen was made up of five elements to improve work efficiency. (Like in the fast-food ramen stalls mentioned earlier.) Nowadays, it seems that ramen has become more and more like Chikuzen-ni, so the five elements are properly cooked in order to maximize deliciousness before being combined in a bowl. Because ramen is considered a fast food, more people have access to it than ever making it the national dish of Japan. The repeated efforts to enhance ramen deliciousness based on the Japanese food culture is one reason ramen is so popular all over the world. And with today’s ramen chefs continually finding new ways to prepare and enhance each of the five elements, the evolution of ramen will certainly continue.