4 Types of Ramen You Should Know

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Imagine yourself in Tokyo, strolling down a narrow alley where you find an old, cramped 1930s hole-in-the-wall ramen shop. There are two items on the menu: ramen or chashumen (ramen with extra chashu, or braised pork). With only a single row of stools along the bar, a line snakes out the door. A mirror lines the wall behind the stools, opposite of the busy cooks behind the bar. Using the mirror, a cook calls out to the line of customers, taking orders — a half a dozen or so at a time — by memory. 

As you inch toward the front of the line, you get ready to shout your order. But what kind should you get? Ramen with extra menma (seasoned bamboo shoots) and nori? Chashumen with leeks and garlic? Eventually, a seat opens up and as soon as you sit down, a steaming bowl of ramen is placed in front of you. You take a sip of the soup and think, yes, it was totally worth the wait.

Although it is considered Japanese food, ramen is among a collection of dishes — like curry, tempura, and yakisoba — that are not originally from Japan, but have been folded into the cuisine over time. Originally brought to Japan by Chinese immigrants following the end of Japan’s 200-year isolation period in 1858, ramen shops slowly popped up in the Yokohama and Tokyo area. When The Great Kanto Earthquake hit in 1923, ramen gained widespread popularity as people scattered across Japan in its aftermath and opened shops in other regions.

There is no standard recipe for ramen. Instead, there are five elements that come together to create what we recognize to be ramen: noodles, stock, tare, fat/oil, and toppings. Ramen has become a vehicle to express originality and creativity because of its loose structure. It continues to evolve, influenced by regional differences in climate, local cultures, and food trends.

The Most Common Types of Ramen 

There are a few ways that ramen is classified: by tare, stock, and style. 

Aside from regional ramen (like Yokohama ramen, Kyoto ramen, and Tokushima ramen), the soupless mazemen, and other ramen that deviate from tradition (seafood ramen, chicken paitan ramen, vegan ramen, Italian-influenced tomato ramen), the two categories of ramen that are worth mentioning are hiyashi chūka and tsukemen. 

Sometimes called reimen, hiyashi chūka is a cold noodle dish served during the hot summer months. The tare is either soy sauce-, sesame-, or miso-based and has a sweet, vinegary flavor. The toppings, tare, and noodles are mixed together before eating.

Noodles: Typically, a medium, high-hydration curly noodle is used.

Toppings: Hiyashi chūka is typically topped with any combination of the following ingredients: chashu, ham, shredded chicken, kanikama (fish cake), cooked shrimp, jellyfish, kinshi tamago (thinly sliced egg crepe), wakame, cucumber, and sliced tomato. A smear of karashi (Japanese hot mustard) is usually placed on the side of the plate to mix in, if you wish. 

Although there are different origin stories, it is largely believed that tsukemen was invented in Tokyo by Kazuo Yamagishi in the mid-1950s. This style of ramen serves the soup and noodles separately. The toppings are placed in a dish by themselves, on top of the noodles, and/or in the soup bowl. The plain noodles are dipped into the hot soup and slurped, just as you would cold zaru soba or zaru udon. The soup is concentrated because they only get a quick dip before eating. 

Noodles: In a traditional ramen, the focus is on the quality of the soup, but the thick noodles are the highlight in tsukemen. 

Toppings: Because tsukemen can be meat- or seafood-based, the toppings vary by restaurant but are usually the same as a traditional ramen. It really depends on the type and the shop, but chashu, egg, menma, green onions, or leeks are typical.

What to Know About Ramen Noodles

Ramen noodles are made from wheat, water, and an alkaline salt solution called kansui. Kansui makes the ramen noodles elastic, which gives them a springy chewiness as well as a yellow-ish color. Depending on the desired texture, the amount of kansui is adjusted. 

The dough is then shaped using a noodle machine and made curly or straight. The type of ramen (shio, shoyu, miso, tonkotsu, etc.) determines which noodle type is used. The noodle thickness and shape is determined by the type of soup and how it clings to the noodles. For example, tonkotsu ramen has a thick viscosity and is rich, so a thin, straight noodle is used in contrast. The noodles are cooked until firm, as they will continue to cook in the soup after serving.

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