17 Oct 2019 in Food Culture
From a ramen-hopping tour in Hokkaido to Michelin-star ramen in Tokyo, discover all!
You probably know ramen as the affordable noodle soup dish that’s popular all over Japan. But do you know the subtle differences? Can you distinguish a shoyu broth from a shio broth? A Tokyo noodle from its Sapporo counterpart? And what about the vast range of toppings?
We guide you through the culture of ramen – and offer some tips on how to get the most from your next visit to a ramen-ya restaurant.
Ramen is a dish of wheat noodles in a flavoured meat- or fish-based broth, sprinkled with generous toppings of sliced pork, nori seaweed, bamboo shoots and much more. In recent decades, it has become one of Japan’s most popular dishes.
The broth or soup base comes in four main varieties. Shoyu is soy sauce-based, producing a light brown broth typically made from chicken stock. Popular in Kyushu, cloudy tonkotsu stock is made of boiled-down pork bones.
Shio, meanwhile, is dominated by salt seasoning.
Finally, miso ramen derives its thick brown broth from fermented soybean paste.
It originates from Hokkaido, where its hearty flavours are appreciated during the long winters.
Ramen noodles are made from wheat flour, water, salt and kansui, an alkaline solution that gives them a yellowish tint and elastic mouthfeel. Again, there are regional variations: Kitakata noodles are thick and springy, while the Hakata variety is thin and straight.
At many ramen-ya restaurants, you can personalize the thickness and firmness of your noodles.
Finally, ramen dishes vary according to their toppings. Some of the favourite ingredients include fatty slices of chashu pork, negi green onions or leeks, menma bamboo shoots and tamago boiled, raw or marinated eggs.
Hokkaido, ramen capital
Throughout Japan, the northern island of Hokkaido is reputed for its ramen. Sapporo, the Prefecture’s capital, boasts an excellent miso-based ramen complete with exquisite seasonal seafood.
Hakodate offers up a much lighter shio broth with thin noodles and copious toppings.
And Asahikawa serves the ultimate shoyu soy ramen, often featuring an oily layer of lard that traps in the steam and prevents the soup from cooling down.
Fancy sampling the Hokkaido scene for yourself?
At Hoshino Resorts OMO7 Asahikawa, you can stay in the heart of the island’s second city and take an insider’s tour of some of the most quintessential ramen restaurants.
The hotel’s OMO Rangers are local guides offering you the chance to discover the city as an insider – and from December 2019 until the end of February 2020, they’re offering a special tour of local ramen restaurants.
The Ramen-hopping tour is a great way to experience an authentic slice of Japanese life, with your guide taking you places you would probably never dare go – including tiny eateries with Japanese-only menus.
During the tour, you’ll sample small “half-ramen” portions in three different restaurants. Each place has its own specialty and unique flavours, and your guide will serve as interpreter so you can chat with the owners.
You’re likely to be treated to the thin, crinkled noodles that are a specialty in Asahikawa. Pork is also a favourite thanks to the region’s pig farming tradition. You may well get to sample a “double soup”, made with two types of broth such as pork bone and seafood.
And, while soy sauce-based soups are typical, your guide will probably give you a chance to taste salt or miso ramen for a complete experience.
Taketomi and Tokyo
Not planning to be in Hokkaido? There are plenty of other ramen experiences you can choose from!
At HOSHINOYA Taketomi Island in Okinawa, the local version of ramen is Yaeyama soba noodles, made from wheat flour. They’re served in a clear broth of skipjack tuna, pork bone and seaweed. Head to the local village to try them at Takenoko restaurant, which adds its own Kuchu spice made from island chili peppers.
If you’re in Tokyo, how about treating yourself to Michelin-star ramen? Japan’s capital now boasts three ramen restaurants with a Michelin star, with Tsuta in northern Sugamo first accorded the honour back in 2016.
Ramen infused with black truffle oil. An original spin that clearly tickled the fancy of the Michelin reviewers.