Love ramen? Did you know about the four basic broths? Or the code word for free noodle refills? In our guide to Japan’s most slurpable soup, we boil down the facts (and pork fats) and chat to Aussie ramen chefs to deliver everything you need to know about the makings of a top tonkotsu or a sensational shio.
By
Siobhan Hegarty

10 Nov 2015 - 10:24 AM  UPDATED 3 Aug 2016 - 12:59 PM

Ramen might be a Japanese icon, but the broth and noodle combo is as varied as it is tasty. From Tokyo’s tsukemen (“naked” ramen noodles served with fishy, shoyu soup) and Hakata’s topping-laden tonkotsu, to a buttery miso-soup from Sapporo, each region of Japan is known for a particular style of ramen. That’s not to say rules don't exist. Quite the opposite; ramen is a dish of complexity, subtlety and skill. Each bowl is the result of careful consideration, countless ingredients and protracted cooking processes. Some are thick and sating in a “this could feed a family of four” kind of way, while others may resemble grandma’s nourishing chicken noodle soup.   

As noted by Adam Liaw in Destination Flavour Japan (7.30pm Thursdays on SBS): “We often think of wine as being the terroir of a particular region or the expression of a particular grape, but ramen goes kind of the opposite way. It combines things from all over the place to give you a chef or an artist’s eye view of the entire world, all framed in one little bowl.” 

It's no wonder, then, that becoming a “ramen master” is a serious commitment. Aspiring chefs and restaurateurs usually spend five years learning the trade and a lifetime honing the craft. So, understandably, we can’t give you a cheffy certificate to nailing noodles. We can, however, teach you the basics to ramen… starting with #ThatBroth. (If you're wondering, “Why the hashtag?”, an Instagram search of #NoRamenNoLife should clear matters up.)

All about that broth

Not all ramens are the born the same. Some are rich and heavy-hitting, others light and fresh. The broth is what sets your taste and tone – noodles and other ramen ingredients are there to enhance the flavourful liquid. Classically, there are four types of ramen broth: shio, shoyu, tonkotsu and miso, but don’t be surprised if you come across a combination of two. 

Tare (pronounced tah-reh) or kaeshi is a salty, concentrated essence that forms the base and, as you might have guessed, informs the ‘style’ of most ramen. Straight tonkotsu broths are a bit of a different story, but we’ll get to that later. Each ramen chef will have their own tare recipe, sometimes closely guarded, but kombo (dried seaweed), sake, soy sauce and mirin are common elements. When it comes to serving, tare is placed at the bottom of each bowl, to which the broth, noodles and other ingredients are added.

Shio, meaning ‘salt’, is the lightest and most traditional style of ramen broths. Tracing its origins back to Chinese-style noodle soups, shio became popular in Hakodate, Hokkaido, where the local cuisine carries noticeable Chinese influences. Made from a reduction of dried seafood, seaweeds and salty ingredients, the clear shio soup carries a serious umami hit. According to Sokyo Ramen’s executive chef, Chase Kojima, “shio ramen is the hardest to make. It has to be very light – you can't boil the soup – so it has the potential to be flavourless.” Boiling the broth, Kojima explains, gives it a cloudy consistency and detracts from shio’s “clean flavour”. 

Shoyu, or ‘soy sauce’, is made from fermented soya beans and additional (often secret) ingredients that vary between ramen makers. Dark and clear, this broth base carries a salty depth and is typically served with chicken or seafood, rather than pork. Shoyu is a great mixer, so you’ll often see it melded with a tonkotsu or shio broth. 

Although miso is the youngest style – it entered Sapporo’s ramensphere in the 1950s – this fermented bean curd paste imparts a bold, hearty flavour profile. Legend has it a customer walked into a noodle shop in 1955 and asked the chef for noodles in his miso-pork soup. From that day a new ramen style was born. Miso generally fits into the kotteri (‘rich and thick’) camp of ramen. It possesses a heavier, unctuous broth than shio, and is usually matched with sating ingredients, such as chashu pork, sweet corn and bean sprouts.

Miso made easy
Sapporo ramen

Sapporo, the capital of Japan’s most northerly island, is renowned for its miso-based ramen.

The word tonkotsu, meaning ‘pork bones’, refers to both the ingredient and style of broth. It’s made from boiling bones until the collagen marrow and fat break down, unleashing a creamy, white liquid and creating a gelatinous film on the surface. Most ramen chefs will boil their bones for 12-20 hours, but others, like Mori Hogashida have a "base broth" which, like a sourdough starter, is built upon each day. The Sydney-based owner of ramen hotspot Gumshara says, "We've maintained our soup since we opened, so it's now six-years-old. Every night we top it up, making it thicker or lighter, depending on the taste. The soup is boiled for 12 hours a day."

Good things take time
Tonkotsu ramen

The stock for this famous Japanese noodle soup is made from pork bones, which are boiled for hours, breaking down the collagen, marrow and fat, unleashing a creamy, white liquid. Traditionally, the eggs are boiled in the stock; add in step 3 of the recipe with the flavourings if cooking this way. You can make the stock up to the end of step 1 a day ahead.

Unlike the three other ramen bases, tonkotsu is flavoured by the soup, rather than the tare, so technically it’s not a true ramen type. That said, this thick, rich and opaque broth has attracted a worldwide cult following and for many, ‘tonkotsu ramen’ is synonymous with the wider term. 

Not just any noodle

The name ‘ramen’ is actually a portmanteau, derived from the Chinese words for (“ra”), meaning ‘to pull’, and miàn (“men”), which translates as ‘noodles’. Like their Chinese forbears, ramen noodles are made from wheat flour, salt and kansui, an alkaline water which gives the strands an elastic quality and yellowish hue. Eggs work as a kansui substitute, but they’re more commonly found in Chinese noodles than Japanese.

Ramen-ya (ramen shops) worth their weight in shio will make the noodles in-house, with thickness, shape and texture varying between broths. No matter how your noodles come, there’s only one way to eat them and yes that involves the genteel art of slurping. Speed is another objective in the ramen-eating game (NB: cold broth is a bad thing). It’s perfectly acceptable to bite your toppings and return them to the bowl – in the name of pork-to-noodle balance – and if you find you’re ravenous mid-ramen, politely ask the staff for kaedama (a noodle refill – usually free!) while the broth is still hot. 

Beware: Flavour bomb
The vampire slayer ramen express

This is an express ramen recipe that uses 44 cloves of garlic. Most of the garlic is browned and braised with an obnoxious slab of pork belly until meltingly tender, then blended with chicken stock and soy milk (my favourite ramen cheat) to fabricate the most speedy, but intensely rich broth ramen-history has ever seen. Call it the ramen with 44 cloves of garlic. Me, I’m calling it The Vampire Slayer.

The sum of its parts

We’ve talked broth and noodles, so what else is there to consider? A lot, dear ramen-slurping friends. Japanese chef Keita Abe, of Chaco Bar in Sydney, phrases it nicely: “There's so much drama in the bowl.”

Pork is the most discernible meat element to grace our bowls. A ramen without that thin, tender slice of chashu pork (pork belly) can almost feel a little naked. But meatiness comes in many forms and it is not uncommon for ramen to be topped with stir-fried bacon, shredded pork shoulder, Chinese-style red-braised pork (kakuni) or, as is the case at Gumshara, a mighty spare rib.

Chicken is another player in the meaty stakes. Japanese chef Keita Abe prepares a Hiroshima-style, chicken-based broth at his Sydney restaurant Chaco Bar that is made from the poultry’s feet and neck. Each of the four broth bases can be made from a combination of proteins – be it pork, poultry or seafood.

Infused oils give the soup a level of depth. They can be flavoured with any number of ingredients, such as leek, ginger, scallops or sardines, but mayu (burnt garlic oil) is probably the easiest to spot and taste. As its name suggests, the dark liquid is made from cooking garlic in oil at a seriously high temperature. You want the mixture to undergo what is known as the Malliard reaction – a chemical occurrence that creates new flavour and aroma compounds – so it develops a delicious complexity.

And what would ramen be without a simmered egg? Known as ajitsuke tamago, the “flavour-added egg” should possess a soft, yielding white and bright, gelatinous yolk. For extra edge, marinate your soft-cooked eggs in leftover broth or a sweet bath of soy and mirin.

Nori isn’t just for sushi – or ramen, it seems. Aside from adding a briny, umami taste, and transformative texture (crisp in the air, soft in the broth), the dehydrated seaweed is literally a blank canvas – or so we learnt when Sokyo Ramen started branding their bowls with the executive chef’s Instagram handle (@ChaseKojima) and the aforementioned hashtag #NoRamenNoLife on sheets of nori.

 

The road to becoming a ramen master

Learning the ropes of ramen takes years of dedication, but for many Japanese “salarymen” (work-driven professionals), opening a ramen-ya is more desirable than retirement. In Destination Flavour Japan, Adam Liaw visits a ramen cookery school designed for retirees wanting to pursue their lifelong ambition. Here’s a sneak peek of the heart-warming segment, airing 7.30pm Thursday 12 November on SBS.

Gumshara chef and owner, Mori Hogashida, also went through the career change later in life. “When I got into the industry, I was already 47,” he says. “I wanted to open a ramen shop before I was 50, so I went to Japan and learnt from a ramen master –  he's number one in all of Japan for his tonkotsu.” Unfortunately for Hogashida: “It takes five years to become a ramen chef, but I didn’t have the time.” To condense the training, the former businessman spent an almost unbelievable one-and-a-half years working 20 hours a day, seven days a week. His diligence paid off though, as he returned to Australia before reaching the five-zero mark, and opened his now booming business in Haymarket. 

 

Because… burger? 

Now we couldn’t do a ramen wrap without mentioning one of the strangest fusion foods to hit our menus in recent years. Yes, we’re talking about the ramen burger – a shoyu-sauced beef pattie sandwiched between two cooked and crisped-up noodle ‘buns’. Japanese-American chef Keizo Shimamoto is credited with creating the original (pre-existing Japanese versions were pork-based and less burger-y) as a nod to two of his favourite childhood foods. The burger debuted in 2013 at Smorgasbord, a weekly food festival in Brooklyn, and is now sold at several New York locations, including Shimamoto’s restaurant Ramen Co., and a store in Los Angeles. Similar creations have popped up in Australia, like David Yip’s miso, mayo and teriyaki burger at On Ramen in Sydney, but Shimamoto’s The Original Ramen Burger™ is yet to make it Down Under.

Our verdict? The ramen burger poses no real threat to its soup parent (that’s what pho is for), and its shelf life may be short (cronut – ‘nuff said), but if the meat is juicy and the noodles al dente, this portable meal is a deserved addition to the cheap eats sphere. 

It's time to play at home
Duck and scallop ramen

"This dish is all about soul. Ramen is a humble dish traditionally, but can be lifted from simple to extraordinary with the addition of amazing Australian produce, like the beautiful scallops from Queensland [we've used here]. The beauty lies in the layers of flavour and textures of all the elements coming together. How can you not love it!" Hamish Ingham, Bar H 

Sweet corn and leek ramen

Popular in the northern island of Hokkaido, traditional miso ramen often features a thick and tangy soup base made with copious amounts of white miso paste. Freshly minced garlic is served on side so diners can give their ramen an extra bit of kick.

 

Illustrations by Eun-Young Lim.

Throughout August, SBS Food will celebrate Asia's love of the noodle. Oodles of Noodles will include delicious new recipes, stories and tips for buying, cooking and storing noodles. Find out more here.