NOODLES THAT POSSESS YOUR SOUL
No story about trending Japanese food culture could be complete without reference to ramen. A deceptively simple dish, ramen is a combination of soup, noodles and toppings that embodies the passion and flair of the cook. The complexity of flavours infused into a bowl of steaming ramen captivates many and has universal appeal.
From its origins as a dish of noodles in China, uniquely Japanese cooking approaches have evolved for every element of ramen.
Today each region has its own signature dish, and each ramen restaurant boasts a signature soup and stock. The ramen ‘culture’ is so varied that aficionados subdivide it into clear gastronomic preferences.
Ramen is also not just consumed at meal times. Closure to a bout of drinking is customarily achieved with a bowl of ramen, and there is no shortage of ramen restaurants open from lunchtime into the wee small hours. Japanese ramen restaurants have now ventured into Asia and the West, to growing acclaim. Fame is typically achieved by word of mouth and in Tokyo, meandering queues outside popular ramen restaurants are a common sight.
It is a step difference from traditional Japanese cuisine, but once experienced, this Japanese soul food will leave you smitten.
THE MANY VARIATIONS OF RAMEN
The flavour and impression of a bowl of ramen is established by its soup. There is great variety in ingredients and how they are combined, and many restaurants keep their recipe a closely guarded secret. Ramen soup may be made from pork bones or chicken frames, or from small dried sardines, dried bonito and vegetables. Soy sauce, miso paste or salt added to the stock characterise the flavour and appearance of the soup, and oil may be added in the form of vegetable oil, lard, or chicken fat, to achieve rich broth.
Noodles are typically made from wheat flour, with each restaurant choosing thickness and shape – either straight or curly – as appropriate to their signature soup. Some will let customers choose their noodles either soft or al dente, the latter most commonly requested when the stock has been taken from pork bones. Common toppings are Chinese barbecued pork, pickled bamboo shoots,
flavoured egg, nori dried seaweed, fish cake, spring onions, and mung bean shoots, and while some restaurants will serve ramen ready-dressed, others will customise the dish to customer choice. Restaurants typically take great pride in their barbecued pork, so a good thing to do is to try at each restaurant and compare.
WHERE TO FIND YOUR PREFERRED BROTH
The array of specialty ramen restaurants in Japan, from famous restaurants that are privately run, to fast food style chain stores, is bewildering. Generally speaking, if your preference is for light, simple flavours, look for advertisements of soy sauce or salt flavoured ramen. If you feel like eating rich, heavy flavours, go for pork bone or miso ramen.
Being a gastronomic tradition that has flourished in the regions, ramen in Japan is typically named after the area from which it hales. Tokyo ramen, for example, refers to the soy sauce flavoured ramen created in the Japanese capital, while Hakata ramen is a pork bone soup with thin, straight noodles that has its origins in the western Japanese city of Hakata, in Fukuoka Prefecture.
Across the sea in major Australian cities like Sydney and Melbourne, ramen restaurants are booming. Some popular Japanese restaurants have also opened Australian outlets, and are attracting local fan bases.
Once you find a ramen dish you like, make sure to delve deeper into the ramen culture by trying it with extras like a side dish of gyoza dumplings, or an extra helping of noodles.
Your preferred broth is just a slurp away!