For the last eight years, I’ve devoted my life to learning, appreciating, and respecting one of the world’s great culinary marvels. People have called me obsessive, over-the-top, bordering on mania.
I just consider myself a ramen nerd. A wholly obsessed ramen nerd who loves to read academic articles about gluten development in noodle doughs, a nerd who’s spent way too much money on pasta machines that then broke through the rigor of making noodle dough, a nerd who—intentionally—owns six different types of bowls to suit various ramen styles. I am all about the ramen life, and am always trying to understand the dish’s origins and future. On its face, this obsession must seem perplexing. Like… why ramen?
It’s a story. But you’re here, so I assume that the idea of an American stuffing their face with hot, greasy noodles on a semi-daily basis is intriguing to you.
I don’t count the 99-cent noodle packets—the first time I truly ate ramen was in 2006. I went to Mitsuwa, a Japanese grocery chain a half hour outside downtown Chicago, intrigued by the idea of a non-instant pack of ramen. Before that visit, most of my comprehension centered around Oriental flavor ramen (whatever that meant) and miso soup, which I gleefully gulped before every sushi meal. To my delight, a stall in the Mitsuwa food court specializing in ramen called Santouka happened to serve miso ramen. It was like the miso soup in my taste memory… but leagues better! It contained depth, nuance, viscosity, punch—traits I never knew were possible in Japanese cuisine.
I was studying at the University Of Wisconsin, and decided to spend a year abroad in Japan. From 2009 to 2010, I lived in Sapporo, arguably one of the great Japanese ramen cities (alongside Tokyo and Hakata). Sapporo is the birthplace of miso ramen. And here I thought the miso ramen I had in suburban Chicago was life-changing.
I arrived in Sapporo as a wide-eyed college kid, ramen-curious. Ramen is so prolific in Sapporo it’s almost paralyzing to choose; in Sapporo proper there are over 1,000 shops. The only way I knew was to go, go, go.
Bought multiple guidebooks. Tried one. Tried the next. Tried the one after that. Then started going to multiple shops a day.
I had earned the reputation around campus as “that guy who is always going out to eat ramen.” Continued to visit shops. Launched an independent study where I interviewed chefs and restaurateurs about Sapporo’s ramen landscape with my half-passable Japanese. Ate even more ramen.
I was hooked. By the time I returned stateside, I had tried more than 100 different ramen shops (God bless those college-age metabolism days.)
Coming back to America was both wonderful and awful for my new habit. In 2010, ramen was starting to pick up stateside; the Momofuku cookbook had just published, and David Chang-ian interpretations of ramen were popping up across the country. But they weren’t like what I had when I dove head-first in Sapporo. The menus at ramen restaurants in America were expansive—as if trying to please every customer. You had waitstaff timidly waddling over to tables with bowls, broth swaying back and forth with each shaky step. The ramen took forever to make, and diners took even longer to eat it, laughing and slowly chewing into the noodles as soup laid before them, until the bowls turned cold and lifeless. What I experienced during my year in Japan was the inverse: Ramen restaurants had focused menus, many serving no more than one style. A bowl arrived within minutes of ordering. Customers slurped it up just as quickly, gathering their belongings and heading off into the cold Sapporo winter.
I felt unsatisfied, and eventually told myself if I wanted ramen like I had in Sapporo, I was just going to have to make it myself.
Easier said than done.
That realization was eight years ago. My ramen, generously, sucked for six of those years. It was watery, paltry, tepid, and one-dimensional, with mushy, spongey noodles that wriggled and writhed.
But I learned from my mistakes. I dove into the minutiae, such as researching which direction was the best way to roll the noodle dough through your pasta machine (the same direction, every time), or how long should you let your steeped eggs sit in brine for optimal flavor and quality (three days tops—the white begins to become crumbly and soft after this period, as the bonds of the denatured proteins weaken due to the salinity, kind of like tenderizing a steak with salt).
I was lucky to find a receptive audience on the internet. I shared my entire process, and the recipes I meticulously developed, publicly on Reddit in the /r/ramen subreddit, under the pseudonym Ramen_Lord. I didn’t expect anything in return. It was an avenue to share my hobby with like-minded ramen aficionados. But I realized I wasn’t the only one. There were others who also struggled endlessly with ramen, who wanted to take a crack at it, but felt defeated by its complexity and mystery. As I posted more, I kept improving, the feedback and praise from anonymous ramen lovers fueling me. I felt inspired by other posts, challenged by redditors to do more, to explore new styles and to keep pushing. It was an incredibly constructive and welcoming community—everyone rooted each other on because we all loved ramen.
I was, frankly, surprised when my posts began gaining popularity. Redditors started citing my recipes when they posted their own. My tonkotsu recipe hit the front page of Google, and the press was nice enough to write up some flattering pieces about my ramen adventures. My hometown Chicago Tribune even published a piece with a provocative premise, essentially, how the best ramen in Chicago was made in an apartment that no one could try. That, shall we say, hit a nerve something fierce.
That inspired me to launch a series of pop-up dinners. I call it Akahoshi (the two characters that make it up are “red” and “star”)—it’s my love letter to ramen, a combination of learnings from Sapporo, melded with my own style as a Midwest kid (I’ve been lucky enough that my monthly pop-ups in Chicago have each sold out in under 30 seconds). When I’m not at my full-time job as a marketing research consultant, I’m thinking about my next pop-up. In the last year, ramen has evolved from a hobby to a second job.
Learning to craft an A+ bowl of ramen is now my life goal. Maybe A+ is never possible, perfection is a impossible pursuit after all, but the path of getting closer and closer to that immaculate, flawless bowl intrigues me. But just as importantly, it’s to articulate to you—dear readers—why a bowl of ramen, when it’s right, is ethereal. I only hope you experience the same feeling I had when I first stumbled into that ramen shop in Sapporo—excited, content, bellies warm.
Ramen is a food of the proletariat. It is refined yet unpretentious. And because its history is so recent, ramen doesn’t suffer from rigidity that other Japanese dishes sometimes encounter. Ramen can be anything; it just needs to have noodles made of wheat and alkaline salts.
That variability was appealing. I felt like there’s always more to learn, more to understand, and with each little new piece of information, I found myself realizing I knew less and less. At the same time, that variability could also seem daunting, especially to folks who stumble into a ramen shop for the first time.
This is my goal with the column you’re currently reading. Let me help you shed some light on this humble and marvelous dish that has greatly defined my life. I do not claim to be a ramen expert. But I am obsessed, and hope you could feel a little bit of that joyful obsession too.
So what is ramen anyway?
Those lucky to live near ramen shops probably know there’s a difference between those and the Maruchan/Top Ramen instant noodles they ate in their dorm rooms. If we’re talking about the dish at its core, what are its essential components?
After all, there are arguably 40-plus styles of ramen commonly found in Japan. Some don’t have soup. Some have a soup separate from the noodle, allowing you to dip with noodles. Some have pork, some have chicken, some have both, some have none. How can so much variation exist? It’s just one dish, so they must share some commonality.
Ramen, ultimately, specifically refers to the noodle. Ramen noodles must:
- Be made of wheat
- Contain some sort of alkaline salt, referred to as “kansui,” typically dissolved in water (Kansui is a term derived from Chinese noodle makers using water from Lake Khan, a lake known for its unique mineral content and alkalinity).
Sorry to the rice and buckwheat noodle brethren, but y’all ain’t ramen. If someone served me some soba in tonkotsu, as delicious as that might be, it isn’t ramen. (We’ll deep dive into noodles in a future edition of this column.)
Where we should really start is soup.
Everyone talks about the the broth when they eat ramen. There are a lot of them. But all soups, really, can be broken down into two primary categories:
- Chintan. A light, clear soup. Think the quintessential shoyu ramen from Tokyo, which is clear.
- Paitan. A rich, creamy soup. Tonkotsu—the legendary pork bone broth—falls into this category.
This is a critical distinction, especially in America. Clear soups are abundantly common in Japan; many shops only specialize in this style, and the origins of the dish in early 20th-century Tokyo hinge on a clear-soup approach. The takeaway here is the broth’s texture can run the gamut.
Now, the reason these two styles are different boils down to (heh, puns) cooking methods and ingredient selection.
Let’s start by laying a few things out: What happens you combine bones/meat and water, and cook them together?
- Water-soluble flavor compounds exit the meat and dissolve into the water
- Myoglobin (the protein in blood that gives it pigment) is squeezed out of the muscle and coagulates, forming clumps that float to the surface of the water.
- Collagen in the bones and connective tissue converts to gelatin, at increasingly faster rates as the water approaches boiling temperatures.
- Fat renders from the bones and meat, turning into liquid and floating to the surface of the pot.
I don’t think we need to focus on the first two here. Obviously, meat and bones flavor water, otherwise why would you make soup with them? And the myoglobin is typically removed via skimming, because it can discolor the soup over time and has a slightly gamey flavor (although, again, ramen has very few rules, some places mix it all back in, those monsters).
The interaction between points three and four, however, is unique to soup making, and the primary reason you can have two vastly different styles of soups.
Gelatin is a great emulsifier. When I say emulsifier, I mean gelatin latches on to small globules of fat, and suspends those globules in water, pretty much forever. Kind of like when you make a salad dressing, you shake oil and vinegar together and the two are partially mixed, but they eventually separate out. Gelatin prevents this separation from occurring. In science, gelatin would be called a “surfactant.”
As this emulsion happens, the fat droplets (assuming they are tiny enough for the gelatin to latch onto) suspend in the water, and refract light, turning the water opaque and eventually white in color.
All paitan style broths require this emulsion to occur. Cooks use collagen-rich ingredients and a hard boil to essentially churn the gelatin and fat together, the action of the hard boil making the fat droplets ultra small, and ensuring the gelatin is plentiful. This creates a stable, rich, emulsion, that you eat and love and dream about. I’m projecting.
To prove this, I took a basic chintan (again, the light and clear broth), added a tablespoon of fat, and boiled the heck out of it for 15 minutes. The result was a perfectly white soup.
There are other emulsifiers at work here, like little flecks of meat and bone, which have large surface area that likes to grab onto fat, but the gist of it is, the only difference between creamy and clear soups is how much fat is suspended in the broth.
There’s one difference here though. Professional ramen shops have a lot more firepower than our humble stovetops. In those kitchens, they often have 100-quart pots being run on huge candy stoves, stoves that can pump out 90,000 BTUs of flame and anger into those pots, making the soup boil so hard and rapidly that the fat originally on the surface has nowhere to go but into tiny little droplets that the gelatin can then suspend. You probably don’t have this at your house. You might not even have this firepower if you work in a professional kitchen.
But remember the action here: you want to make a soup creamy by making an emulsion. That just requires really sheering the fat until the droplets are so small that the gelatin from the broth making process can do its job. There is an easy alternative than boiling water for days and hoping you achieve this.
Ready for Super Ramen Secret No. 1? All you have to do is throw some broth in a blender. The blades from the blender will whip that fat into the teeny-tiniest droplets that the eager gelatin will latch onto, completing your suspension.
The result is almost too creamy. It’s like milk (fun fact, milk is an emulsion!). But it proves the point. It also proves that ramen doesn’t have a lot of rules. Some advanced shops do this. Some don’t. It’s up to you!
There are way more facets to soup than just the distinction between paitan and chintan. Perhaps the most common is “tare” (pronounced tah-reh), which is seasoning for the soup. Broth has no salt in it, after all (and this warrants a separate article for sure).
You can also combine soups. Maybe make a chintan and a paitan, and bring them together. Some soups are richer than others, even if they’re both the same style. So these two styles aren’t exactly mutually exclusive, they’re good identifiers for what technique was used, and what kind of ramen you’re looking for.
The takeaway from all this is simply that ramen isn’t limited to just one type of soup. It’s not all tonkotsu out there, folks. And you don’t have to feel like eating ramen is always a calorically dense, sluggish affair. It can use the clearest, lightest chicken broth you’ve ever tasted, almost like consommé. It can be vibrant, and alive. It’s all still ramen. So don’t limit yourself to tonkotsu just because you heard it’s “traditional,” there’s a lot of other classic styles out there too! And they’re just as delicious.
Do you see how weird it is to talk about ramen? What are the rules anyway?!
That’s why I love it. Welcome to the mind of a ramen nerd.
Editor’s Note: In the coming weeks, we’ll delve into the other essential components of ramen in this column, plus start you off with a recipe you can make yourself at home.