Let’s talk about tare. It’s one of the five essential elements of ramen, and I’d argue it’s more important than soup. And unless you’re a die-hard ramen geek, you’ve likely not heard of it.
Tare (pronounced “tah-reh”) means “dipping sauce” in Japanese, but, it’s a lot more than just sauce in the ramen world.
Imagine ramen as a living organism. If soup represents the body of ramen, and noodles are the bones, then tare is the blood. It pushes everything, it gives ramen life. Without it, ramen is a paltry, unseasoned mess.
Tare is the primary seasoning agent of ramen, the sole source of salt in the final soup, and in many ways, a source of a lot more. It’s added to the bottom of the bowl before the soup is poured in, allowing the two to mix and mingle. Usually it’s a saucy consistency, but it can also be a paste—either way, it disappears into the soup.
One of the reasons it’s relative unknown is because tare is often intentionally secretive, given its power in changing and modifying a dish. Chefs safeguard their tare recipes and techniques more than any other component—even from their own cooks. I know a few chefs who still make all of the tare themselves, just to prevent their cooks from making off with their recipes.
I am not that kind of guy, however. I share. Overshare. So I am here to regurgitate a lot of information about tare. Even if you don’t anticipate ever making tare yourself, by understanding its role and purpose, you might navigate ramen menus better and understand the why. And ultimately, isn’t that what we love about food?
What kinds of tare are there?
Historically, tare can be broken into three categories, depending on its primary flavoring mechanism:
- Shoyu, or soy sauce, is the oldest style of tare. Ramen doesn’t exist without this one, because the origins of ramen lie in Japanese cooks re-imagining Chinese soups with local tastes in mind. It was the late 19th century in Japan, and meat was rarely consumed by locals. You have an influx of immigrants, many Chinese, who cooked dishes that were meat-based. According to Slurp! A Social and Culinary History of Ramen, the story goes that Japanese cooks, put off by the smell of meat and garlic found in these foreign soups, wanted to adopt these Chinese noodle soups for a more local audience. To temper those unfamiliar and unsavory meat scents, they used soy sauce—and thus the first iteration of ramen was born.
- Shio, meaning salt, is a salt-based sauce, which is meant to be more about amplifying the existing flavors of the soup than contributing its own flavor. Since the base soup is unseasoned, this tare acts more as a backdrop, adding saltiness and complexity. It often contains a host of dried fish products and blends of different salt (more on both later). It also, ironically, can contain small traces of soy sauce. Again… what are rules even in ramen?
- Miso, the newest tare style, is based on—you guessed it—miso. It’s not just a soup served before your California rolls arrive—miso is a common ingredient in Japan made from mashed legumes and grains (typically soy beans and sometimes wheat), plus koji, a fungus with enzymes that convert protein and starches in legumes into complex flavor compounds. Technically, miso can use any sort of protein rich source (my friend Rich made miso once with ricotta cheese!). The use of miso in ramen originates from Sapporo in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan (those who read my first column know it has a special place in my heart). Miso ramen was invented in the mid 1950s, in a small shop named Aji no Sanpei, whose chef fed hungry workers by adding noodles to a pork miso soup. Or so the lore goes.
These three tares are often major points of delineation on a menu. Chances are you look at a menu, you’ll see at least one of these. Maybe all three. Maybe others too!
But the point is, tare is always included. If you see a ramen shop not using it, question everything.
Tare contributes two things:
- Glutamic acid, or compounds that increase sensation of glutamic acid on the palate.
We’ll start with salt. Because it’s easier.
Salt makes food taste like food. We all know how awesome salt is for flavor. Tare is the sole source of salt in the broth, so without it, the broth tastes like nothing. Just like you wouldn’t eat a steak without salt and pepper, you probably wouldn’t eat soup without at least some salt. So we get reason one for tare, which is salt = able to taste ramen. I hear folks who have embarked on the ramen-making journey say this all the time when they forget tare: “Why does my soup taste like nothing?” Because it has no salt! You’re just drinking bone water!
Since ramen soup is mostly water, you need a lot of salt to bring the flavor out. A typical bowl of ramen has anywhere from 1-2 grams of sodium. By comparison, 20 pieces of McDonald’s chicken nuggets contain nearly 1.5 grams of sodium. Makes my muscles hurt just thinking about it.
As a side note, I want you to ignore anything you hear about specific types of salt. Tare is normally a liquid, which means the effects of salt’s crystal size or shape are non-existent. And since the salt comprises a small amount of the total bowl, the mineral content isn’t going to have an effect on flavor. Those shio shops that tout five different salts in their tare? Pure marketing.
The second aspect of tare is much more provocative. And that, my friends, is glutamic acid. Tare equals umami, the fifth taste.
Umami is weird. All umami is, at its core, the sensation of glutamic acid, or free glutamate*, on your tongue. Glutamic acid is an amino acid, so it’s basically like saying you taste protein. But, that’s technical and hard to understand on its own. So we call it “savory” or “umami.”
* Technically there are two types of glutamate, free and bound, but we really only care about the free, since that’s the one you can taste. So, moving forward, I’ll be referring exclusively to free glutamate.
Part of the reason I reluctantly use the term umami is because the sensation is hard to describe, but very distinct. It’s like when you bite into a steak and it tastes super meaty and rich. It’s how you know torn-up jackfruit isn’t the same as pulled pork unless you douse it in BBQ sauce, or why black bean burgers just feel flat compared to ground beef patties. It’s that intense, almost mouth-watering quality that cheese contains. Sun-dried tomatoes have it. Mushrooms have a lot of it. Bacon and ham too.
The easiest way to taste umami is by sprinkling monosodium glutamate (MSG) on your tongue (No, MSG is not bad for you). MSG is pure umami, no fillers, flavors, or anything else. It’s a glutamic acid molecule with a sodium ion attached. Tasting MSG may horrify or delight you, but I assure you, you’ll understand the flavor if you test it this way. And MSG’s use in ramen in Japan is extremely common, though other sources of glutamate are definitely out there.
So, to really nail it, you need to get some form of glutamate into ramen. Even if you include MSG, by definition, tare typically uses ingredients that contains tons of glutamate.
But glutamate isn’t the whole story. And this is where things get even crazier.
In addition to just loading up your tare with glutamate-rich products (and maybe MSG), most shops also include some ingredients that include compounds called “synergistic nucleotides,” a fancy term for ingredients that rapidly increase how much umami you can taste. There are a bunch of them (easily over 40), and certain ones are more common than others, but many ingredients also include these mysterious molecules, such as shellfish, mackerel, niboshi (small dried sardines), chicken, pork, and anchovies.
Coincidentally, Japan stumbled upon the combination of “synergistic nucleotides” and glutamic acid by developing dashi. Cooks found that by combining kombu (kelp) with bonito (dried tuna flakes), it created a base that was chock full of savory flavor. (If something tastes “Japanese,” it’s likely dashi’s doing.) And this is entirely because the glutamate in the kombu interacts synergistically with the compounds in the bonito. Separately, it would not be nearly as complex or delicious, but together, they build on each other and create extraordinary flavor. It’s umami alchemy.
Ramen chefs, being the nerds they are, are actively using ingredients with high amounts of both glutamate and compounds that make you taste more glutamate, to make the dish feel as intensely savory as possible. Particularly for shio, which only uses salt as the core salty source, these tares tend to have fish products high in glutamate and glutamate-boosting compounds. That’s what the fish is for: Not so much to add a seafood flavor, but more to round out the bowl and give it the crazy umami sensation you expect in ramen.
The goal is just to bring both salt and umami front and center. Which brings us to our first big takeaway: Consider adding products with both glutamate and glutamate boosting properties to your regular cooking. Chili feeling a little flat? A touch of fish sauce will liven it up. Pot roast tasting kind of dull? Add some soy sauce and mushrooms to the braising liquid next time. You’ll be surprised at how much more delicious food can be when you harness the power of that savory, meaty quality that these ingredients provide.
That’s what tare brings to ramen.
Now that we know why we need tare, how does it work? What do you do with it?
Tare is always added to the broth after an order has been placed. Typically, a chef will pull an empty bowl out, ladle in a specific amount of tare—the saucy, dense liquid coating the bottom of the bowl—and then add in the soup, the natural action of the soup cascading and swirling the tare around for even distribution. Some shops, like those in Sapporo, add the tare to a blistering hot wok instead, caramelizing it and tossing it around in a blaze of fiery glory before adding soup, and then adding the scalding hot liquid to the bowl. This is common with miso, where you need to whisk in, as the tare can be quite paste-like in consistency.
But the point is, only right at the very end do tare and broth get combined. Which is an interesting observation. After all, couldn’t you just combine the broth and tare together in a huge pot and just ladle out orders? You could conceivably add miso, salt, or soy sauce tare to the soup and never worry about over or under seasoning the broth. David Chang makes this claim in his ramen recipe in his Momofuku cookbook, calling the seasoning-to-order approach sort of like “Russian roulette.” It’s a good question worthy of discussion. I do see merit in keeping the tare and soup separate.
Probably the biggest reason is that tare gives restaurants flexibility. A cook can make one base soup, and season it with different tares to change up the menu. Instead of just having a soy ramen, a restaurant can make multiple tares and have several different options, all while having to make only one master broth. Given how tiny most ramen shops in Japan are, this creates a lot of efficiency in expanding the menu. So it takes stress off the kitchen and helps cooks deal with demand.
The second reason is more a personal opinion, but worth conveying. A lot of ingredients used in tare (miso, soy sauce, various dried fish products) have flavors that are heat sensitive. If exposed to prolonged heat (say, boiling for hours on end), they can evaporate and dissipate into the air. Japanese cooks like to say dashi should never be cooked hotter than 176 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain the flavor of the fish.
Think of it like wine. Would you drink a wine that you had brought to a boil and then cooled completely? So much of the flavor and complexity evaporates, because wine, like many of these other foods, contains heat-sensitive flavors that evaporate into the air. Sapporo-style ramen relies on heat sensitivity as part of the style. The miso is cooked hot in the wok, and that intense heat rounds out and reduces the miso’s pungency.
So by keeping the tare separate, you can reduce the impact a long-intense boil would have on the tare, giving it the fullest flavor and seasoning capacity possible.
How do you make tare? After all, it’s a mysterious sauce.
There is no one-trick-pony tare. Many differ widely by chef and restaurant. There is, in fact, wide flexibility in the process. Simply combine ingredients that have glutamate, salt, and umami boosting ingredients, making sure you can dissolve in broth, and that’s really all there is to it.
It doesn’t even have to be primarily shoyu, shio, or miso. I’ve done crazy tare, such as Mexican mole-soy sauce tare or tomato tare. Some were more successful than others. But if it’s seasoning the soup and giving you umami, you’re good to go. There aren’t a lot of rules, just stylistic interpretation.
Tare can be wildly complex. As an example, my miso recipe I’ve shared on Reddit contains a lot of ingredients. But it doesn’t have to. Sometimes I just make a super simple one. Here’s an example, with all ingredients you can easily find at the international aisle of your local grocer:
- 450 g soy sauce
- 50 g mirin (sweet cooking wine)
- 20 g salt
- 10-15 g fish sauce
Combine the above, heat to a boil, cool, and reserve indefinitely in the fridge as needed. This gives you the glutamate from the soy, with the glutamate boosters in the fish sauce, and a little sweetness from the mirin to add complexity. It’s super simple and full of tons of umami and salt; exactly what you need. This works with paitan and also chintan, for sure.
Okay, that was a lot. But now you know why ramen is so good! It’s the tare, the secret sauce, that makes or breaks the dish, providing all of the savory quality we love, as well as all of the seasoning.
But a soup isn’t limited to just tare and broth. There’s one other sneaky add-on, possibly just as neglected in the American ramen landscape as tare. We’ll talk about that in the next column.