In Juzo Itami’s definitive movie on ramen, “Tampopo,” a woman fights for her economic survival by learning the art of ramen (Chinese noodles in soup) making. Kitakata, Fukushima Prefecture, the local economy survives due to the largest concentration of ramen shops in Japan. Why? Ramen is a successful Chinese import, made from wheat flour, eggs, salt, and kansui, a special mineral water from China. Ramen may have the reputation of being a low-class noodle dish, but ask any Japanese what food they want to eat as a late-night snack. The answer will inevitably be ramen; preferably at a late-night ramen stall or shop.
Below you’ll find all 5 recipes in the “Art of Ramen” series.
A messenger from China brought the flour food culture to Japan in the 8th century. That is when the first form of noodles were first seen in Japan. BY the Edo period (1603-1867), there was a noodle boom in Japan. During the period of 1854-1859, there were 3,700 noodle shops in Edo (old Tokyo). In contrast, the population was only a million. The first person to eat a form of ramen in Japan was Mitsukimi Mito (1628-1700), a relative in Shogun during the Edo era.
So Many Types of Ramen…
In the movie, “Tampopo,” the heroine is in search if authentic ramen, not realizing that ramen is one of Japan’s most versatile noodle dishes. These days, anything goes. It is true that there are standard tastes one expects at a ramen shop or stall, or when eating an instant ramen mix. That is only the beginning in terms of a multitude of tastes and variations.
Ramen has three main tastes: soy sauce, salt or miso (fermented soybeans). Ramen has made regional modifications. For example, Sapporo Ramen, one of the most famous, always uses butter as a garnish. It began in 1923, in Hokkaido, at a noodle shop called Takeya Shokudo.
Ramen noodle making is also varied. It can be made in one of three ways. The most traditional method coming from China, employing a special technique is the extending of the dough by hand. Another way (teuchi) is handmade noodles rolled out with a rolling pin and cut with a knife. The most common and popular way is machine cut noodles. The big difference in these methods is the amount of water in the noodles. Handmade noodles tend to be more watery, with a smoother surface. Machine cut noodles are hard with an uneven surface. These noodles absorb more water, so after eating ramen noodles, most of the soup is gone.
Creativity with Ramen
One of the most interesting phenomena in recent ramen history, as ramen has become a mainstream noodle dish, filtering through society, is the development of some very strange ramen variations and combinations. Here are only a few of the more outrageous.
- Jigoku (Hell) Ramen: Hot, spicy red ramen
- Nori (Seaweed) Ramen: Massive sheets of seaweed cover the top and sides of the ramen bowl
- Ogon (Edible Gold Leaf) Ramen
- Chocolate Noodle Ramen
- Coffee Ramen (coffee replaces the kansui in the noodles)
In a coffee shop in Hakata, Fukuoka Prefecture, ramen noodles made from such diverse ingredients as spinach, carrots, perilla leaves (shiso no ha), oolong tea, or coffee are used. Colorful garnishes include lettuce, tomatoes, cherries, egg and naruto (pink and white spiralled fishcake). The Kanto-style soy-sauce based soup is used with the coffee noodles. The hot soup and coffee flavor create a very distinctive taste. The Kyushu influence is seen by the use of oil floating on top.
Tomato (called red eggplant in China) Yumen, reflects the enduring Chinese influence on ramen noodles. Half boiled tomatoes are crushed using chopsticks, then eaten with noodle in a pork-based soup that has special fragrance, due to the use of celery leaves. First developed by a chef at the Taiwanese Consulate in Tokyo.
Tenshinmen, another ramen noodle dish, uses immense crab legs from Hokkaido, mushrooms, Japanese leeks, and a very thin omelette with green peas covering the top.
Instant ramen first appeared in 1958. World-wide consumption of instant ramen tops 8 billion servings a year. There are numerous regional instant ramen variations in Japan. Curiously, only in Nagoya has regional instant ramen been unsuccessful, because of their famous and unbeatable udon dish, misonikomi.
For the home cook, with a little help from using prepared noodles, it is very easy to make your special style of ramen noodles. We include a variety of soups and garnishes to excite your palate. You take it from there.
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Ramen History in Japan
** The evolution of ramen as a dish and its many different names throughout history reflect the changing Japanese image and attitudes toward China, and increasing popularity of Chinese food. By 1872, the year of the Friendship Treaty between China and Japan, there were over 1100 Chinese living in Yokohama’s Chinatown (called Nanking-machi.) Within ten years, this number would triple. Then, authentic Chinese restaurants were too expensive for most Japanese. After the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), all that would change. More Chinese exchange students came to Japan, and smaller, one dish specialty restaurants (like noodle shops) begin in Nanking-machi. **The name changed from Nakingsoba to shinasoba (used in Nanking-machi from about 1912), then to chukasoba, and, finally, for the past eighty years, ramen.
**Shinasoba wasn’t cheap, but people tried it because it was new. As a comparison, 1.8 liters (a sho) of rice cost 10 sen. The first shinasoba shop was opened in Yokohama by a Chinese. There were no fancy garnishes, just noodles and a pork-based soup with a little soy sauce. Menma (mistakenly thought to be preserved or boiled Chinese bamboo shoots, but were instead Manchurian wild rice stems) were added around 1908, with barbecued pork to satisfy Japanese customers need for little culinary embellishments. It wasn’t until after the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, that more ornate garnishes were added.
**Kansui (Chinese mineral water) is another essential element to making good ramen noodles. The Japanese have borrowed it from China for years. The se of kansui in Chinese flour products have been used for over a hundred years. A Chinese farmer found that if he used special mineral water, made from water of Kan Lake in Northern China, the noodles were easier to extend by hand, with a more elastic and smoother surface. The Chinese believed it had mystical or magic qualities. The Japanese thought so too, until 1959, when it was found to have similar chemical properties to baking soda. The distinctive yellow color of ramen noodles comes from kansui affecting the natural color of the flour.
**By 1911, the first Chinese noodle shop in Asakusa, Tokyo called Rairaiken opened and used kansui to make handmade, naturally extended ramen noodles. Rairaiken specialized in ramen, wonton and shumai. By 1912 or so, Rairaiken had become so popular, that the noodles were being cut by knifes, and ramen noodles had spread throughout Japan.
**Ramen etiquette is pretty loose; but everyone agrees upon one thing; the noisier the slurping, the more enjoyable the eating experience.
A Guide to Cooking Ramen Noodles
**Raw ramen noodles: 3-1/6 ounces (90g) per person. Cook 1 to 2 minutes.
Precooked ramen noodles: 5 ounces (140g) per person. Cook 2 to 3 minutes.
Instant ramen noodles: 2-4/5 (80g) ounces per person. Cook 3 minutes.
**Ramen noodles are always cooked in plenty of water, just like spaghetti. But, salt is not added to the water. If water overflows when boiling, add a cup of cold water to stop it.
**Cook until the al dente (still firm) stage. The hot soup will cook the noodles to the appropriate doneness.
**Drain, but don’t rinse the noodles. Divide the portions (cook only 1 to 2 portions at once) and place in deep soup bowls immediately.
**If you plan to cook lots of noodles, keep the water level up.
**Additional Garnished for Ramen: Canned corn, lightly poached or boiled egg, wakame or nori seaweed, kaiware radish sprouts, peeled shrimp, pickled ginger, crab, baby squid, snow peas, kimchi, toasted and crushed sesame seeds-depends only on your imagination!
**Traditional Condiments Always Served With Ramen:
Place on them on the table; to be added to the ramen by each person as desired.
**Ground White Pepper
**Plain White Vinegar
Here are 5 ramen recipes to get you started!
The Art of Ramen: Basic Chicken Stock For Ramen
- 1 chicken carcass or 7 ounces chicken wings cleaned**
- 1 Japanese leek negi, cut in half
- 1 medium-sized onion peeled and halved
- 1 medium-sized carrot peeled and halved
- 1 large knob ginger peeled and halved
- 3 to 4 egg shells***
- 7-1/2 cups water
Place all ingredients in a soup pot. Bring to a boil, lower heat to a high simmer, and cook, covered, for two to three hours, skimming of the scum occasionally. Strain the stock using a cheesecloth-lined colander; pressing down on the remaining ingredients with the back of a large wooden spoon to release all the flavor. If not used immediately, cool and freeze the stock until needed.
*This recipe can be easily doubled or tripled to yield enough stock for 10 to 15 servings. The stock can be frozen for later use. One serving is 1-1/4 cups.
**Cracked pork bones (for a richer stock) and even shelled short-necked clams, quickly sautéed in sesame oil (for a lighter stock) can replace or be mixed with the chicken to create a different tasting stock.
***The egg shells help to kill the smell of the carcass and/or bones, and to absorb some of the scum.
Soy Sauce Flavoring for Ramen Soup
- 2 large garlic cloves peeled
- 2 knobs ginger peeled
- 1 Japanese leek white part only
- 4 tablespoons mirin sweet sake
- ½ cup + 2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
- ¼ cup + 2 tablespoons sake
- 5 cups strained chicken stock
Mash the garlic, ginger and leek together. Mix together the mirin, soy sauce and sake. Add all the ingredients to a small saucepan and let cook slowly, over low heat, for five minutes. Combine the soy sauce flavoring with hot stock.
Place garnishes on top of the cooked noodles in the soy sauce flavored soup. Add ½ teaspoon lard to each serving and serve piping hot.
Manchurian wild rice stems, (menma or shinashiku) to taste
4 slices fishcake (naruto)
8 leaves parboiled and trimmed spinach, cut into thirds
2 teaspoons lard
Minced green onion or Japanese leek to taste
Salt Flavoring for Ramen Soup
- 5 cups strained chicken stock
- 2-1/2 teaspoons salt
- Black pepper to taste
- Manchurian wild rice stems (menma or shinashiku) to taste
- 4 slices fishcake naruto
- 8 leaves parboiled and trimmed spinach cut into thirds
- 2 teaspoons lard
- Minced green onion or Japanese leek to taste
Heat stock and add the salt and pepper to taste. Place garnishes on top of the cooked noodles in the salt flavored soup. Add ½ teaspoon lard to each serving and serve piping hot.
Barbecued Pork* (Chashu) For Ramen
- 21 ounces 600g pork top leg or shoulder roast**
- ½ Japanese leek white part only
- 2 large cloves garlic peeled
- 1 large knob ginger peeled
- 6 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons white sugar
- 3 tablespoons sake
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon coarsely cracked black pepper
Cut the pork lengthwise, and lightly slash the meat with a sharp knife. Tie up the two pieces of meat with string to hold their shape while cooking. Crush the leek, garlic and ginger together. A food processor works very well for this. Combine the condiments with the remaining ingredients and mix well. Pour over the pork and marinate in the refrigerator for three hours, using a non-aluminium shallow pan. Turn over the pork occasionally.
Preheat the oven 400F (200C). Grill the pork for about 40 minutes, brushing with the remaining marinade at least twice during the cooking process. Cool slightly, remove the string and slice thinly.
*Barbecued Pork is just one of the many garnishes used for Ramen.
A serving usually consists of three to four slices.
**Any left-over pork may be frozen and used another time.
Sapporo-Style Spicy Miso Flavoring for Ramen Soup
Mash the onion and garlic together. Melt the lard in a frying pan and add the raiyu. Put in the onion/garlic mixture and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes. In a small bowl, combine the misos, soy sauce and sesame oil. Add to the frying pan and cook over medium heat for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until thickened and bubbly. Set aside to cool. If refrigerated, it will keep for a few days.
*Lard may be replaced by oil in all the recipes, but, the flavor will change.
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