JAPANESE RAMEN ラーメン is the type of food anyone can eat. It’s affordable, simple, and doesn’t have any pretense. Originally sold as a casual meal for factory workers, it’s now become a cultural phenomenon. Wandering the narrow back streets of Tokyo, or maneuvering through world-class shopping malls, you’re spoiled for choices.
Of course, you can also expect the cacophonous noises of an entire ramenya full of slurping people, exclusively Japanese-speaking staff, and confusing vending machines you must use to place your order…. Ramen shops can be quite intimidating, especially for first-time visitors. Here’s how it’s done:
Walk in like a pro.
Ramen shops aren’t the place to hang out with friends, enjoy a few beers, or have a romantic date. They’re the place where people come, order, pay, eat, and leave. You start your experience by joining a long queue outside the shop. However, the ‘eat and leave’ custom guarantees your wait time will not be insanely long. Look for a vending machine near the entrance, either outside or inside. If there’s a machine, select your dish and drink, pay, and grab a ticket. If there’s no machine, you’ll need to pay at the counter. Once inside, grab the first available stool.
Ramen shops are usually manic, so if you’re a party of two or more, it’s unlikely you’ll get to sit together. Once you’ve secured your seat, watch the chefs crafting your bowl of ramen right in front of you, usually ushered by the head noodle chef, constantly yelling as he pulls noodles from boiling water, shaking them. Most ramen shops will provide you with a glass of tap water, which will be automatically refilled once empty. However, if that’s not the case, look for a jug of water, or a dispenser somewhere in the shop, and help yourself.
Once you finish eating, watch other customers as they leave to see if the shop expects you to put your empty bowl on the upper counter. Just do as they do, and you’ll be fine. Leave as soon as you’re done.
Order like a pro.
There’s a popular culinary equation in Japan: ramen = broth + noodles + toppings. Broth is the most important part of ramen — it’s the body of the dish and takes days to prepare. Ramen chefs train for a very long time to be able to prepare a good bowl of fish- or meat-based broth, and it can take up to 60 hours to boil a perfect one.
There’s an overwhelming variety of different broths. With vending machines featuring a small image of the dish with kanji explanations, you’re bound to fail to order what you actually want. To make the right decision, you should know the basic broths, which you can easily recognize visually:
- Tonkotsu 豚骨 (white, milky, pork-based soup)
- Shoyu 醤油 (brown, transparent, soy-sauce-based soup)
- Miso 味噌 (brown, non-transparent, miso-based soup)
- Shio 塩 (transparent, salt-based soup)
All ramen dishes come with noodles: thick, thin, ribbon-like, straight, wrinkled, long, or short, all made from four basic ingredients: wheat flour, salt, water, and kansui (a type of alkaline mineral water). Making noodles with kansui lends them a yellowish hue, as well as a firm texture.
Now it’s time to get creative with the toppings. The most popular ramen toppings include:
- Chashu チャーシュー (barbecued or braised sliced pork belly)
- Narutomaki 鳴門巻き (cured surimi produced exclusively in Japan, a delicacy made from white-fleshed fish)
- Tamago 卵 (soft-boiled eggs used specifically for ramen)
- Negi ネギ (spring onion)
- Nori 海苔 (dried seaweed)
- Moyashi もやし (soy sprouts)
- Menma メンマ (fermented bamboo shoots)
Slurp it like a pro.
Lean forward towards your bowl and support it with one hand. Take a minute to indulge your senses with the sights and smells coming from your perfect bowl of ramen. Then, grab your chopsticks and start by tasting the noodles, which draw up all the flavors from the broth. Coat them in the broth and slurp, as loudly as you can. Sink the chashu into the soup and leave it to enjoy later. The more soup it absorbs, the softer it gets. Keep slurping the soup. Know that slurping your ramen is a must with the Japanese. Not only is it the ideal way to enjoy a bowl of ramen, but it can be insulting to the chef if you eat your ramen too quietly.
Once you finish the last drop, put the bowl down and say: Gochisousama deshita ごちそうさまでした (Thanks for the meal). This post was published in its original form at Go Abroad, and is reprinted here with permission.