In honor of the return of Ramen to Now and Zen, one of Charlottesville's local Japanese restaurants, for two days only (April 7th and 8th) I thought I would share a few words about Ramen in Japan.
If you are interested in having some delicious ramen here in Charlottesville, this special event might be your only chance!
Ramen is a noodle soup that some believe was originally imported to Japan from China in the Meiji Period. In more recent decades, it has become a very popular dish in Japan, adapted to the Japanese taste. Ramen's popularity quickly spread from Yokohama, Hakodate and Japan's other port cities to every corner of Japan during the Taisho and Showa eras (most of the 20th century). At first, ramen restaurants enthusiastically reproduced the recipes from the big port cities. Eventually however, they learned to refine their ramen recipes to their local tastes and identities. Today, every locality in Japan boasts its own unique style of ramen.
Ramen can be classified according to its soup base. The most popular ones are:
• Shoyu Ramen: Brown, transparent, soya sauce based soup
• Miso Ramen: Brown, non-transparent, miso based soup.
• Shio Ramen: Transparent, salt based soup.
• Tonkotsu Ramen: White, milky, pork based soup.
The etymology of ramen is a topic of debate. One theory is that ramen is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese lamian (拉麺), meaning "hand-pulled noodles." A second theory proposes 老麺 (laomian, "old noodles") as the original form, while another states that ramen was initially 鹵麺 (lǔmiàn), noodles cooked in a thick, starchy sauce. A fourth theory is that the word derives from 撈麵 (lāomiàn, "lo mein"), which in Cantonese 撈 means to "stir", and the name refers to the method of preparation by stirring the noodles with a sauce. In Korea, ramen is called ramyeon (라면).
In 1958, instant noodles were invented by Momofuku Ando, the Taiwanese-Japanese founder and chairman of Nissin Foods, now run by his son Koki Ando. Named the greatest Japanese invention of the 20th century in a Japanese poll, instant ramen allowed anyone to make this dish simply by adding boiling water.
Several regions have their own special varieties of Ramen:
Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, is especially famous for its ramen. Most people in Japan associate Sapporo with its rich miso ramen, which was invented there and which is ideal for Hokkaido's harsh, snowy winters. Sapporo miso ramen is typically topped with sweetcorn, butter, bean sprouts, finely chopped pork, and garlic, and sometimes local seafood such asscallop, squid, and crab. Hakodate, another city of Hokkaidō, is famous for its salt flavored ramen, while Asahikawa, in the north of the island, offers soy sauce flavored ones.
Kitakata in northern Honshu is known for its rather thick, flat, curly noodles served in a pork-and-niboshi broth. The area within its former city boundaries has the highest per-capita number of ramen establishments. Ramen has such prominence in the region that locally, the word soba usually refers to ramen, and not to actual soba which is referred to as nihon soba("Japanese soba").
Tokyo style ramen consists of slightly thin, curly noodles served in a soy-flavoured chicken broth. The Tokyo style broth typically has a touch of dashi, as old ramen establishments in Tokyo often originate from soba eateries. Standard toppings on top are chopped scallion, menma, sliced pork, kamaboko, egg, nori, and spinach. Ikebukuro, Ogikubo and Ebisu are three areas in Tokyo known for their ramen.
Yokohama ramen specialty is called Ie-kei (家系). It consists of thick, straight-ish noodles served in a soy flavored pork broth similar to tonkotsu. The standard toppings are roasted pork (char siu), boiled spinach, sheets of nori, often with shredded Welsh onion (negi) and a soft or hard boiled egg. It is traditional for customers to call the softness of the noodles, the richness of the broth and the amount of oil they want.
Hakata ramen originates from Hakata district of Fukuoka city in Kyushu. It has a rich, milky, pork-bone tonkotsu broth and rather thin, non-curly and resilient noodles. Often, distinctive toppings such as crushed garlic, beni shoga (pickled ginger), sesame seeds, and spicy pickled mustard greens (karashi takana) are left on tables for customers to serve themselves. Ramen stalls in Hakata and Tenjin are well-known within Japan. Recent trends have made Hakata ramen one of the most popular types in Japan, and several chain restaurants specializing in Hakata ramen can be found all over the country.