“Oodles of noodles”. That’s what I grew up eating back home in the states and many children of the 70’s and 80’s will tell you the same. Although the product was not actually called that, we still used the nickname for any pack of dried thin noodles that came alive with boiling water. In reality, what many of us younguns’ were eating was a sadly interpreted import from Asia; the only glimmer of its original culinary glory being mass-produced in the image on its package.
Of course, I’m talking about ramen, those delectable noodles stretching all the way back to Japan. Partly a soup dish, it consists of Chinese style wheat noodles usually served in a meat or fish broth with toppings such as chopped green onions, sliced pork and Kamaboko, a type of fish paste often cut into a variety of shapes. When I first had a bowl of true ramen at a Japanese grocery store near Chicago, to say it knocked my socks off would be an understatement. It was no longer a snack one hoped would fill the belly with repeated servings, but now revealed itself as an actual meal.
I realized that I had been sorely missing out and so when my first visit to Japan arrived, I spent that initial week easing in and out of ramen shops throughout Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. Passing under those alluring red lanterns shining like torches in the night down the narrow side streets, I was a man on a mission.
Ramen permeates every level of Japanese life, and many a school kid has told me that they love the shio version of it, or salt flavor. No surprises there; the broth is clear and loaded with briny goodness with any number of toppings easily accommodating the dish. Adults tended to broaden their horizons, but more than one did confess that miso was their favorite. I also enjoy it; thick, chewy noodles soaked in an almost milky broth of heavy miso (soybean paste), chicken or fish oil. The concoction has a rich, multi-layered flavor; tangy, a bit sweet but nutty.
Shoyu ramen (soy sauce) contains, as you’d guess, lots of soy sauce, it’s broth being brown in color but light on the stomach compared to the others. Many types of toppings go well with it, but you may find more of the Chinese sort in some shops as well as sliced beef. Finally, Tonkotsu ramen is made from boiling pig bones, fat and collagen for many hours. This results in a broth that is creamy white and rich with a taste that seems an alchemist’s strangely fulfilling mixture of the pork’s raw meaty flavor and melted butter. No, I cannot totally put it into words and yes, because it is actually my favorite.
Tonkotsu, which hails from Kyushu, may hit the spot for me, but that doesn’t mean the adventure has ended. Japan is exploding with other regional variations that continue to pop up every day, as pioneering chefs dares to challenge tradition. In Hokkaido, sweet corn has found its way into many bowls of ramen alongside butter, bean sprouts and local seafood; a hearty meal for the cold winters of Japan’s northern island. Kitakata, in Fukushima, is known for thick, flat noodles that are somewhat curly. Zaru ramen are cold noodles which are dipped by chopsticks into a bowl of broth before being quickly slurped up. Trying to keep up with all of these new creations and list them here for you now is impossible, so why not forgo that cup of instant noodles this time and look for the red lantern?