The humble bowl of Japanese ramen — a mainstay of the country’s salarymen, office ladies and late-night revelers alike — is taking the world by storm. Ramen shops are now popping up all over the globe, from Barcelona to Bangalore.
Outside of Japan, ramen restaurateurs like Ivan Orkin have brought it to the digital mainstream. Orkin’s popular Ivan Ramen opened in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward in 2005 and led to him returning to New York City to open two more noodle shops in Hell’s Kitchen and the Lower East Side. He’s been featured in one of the more popular episodes of the Netflix show Chef’s Table.
On the other side of the world, there’s Takumi Ramen — one of Europe’s most legit ramen joints. Started by businessmen Haruhiko Saeki and Kenjiro Komatsubara, Takumi’s Sapporo-style ramen can be found in Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich, Dusseldorf and Barcelona. What sets Takumi apart is its partnership with top-notch noodle producer Nishiyama Seimen. This ensures the noodles are done right — just like here in Japan.
This ubiquitous working class dish has gained serious recognition in recent years — with two shops in Tokyo, Naikryu and Tsuta (both located in Toshima ward) — earning Michelin stars. Ramen is now arguably Japan’s most celebrated soul food.
Proper ramen is generally defined by quality broth, springy noodles and toppings like seasoned egg and chopped negi (green onions). But the dish can vary greatly from region to region in Japan. In fact, by some counts, there are over 80 varieties of regional ramen!
Today, we’ll travel north to south, examining three distinct ramen varieties from three Japanese cities:
- Miso (fermented soybean paste) ramen from Sapporo
- Shoyu (soy sauce) ramen from Tokyo
- Tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen from Fukuoka
It should be noted that these three cities have the most number of ramen shops in the country! In other words: Sapporo, Tokyo and Fukuoka love their ramen.
1. Sapporo: Tangy miso ramen
Miso ramen hails from Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island and last frontier. While there are different sorts of miso ramen throughout Hokkaido, the city of Sapporo is often synonymous with miso ramen.
Miso ramen is a relative newcomer and first concocted around the 1950s. It’s no surprise that miso provides the foundation for this ramen. Miso ramen soup normally includes vegetables and meat like chicken or pork, which are all stir-fried in a big wok. In Sapporo-style miso ramen pork lard is commonly used.
In fact, by some counts, there are over 80 varieties of regional ramen!
The combination of miso and pork creates a hearty, almost tangy flavor — perfect for cold Hokkaido winters (it can get as cold as -20 degrees Celsius). In Sapporo, they also add a layer of hot oil to the top of the broth to better preserve the temperature of all the steaming goodness simmering below.
Miso ramen usually uses medium thick, wavy noodles with a whole lot of kansui (alkaline mineral water that gives ramen noodles their springiness). Medium thick noodles complement the often heavier miso ramen broth. In addition, since miso ramen is almost nutty, it’s easier to pick up little bits of broth with wavy noodles.
No one bowl of miso ramen is the same. At Sapporo’s Minoya (2-8-2 Minami 4 Jo Nishi, Chuo-ku, Sapporo. Tel: 11-532-8308) for instance, you can choose to have your broth infused with either ginger or garlic.
Miso ramen includes standard ramen toppings like negi (green onion) or bean sprouts. But unlike other types of ramen, these veggie toppings are oftentimes stir-fried. Furthermore, butter and corn are popular toppings. After all, Hokkaido is Japan’s dairy land.
More tangy miso ramen in Sapporo:
- Menya Saimi
Address: 5-3-12 Misono 10 Jo, Toyohira-ku, Sapporo-shi, Hokkaido
- Menya Yukikaze
Address: 4-2-6 Minami 7 Jonishi, Chuo-ku, Sapporo-shi, Hokkaido
2. Tokyo: Classic shoyu ramen
Moving south, we hit Tokyo, Japan’s massive, bustling capital. Tokyo is located smack dab in the middle of the country and on its biggest island Honshu. Tokyo has naturally played a central role in ramen’s history, boasting some of oldest ramen shops in the country.
Tokyo style ramen is the OG. The prototype. The one that was there from the beginning. If you seek a classic bowl, Tokyo ramen is what you need to dive into.
Due to its Chinese roots, ramen was originally called chuka soba, which literally means Chinese noodles. In the early 1900s, Chinese immigrants in Tokyo prepared noodle dishes like what they had at home. Locals took notice and by adding some Japanese flair, created noodle dishes that eventually evolved into the ramen we know and love today.
With a strong shoyu base, Tokyo ramen heavily uses Japanese-style dashi (kelp and shaved bonito flakes) and chicken stock. But sometimes more vegetables or some fish or pork stock are used, depending on the shop.
Don’t try asking for kaedama at a miso ramen shop in Sapporo. They may have you escorted off the premises.
Shops that sell Tokyo ramen might have other Chinese influenced items on the menu, whether chahan (fried rice), gyoza (fried dumplings) or even wonton (boiled dumplings) in the ramen itself.
The kitchen at Rairaiken’s Yutenji shop is run by the grandson of the original Chinese chef from 1910. The grandson decided to use a 6:4 ratio of chicken to pork. At the original Asakusa shop, it’s the other way around. In this manner, even for historical Tokyo ramen, different ramen shops have the ability to change things up as they like.
More classic shoyu ramen in Tokyo:
- Raishuken Ramen
Address:2-26-3 Nishiasakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo
- Hatsune Ramen
Address:3-11-9 Nishiogiminami, Suginami-ku, Tokyo
3. Fukuoka: Creamy tonkotsu ramen
Last, we head to the southernmost island of Kyushu and its largest city of Fukuoka. Tonkotsu ramen puts Fukuoka City squarely on the ramen map. Big Japanese chains like Ippudo and Ichiran have more recently introduced tonkotsu ramen to the rest of the world.
Tonkotsu ramen probably has the strongest flavored broth in the ramen kingdom. It’s meaty and milky white in taste and color. Depending on where you are on the island of Kyushu, a tonkotsu bowl can vary in terms of thickness or richness. A longer boil at high heat will produce a richer, creamier ramen.
Among its variations, “Hakata” ramen is the most famous. Hakata is a central district in Fukuoka. Much like Sapporo and miso ramen, Hakata is synonymous with Tonkotsu ramen.
If you’re in the city of Fukuoka, one of the best ways to enjoy tonkotsu (or Hakata) ramen is at a food stall — such as Ramen Yamachan in Nakasu. Fukuoka is one of the few Japanese cities that still has a thriving food stall culture — namely in the districts of Nakasu and Tenjin.
Tonkotsu ramen is all about straight and super thin noodles. In addition, a cool feature is that you get to choose how hard or soft you’d like your noodles. Barikata (al dente), or a little firmer when bitten, is a popular choice. Another cool aspect of tonkotsu ramen is that you can order kaedama, or a second helping of noodles, when your original ones are gone. Don’t try asking for kaedama at a miso ramen shop in Sapporo. They may have you escorted off the premises.
Geeky fact: “Nagahama” ramen is a subset of Hakata ramen and sometimes uses even thinner noodles. Nagahama ramen has an interesting backstory: fishermen at the port of Nagahama simply wanted a quick bite to eat before heading back to work. Thin noodles are quicker to boil. In the same respect, Nagahama broth is simpler — rich but not thick. These days, when Japanese aficionados talk about tonkotsu ramen, they usually mention the word “Hakata.” But don’t forget the role Nagahama has played in tonkotsu ramen’s history.
More creamy tonkotsu ramen in Fukuoka:
- Hakata Issou
Address:3-1-6 Hakataekihigashi, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka-shi, Fukuoka-ken
- Hakata Ikkousha
Address:Hakata Wako Building No. 103, 3−23-12 Hakata Ekimae, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka-shi, Fukuoka-ken
If you find yourself in any of these three cities in Japan, make sure to stop in for a local bowl!
What’s your very favorite ramen dish? Let us know in the comments below!