For far too long America defined ramen as cubes of dried noodles and Styrofoam cups of salty broth. Luckily, we’ve grown a fuller understanding over the past decade or so. Now there are thousands of ramen shops across the U.S. serving dozens of different styles of the soup.
Generally, ramen broth uses some or all of the following: salt, soy sauce, mushrooms, onions, bean paste, kombu (kelp), pork stock, chicken stock and vegetable stock. Proper ramen noodles are wheat, but also alkaline—meaning they’re made with a mineral water called kansui that keeps the acidity low and hinders the production of gluten in the noodles by messing with the enzymes in the wheat flour. This leaves them slightly yellowed, stretchy and very chewy.
Texture is of the utmost importance when we’re talking ramen noodles, though they differ in thickness and shape.
Toppings are crucial. They can be customizable, but each bowl almost always comes with a slab of braised pork belly called chashu, scallions, bean sprouts, nori (dried seaweed), soft-boiled egg and naruto (fish cake).
And while there’s a startling number of ramen styles, some have caught on here in the States more than others. Here are five popular bowls you’re most likely to dip your spoon into and their defining characteristics.
Invented only 50-60 years ago in Sapporo on the north end of the country’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, this style of ramen has spread like squid ink across the country and around the world. Made with fermented bean paste of the same name, miso ramen is cloudy, brown and deeply flavored—perfect for warding off the the cold climate from whence it came. The broth’s robust flavor serves as a hearty base for the locals’ favorite toppings: braised pork belly, bean sprouts, sweet corn and even sometimes a pat of butter.
Originating from the southern port city of Hakodate on Hokkaido, shio is the Japanese word for “salt.” This is the oldest type of ramen in Japan, derived from sea salt-based soups introduced to them by the Chinese arriving in Hakodate. The stock is made with dried seafood, nori and often chicken and/or pork, granting it an oceanic, lighter taste than other styles that recalls the relatively mild weather and coastal location of its birthplace.
Meaning “soy sauce,” shoyu broth tends to appear clear to brown in color. It can be difficult to pinpoint other characteristics of a shoyu bowl. It can have chicken, pork and/or vegetable stock included and served with noodles that vary widely in thickness and shape. It can even be combined to make a kind of hybrid ramen that’s especially flavorful, such as tonkotsu shoyu.
With a name that translates to “pig bones,” this cloudy, pork-fat-milky broth is a favorite among ramen-lovers. Though it’s also infused with garlic, onion and ginger, it still has a relatively mild flavor and is a recommended style for those just beginning their love affair with the dish. It’s usually rounded out with thinner, straight noodles; pork belly; a whole or half of a slow-cooked egg; vegetables like mushrooms, cabbage and bean sprouts and seasonings like nori.
When I dip, you dip, we dip—the noodles, that is. When eating this relatively new style of ramen. Invented in Tokyo around 1960 by the shop Higashi-Ikebukuro Taishoken, what sets these bowls apart is that the noodles are served cold or at room temperature, separately from the pork-based, steaming-hot broth, with the usual toppings of pork and vegetables either on top of the noodles or as a third element also on the side. The broth is deeply rich and pungent, allowing the flavor to coat the thicker noodles when dipped, creating a mouthful of slurp-worthy umami.