Gettin’ Down to the Bottom of the Bowl: Ramen

Behold the new series called “Gettin’ Down to the Bottom of the Bowl!”  These are dedicated to classes I’m taking about certain style of soups (can’t say that I’ll actually be taking many of these) or any informational posts that go beyond the taste and ingredients of a soup (i.e. the history of where it came from).  I might just be taking stuff from Wikipedia.  Who knows.  This series stems from a ramen class I took a few weeks ago at the Japanese Culinary Center.  Basically, I and a few friends – T, L, JF, JF’s gf, JF’s friend – paid $40 and dedicated two hours to listening to a Japanese chef talk about the fine details of ramen and then stuffing our faces with three different bowls of noodles.

Upon entering and getting your name checked off the list, you’re handed a few pieces of paper stapled together.  I don’t think I’ve been handed class materials filled with pictures and charts since I graduated college ten years ago.  My brain wasn’t sure how to process it.  Luckily I wasn’t being graded, and I’m going to find out right now if I even understand the notes I scribbled all over the paper.  I’m definitely not as organized in my note-taking as I used to be.

In any case, first observation – the paper was stapled on the upper right hand side.  How authentic!  Certainly not in some fake Japanese joint.  No way, Jose.

You then chose which high-top table (no seats) you wanted to join.  About six people fit to a table.  And, while you were standing there listening to the chef explain the intricacies of ramen, you found your head turning right a few times to stare longingly at the mis en place for the noodles you were going to taste later.  Way to make your students lose focus.  Such a tease.

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So what did I* learn?  Here’s a little Q&A:

Where did ramen originate from?
China…of course.  ;op  In Chinese, we call it “la mien.”

What is the “definition” of ramen?
Soup + noodle = ramen

How many varieties of ramen are there in Japan?
3000-ish, but I’m not really sure anyone can put an exact number on it.  The high number is due to the fact that practically every little region has its own version.  And, according to Wikipedia, ramen with the same name can even have nuances from different vendors that propagate even more variations.

Some specifics on varieties of ramen that coincide with varieties of sake made in different regions.
Closer to shores of Japan –> More seafood-based ramen and crisper, cleaner sake
More inland –> More pork- and chicken-based ramen and bolder sake
More north –> More miso-based, fermented flavors and I have no idea about the sake

What is the soup made of? (Note: I’m taking this from Wikipedia since the sheet of paper is confusing.)
“Ramen soup is generally made from stock based on chicken or pork, combined with a variety of ingredients such as kombu (kelp), katsuobushi (skipjack tuna flakes), niboshi (dried baby sardines), beef bones, shiitake, and onions, and then flavored with salt, miso, or soy sauce.  Other styles that have emerged later on include curry ramen and other flavors.

The resulting combination is generally divided into four categories (although new and original variations often make this categorisation less clear-cut):”  Shio (“salt”), Tonkotsu (“pork bone”), Shoyu (lots of soy sauce), and Miso.  More on the latter three later.

What types of noodles are there?
They vary in texture, absorbability and shape.  There’s thick/thin, straight/wavy, water-added/less water-added, aged and flat.  We got to squeeze and smell some curly, raw noodles, and they were hard to break.  When you squeeze, it apparently creates the release of glutens, increasing the elasticity of the noodles (did I get this right? not sure).

Ramen noodles have a gauge number much like what you see with Italian pasta in the grocery stores.  The number is determined by how many 3cm widths you can cut.  The bigger the number, the thinner the noodle.

What is the unique ingredient that gives the noodles the “al dente” quality?
Sodium bicarbonate, which has a pronounced smell when uncooked (I did smell it when we passed the raw noodles around.).  It helps to keep the noodles firm even when in broth for a while.

So how long should you cook the noodles for?
Boil in water for two minutes in a separate pot, without salt, until 80-90% cooked.  Once you pour broth over them, the broth will finish the cooking process.

If you buy fresh raw noodles, do you have to cook it right away?
No.  If you actually “age” the noodles in the fridge for two weeks – covered (to not absorb other odors) but not air tight – it will create a better texture and enhance the flavor.  But, of course, if you see mold, toss out!  I’m sure you don’t want that kind of “enhanced” flavor…although you could possibly make that into your own special variation of ramen. ;o)

I bought a certain type of noodle.  Now what broth do I pair it with?  (Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand the diagram and can’t tell where straight vs. curly noodles fit in this.)
Soft, thin noodles –> Light soup
Soft, thick noodles –> Light, rich soup
Hard, thin noodles –> Tonkotsu soup
Hard, thick noodles –> Heavy, rich soup

How should I serve the noodles?
Piping hot.  It’s considered shameful if the bowl is not served hot.

It’s time to eat, and you hear people slurping really loudly when they eat ramen.  It seems like bad etiquette, right?  Why do they do that?
Slurping enhances the retro-nasal olfaction, which opens up the aromas.  So some people do this for a better ramen experience.  Of course, for some people, slurping is just slurping, and not something more sophisticated.  As for me, I can’t even slurp.  I tried.  I don’t like sucking in extra air for reasons I shall not say out loud.  So I guess I’m an average Yoshi (my name at a certain Starbucks), neither sophisticated nor bad-mannered.  Whether I can slurp or not, ramen still tastes super delicious to me!

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Now let’s get to the types of ramen we actually ate during class.  They pre-made everything for us and set up stations.  First, we picked up the actual bowls of noodles in one section of the room.  Three types = three lines.

Then, we went to the broth station to get the correct broth.

After the broth, we went to the “gu” (ingredient) station and added the appropriate stuff for the type of ramen you were eating (Hakata/Tonkotsu, Sapporo/Miso or Tokyo/Shoyu).

And we finally got to eat what we so beautifully, or not so beautifully, put together…one big bowl at a time…

Hakata Ramen (Tonkotsu Ramen)

It’s a specialty of Kyushu, the southern part of Japan.  The rich broth is made from pork bone (“tonkotsu”), which is boiled under high heat.  The umami (or “savoriness” in English, “good taste/flavor” in Japanese) stems from the inosinic acid (used as flavor enhancer and important in metabolism) and emulsified fat.  Made with thin, firm, low moisture, straight noodles.  Common ingredients are: charshu (pork), kikurage (wood ear mushrooms), naruto (??), and beni shoga (sweet and sour red ginger).  [Um, re: photo, is that kamaboko (fish cake) supposed to be in there?  It’s not in the list of gu I just typed up.  Imposter!]  My favorite ramen spot in Manhattan that serves this style is Ippudo.

Sapporo Ramen (Miso Ramen)

Sapporo ramen originated in none other than Sapporo, Hokkaido, the northern part of Japan.  It’s made with a pork and chicken stock mixed with Shinshu miso (golden yellow miso that is salty but mild and versatile).  Let’s talk about miso for a sec…

There are two types of miso:  red (aka) and white (shiro).  Red takes six to nine months to produce, but white only takes two to three months, so white is typically used because it’s faster to make.  If you blend red and white miso, you create Awase miso.  Supposedly, the red gives umami and the white is more palatable.  Huh?

…now back to Sapporo ramen…it has a hearty, rich, nutty flavor, and it’s not oily because of miso’s “absorbability” to oil.  The broth pairs with high moisture, medium thick, wavy noodles to catch the “essence” better.  Ingredients include: charshu, corn, butter (Hokkaido is famous for its dairy products, so they put butter in everything; the butter goes well with the corn), sauteed bean sprouts, menma (bamboo braised in sake, mirin, soy sauce; my fave!), raw scallions, kamaboko.

Tokyo Ramen (Shoyu Ramen)

Other common names for this type of ramen are “Shinasoba” or “Chukasoba.”  The clean, light broth is made from chicken and pork bones that are simmered in medium heat with soy sauce added.  Since it’s light, it’s considered good for the spring and summer.  By the way, there are 200 microbreweries that make soy sauce.  Yup, that’s right, microbreweries don’t just apply to beer!  Common ingredients are:  charshu, nori (seaweed), menma, kamaboko, tomago (egg), raw scallions, and sometimes bonito (dried fish flakes).

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As you may have guessed, we were stuffed after having three bowls of ramen.  I think I satisfied any ramen craving for a long time after that.  So, even though we received an email with recipes to make all three types a couple of days after class, I have had no desire to look at them.  I don’t know if I ever will either, since I think, for me, great ramen is something I’ll always purchase at a restaurant, not something I’ll make on my own.  Even so, I’m still not sharing the goods with you, because I paid a relatively hefty $40 for this class.  Gotta save a little somethin’ special for myself!

Alas, that’s all I have to say.  I do hope you’re full of knowledge and will soon be full of satisfying ramen.

*Others may have learned more or less.  So this is by no means an account of EVERYTHING we learned in the class.  Did I need to include this footnote?  Probably not.

Japanese Culinary Center
711 Third Avenue
New York, NY 10017


About Tynee

My latest adventure: trying all 50 of what New York Magazine dubbed the "Tastiest" Soups in the city in 2009. Read all about it here. View all posts by Tynee

2 responses to “Gettin’ Down to the Bottom of the Bowl: Ramen

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