The Cultural And Regional Differences Between Ramen In Japan
by Jordan Mounteer
photo by securecat
There are a lot of things that those who never go to Japan think of when they hear the word “Japanese” – iconic cultural artifacts like kimonos, samurai, cherry blossoms, anime – but there is something innately attractive about the cuisine that seems to make the country and the culture stand out all on its own. And of these, none is more quintessential than ramen. Ironically, though, the noodle/soup conglomeration of ingredients isn’t strictly Japanese in origin, but was actually brought over from China during the Meiji Restoration when Japan’s strict policy of isolationism (also known as sakoku) came to an end and it finally opened its borders. Nevertheless, ever since it has become a staple in every city, and a whole technique and style has emerged depending on which region you visit.
The first thing to know about ramen is that there are two types. There are the types that include a broth and noodles, and those that have the noodle and broth separately. Popularly known as tsukemen these features somewhat larger noodles (like the type you find in soba) that were then mixed with a sauce or broth, but it took a while for this style to become popular. Following in its footsteps, another style called aemen came about in which the different ingredients like meat or green onions were placed on top of the noodles and then the sauce was placed over top of all of it. Alas, aemen is still somewhat in its infancy, so it hasn’t really caught on in big metropolitan areas, but if you’re lucky you can sometimes find a restaurant here and there that serves its ramen this way.
Now, when it comes to the more traditional ramen that we’re all familiar with, they can be defined according to two things: the broth and the tare. The tare is actually the salty essence that will define the flavor of the broth and is also what decides what sort of ramen it is. Traditionally there are four main types, including shoyu (soy sauce), shio (salt), tonkotsu (meat), and miso (fermented bean paste). Miso dishes are often a specialty from region to region and based on home recipes, so when you’re traveling this is often a good choice because it will never be the same form one place to the next.
So, let’s look at a few of these regional types:
Hokkaido, the northern most island of Japan, is famously one of the coldes and most desolate (in terms of population), and the small municipality of Asahikawa specializes in its own brand of ramen. It contains a variety of blended broths, including chicken, pork, and seafood, and is a favorite during the winter time when temperatures begin to drop. This shoyu based ramen is unique from the rest of the country in that it is often accompanied by a thick layer of lard – you know you’re in a cold place when the soup is designed to help you put on a few pounds to resist the elements!
This small area takes the origin of ramen seriously, and there is still a strong sense of the Chinese influence in the dish. Traditionally this is a somewhat lighter broth compared to Hokkaido’s style and the milder taste lends to its chicken and pork flavor which is made from a unique shio base. In fact, Hakodate boasts as the first place in Japan to have adopted the shio flavor. Unlike some other places in Japan, the really good ramen shops here stand out by cooking their noodles over a long period of time so that they have a particularly soft texture.
If you thought Asahikawa’s ramen was bad for your health, then you haven’t tasted the Tsubame-Sanjo variety. This incredibly dense ramen is mostly composed of melted lard in the form of suspended pork fat, and is made from pork bones and a shoyu base. Famously the sardine covered thick noodles are also often accompanied with a mound of shaved onion, so that by the time you get through a bowl you’ll be ready for hibernation.
Perhaps one of my favorite, this Fukuoka-style ramen differs from its Honshu-Hokkaido cousins by having very long noodles that are served almost al dente – traditionally you don’t want the noodles cooked hardly at all, although ironically they’re right up there with Hakodate in terms of slowly cooking their broth for hours at a time before finally serve it. Pork bones are thrown in the broth and boiled until every last morsel of marrow has inundated the soup, and there’s a plethora of toppings usually on hand including ginger, bamboo, green onions, garlic, and mustard greens. The great part about dining on Hakata ramen, though? If you ask for kaedama, or extra servings of the noodles, they’re more or less unlimited.
Another Kyushu favorite, the town of Kumamoto sports its own take on tonkotsu ramen, including thicker noodles than their northern counterparts. They also usually includes a number of ingredients that you won’t find anywhere else such as mustard greens, renkon, wood-ear mushrooms (kikurage), bean sprouts, and cabbage – on top of this, Kumamoto also prides itself on being a garlic lover. Nowhere else in Japan will you find ramen that has been laced with both garlic chips and a thick black paste called mayu which is made from burnt garlic and sesame seeds.
Located tragically near the Fukushima nuclear plant, Kitakata nevertheless is rich in heritage, and of all the cities on our list has the highest ramen-shop-to-resident ratio, with an estimated one shop per 300 people according to some sources. There is a lot of creativity in this city as well, as many establishments have even tried making ramen burgers. The ramen here in general is a bit simpler in its approach, but the hand-cut thick noodles are similar to Hakata style ramen in that they are only minimally cooked, and there are few ingredients to accompany the broth.
Whatever your preference, there’s a lot to learn about ramen for both newcomers and Japanese locals alike, and it’s amazing to see how much diversity can occur in something as simple as a noodle-based dish. One thing’s for certain though – wherever you go in Japan, the locals always think their ramen is the best, and who are we to argue?
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