If I were to ask you to think about Japanese food, what is the first food that springs to mind? Teppanyaki? Tempura? Sukiyaki?
Yeah, that’s it. You’re nodding, aren’t you? Nothing against sushi, it’s great in all its forms. But it is far from being a Japanese staple.
These days, my go to Japanese food is ramen. Not the dry noodles in packages that every university student is familiar with (my favourite is Sapporo Ichiban), but ramen served in Japanese restaurants that specialize in ramen.
In Japan, ramen has been popular for decades. There is even a museum dedicated to the noodly goodness. But in the past 20 years, there has been a ramen renaissance of sorts – a renaissance that is only hitting North American shores. There are around 21,000 ramen restaurants in the Greater Tokyo area (Japan Explained FASAQ) but only a handful in Calgary. A number that is sure to grow.
And what do I like about? Everything. It is not as simple as just noodles in soup. The broth alone can take almost a day to simmer and the heady aroma of pork, ginger and other spices makes my head spin. Good ramen restaurants make their own noodles from scratch. Some even make their own chashu: delicate slices of barbecued pork belly that break apart on your chopsticks. The rest of the toppings range from bamboo shoots, green onions, soft-boiled eggs and corn. Other restaurants get even more exotic.
I’m getting hungry just writing about this.
So if you will try a bowl, as a ramen-lover who likes more traditional soups, I suggest trying any of the following three types to start before moving on to more exotic ramen dishes:
Tonkotsu Ramen: a ramen-traditionalist’s dream. A broth made with pork-bone and other seasonings and simmered for a day to create a thick broth that sticks to the noodles. The umami in a well-made bowl of Tonkotsu Ramen cannot be overstated. It’s heaven.
Shio Ramen: Not to be confused with Shoyu Ramen (soy sauce broth base) the broth in this dish is made from salt. But it is not as simple as it sounds. The number of components in shio ramen broth alone take a day to create. The balance of salt and pork fat, if done right, will make you immediately wish for another bowl.
Miso Ramen: Miso paste was added to ramen broths in northern Japan. Maybe they thought it was a remedy for cold winters, but Miso Ramen eventually made its way down south and across the Pacific. Fantastic on cold days for an extra shot of flavour
Tsukemen: Okay, I lied. There is another type of ramen I like, but its not fair to most people reading this. So far, I can’t find this on the continent. I had to travel all the way to Hawaii to enjoy this ramen dish. Tsukemen is served with hot broth and cold ramen noodles. The broth is more concentrated. You dip the noodles into the broth and consume. Exquisite when done right and I like to think I would go back to Honolulu just to have another bowl or two.
So there you have it. If you want to try a dish that many Japanese have on a daily basis, find a local ramen restaurant and chow down. You’ll find yourself traveling to Japan, at least in your stomach.
And now, it’s your turn. Send me an e-mail and let me know if you have tried ramen and if so, what is your favourite kind.
One last thing: My next post will be up on March 22 and the 22nd of every month hereafter. This post will be a column entitled “Breathe In, Breathe Out” and will be a monthly post about my writing – where it is going and what I’m writing. So, see you in two weeks.