All over the world, cities are famous for iconic foods served on sidewalks, along canals, at festivals and in parks. With a reputation for providing excellent, cheap, fast food, street food vendors unite people across all cultures—from hot dogs in New York City to pav bhaji in Mumbai to coxinha in Sao Paolo. Japan offers a rich street food culture with many vendors, called yatai, setting up their two-wheeled carts during meal times to serve savory, sweet and flavorful dishes to customers.
One of the most popular street food dishes in Japan is ramen. While most people think of ramen as a quintessentially Japanese dish, it was originally brought to Japan from China in the mid-1800s. Made of wheat flour, salt, plain water and kansui (a type of alkaline water which gives the noodles their bounciness and yellow hue), ramen noodles became a staple in Japan following their introduction and were especially ubiquitous following World War II, as wheat flour from the United States became readily available. Over time, ramen specialties emerged, with regional variations being created with unique local flavors, preparation techniques and consumption habits.
There are various types of ramen, and they are distinguished by their heaviness, the broth base, and the seasoning sauce added to the base broth to give it its distinctive flavor, or tare. The noodles and toppings also vary regionally and aficionados develop cult followings to their unique concoctions. The most popular types of ramen are miso ramen, shoyu ramen and tonkotsu ramen.
Sapporo is the birthplace of miso ramen, in which the broth base is made using fermented soybean paste. According to legend, miso ramen was created in a small ramen shop by a customer, who requested noodles in his miso and pork broth soup. The kotteri heaviness of this ramen, because of the added fats and butter, results in an opaque broth. Add in thick noodles and toppings such as garlic, ginger, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, corn, scallions, and minced roasted pork and you have one of the most popular forms of ramen!
Shoyu ramen is one of the most traditional types of ramen, and the broth is simmered for hours, resulting in a complex blend of pork, chicken, vegetables, seaweed and dried fish. The broth is then mixed with soy sauce to complete the flavor. Shoyu ramen, somewhere in the middle of the heaviness scale, is generally served with thin, wavy noodles and topped with scallions, nori, roasted pork, naruto and bamboo shoots.
Tonkotsu ramen is another type of ramen from Japan and it has recently experienced a surge in popularity in the United States. Tonkotsu ramen is made from a rich bone broth, boiled for days, to which thin straight noodles and spicy condiments such as mustard greens, ginger and even chili oil are added. Originating from the Fukuoka area, where yatai are hugely popular, tonkotsu ramen is usually served with all-you-can-eat noodles, making it extra filling and hearty.
Regardless of what type of ramen becomes your favorite, this noodle soup dish is perfect for any season, for lunch or dinner, and any place where savory, soothing and filling food is on order! Tell us about your favorite ramen… and stay tuned for next month’s street food showcase!