All The Dope on Ramen | Foolproof

By Mann Bijlani February 22, 2017
Ivan Ramen is going to break the internet soon enough. Image: Greatist.com

The answer to all of life’s problems lies hidden in a bowl of ramen. A good slurp from a piping hot bowl of Tonkotsu and its warm, delicious broth, generously giving out an aroma of smoky pork is one of the greatest feelings one can have during and after a heartening warm meal.

With Ivan Orkin getting an episode on Chef’s Table for his delightful NYC ramen shop, Ivan’s Ramen, the popularity and curiosity around it will only rise.

So, what is Ramen exactly?

Fundamentally, ramen is the name of the noodle. Image: NYTimes.com

Fundamentally, ramen is the name of the noodle. Image: NYTimes.com

To begin with, the Ramen is the name of the noodle itself, rumoured to be a Chinese invention simply adopted by the Japanese. The wheat noodles get their alkaline nature coming from the use of Kansui (a salted mineral water comprising mainly alkaline salts).

Most commercial ramen noodles outside Japan are often made by adding baking soda. The alkalinity helps the broth stick to the noodles. Unlike rice noodles in a Pho, the noodles in ramen are a delivery mechanism for the broth itself. The noodle takes shape in various forms- thin and narrow, thick and wavy, straight or even flat, directly affecting the mouthfeel of each bowl.

Ramen comprises four main elements – broth, tare (generally additional flavouring added to the broth, a bit like Maggi masala), noodles, and finally toppings. Although the flavour of a Ramen comes primarily from its broth, other elements play key supportive roles. The tare, for example, can evolve the initial broth greatly. Ramen styles are classified on the basis of the tare used, the broth, and even the region of origin.

The Tare is also known as Kaeshi, typically a strong seasoning placed at the bottom of the ramen. Its job is to creates dimensions of difference in the broth’s flavour, which is why 3 major types of ramen are named after it:

Shoyu: A Japanese soy sauce that’s rich in depth and flavour, with a fine, fermented aroma. The production of Shoyu is similar to beer or whisky, where starchy soybean is broken down by yeast during fermentation. This makes the sauce acidic and funky, possibly even alcoholic. A common tendency is to age the soy sauce for at least 6 months before bottling as to smoothen the rough edges and increase nuance of flavour.

Shio: Plain sea salt and probably the oldest seasoning in the book, this would be used with lighter broths to really let the base flavour of the broth shine through. The salt would only balance the fat, acidity, and umami, simply making the broth more palatable.

Miso: Fermented bean paste, this comes in a variety of Brown, Red, Yellow and White. It adds a bold dimension to the broth, taking umami and savoury notes to a higher level of intensity. The ferment in this is usually mistaken for a fish product by vegetarians, so I’d recommend this for the more adventurous vegetarians around you.

Ramen relies heavily on broth for its rich flavour. Image: IvanRamen.com

Ramen relies heavily on broth for its rich flavour. Image: IvanRamen.com

The broth is the heart and soul of a ramen bowl. Without a base flavour of meat and the depth it brings to the bowl, there isn’t much the tare, noodles, or toppings can do to save it. Ramen broths are generally simmered for anywhere between 10-14 hours, justifying the occasional reference to liquid gold. The broth is a combination of a choice of poultry, meat, fish and veg and there’s just one unique broth named after its components.

Tonkotsu is the name of a rich, heavy, milk-coloured broth, served generally with thick noodles, topped off with pork belly, scallions and nori along with other combinations. The broth is made primarily by the simmering of pork bones, which also give it the name.

Of all the broths Tonkotsu would be my favourite, hands down. Its richness and body of the broth are unparalleled.

The regional classification of ramen is highly diversified, as each region caters to a specific palate, often based on locally available produce. There’s Sapporo Ramen from the north (Sapporo city), also famous for being the birthplace of Miso Ramen. Tokyo Ramen is popular, with a Shoyu broth and the common toppings of pork, scallion, nori, fish cakes or even spinach. Another popular style is the Kyoto Ramen, where some shops may offer topping the ramen off with a little butter. Other shops provide variations with chilli paste, garlic, and white pepper as well.

Another style of eating ramen is the Tsukemen, in which the noodles and broth are served separately. One dips the cold noodles in piping hot broth and slurps all that awesomeness at once. When ramen came under the international culinary spotlight, endless contemporary versions have been explored and established since. Contemporary ramen, however, is also classified based on the toppings used.

David Chang of Momofuku fame is a global uthority on Ramen. Image: Alchetron.com

David Chang of Momofuku fame is a global uthority on Ramen. Image: Alchetron.com

“Contemporary ramen is totally different than what most Americans think ramen should be. Ramen is not one thing; there are many, many different types,” says David Chang, the chef and owner of Momofuku, notable for being an American ramen shop that lost the fine dining frills to eventually win 2 Michelin stars.

Initial versions of contemporary ramen used instant noodles. The next stage of experiments were conducted on the broth, as chefs tried to make it simply seafood or vegetarian. The broths evolved, then fusing with Korean gochujang and other Asian flavours that wouldn’t be tolerated in traditional Japan’s love for regional, classic ramen. Even the toppings changed: from pork to bacon, scallions to corn, pulled pork, brisket, black-garlic oil and the like. Like David Chang mentioned, the possibilities are endless. The global ramen is almost a new canvas for Japanese chefs to hone their craft, something they’re well-known for already.

Ramen, put simply, began opening to customization and improvisation.

Mumbai-based Mann Bijlani prepares Ramen. Image: instagra.com/thesavourysoul

Local Mumbai Ramen, prepared by the writer of this piece. Image: instagra.com/thesavourysoul

If you’re still to eat your first ramen, here’s some free advice: you may even be unsure of what you’re eating, but the dish grows on you. With a dreamy broth topped with a slice of tender pork belly and fat glistening on the soupy surface, you’ll see overhead lights reflecting in your bowl of ramen. The gentle, heady aroma of ramen is usually what reaches a restaurant table right before the bowl.

There are a variety of ramen styles, and yet, just one way of eating it – to slurp loudly and shamelessly is considered necessary to enjoy your bowl. Your first slurp, it’s scalding, burning your tongue, making you realize soon there’s an entire layer of fat floating on top deceiving you from the actual heat in the broth itself. The idea is to caress it slowly, let your first slurp be gentle and please oh please, don’t bite into your noodles. Be savage for a change.

If you’re looking for a local Mumbai restaurant that serves ramen, here are a few:

The Fatty Bao, The Table, and a vegetarian version with egg at TAG – GourmART Kitchen.

Ps – also watch Ramen Girl. It’s one hell of a movie, best enjoyed after you’ve developed some love for the dish.