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Originally Chinese, but now more closely associated with Japanese culture, ramen is the consummate street fare in Japan. Ramen (yes, the noodles in a slurpy salty broth), which hit urban areas in the United States just a few short years ago, is now finding its way into mainstream America. These are not the exact same noodles college kids buy at 10 bricks for $10, but they are basically the same product. In fact, one Japanese name for instant ramen is gakusei ryori, or student cuisine.
Ramen is distinctly a noodle soup: equal parts noodle and soup, not more of one than the other. It’s definitely brothy rather than saucy (like lo mein, for example), and slurping is encouraged. It’s considered quick, inexpensive street food, and ultimately comes close to holding the title of national dish. It’s infinitely more affordable than sushi, and more ubiquitous, being present in vending machines, train stations, food stalls (called ramenyas), cafeterias, and beyond. Many experts agree that soup is a hot (pardon the pun) trend in dining these days, so it’s no surprise that Americans are picking up soup spoons and slurping away.
Despite its synonym status in the United States, there’s nothing instant about these complex flavors. Quality broths are lovingly tended for hours, waiting for the deserving patron (meaning one with at least a few bucks in his/her pocket) to purchase them. Much of the draw of ramen in this country is its authenticity. When done right, these noodles are the same as those you would get in Japan. Look for a few basic types of ramen in restaurants starting to traverse the U.S.A.:
- Shio (salt) ramen has clear, almost transparent chicken broth.
- Tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen has (usually) a white, thick broth made from crushed pork bones that have been boiled for hours.
- Shoyu (soy sauce) ramen soup is made by adding a soy-based sauce to a stock usually made from chicken and various vegetables. Popular seasonings are black pepper or chile oil.
- Miso ramen has broth that combines chicken stock with a fermented soybean paste.
Toppings for ramen abound, from simple scallions and bean sprouts to more complicated fried pork dumplings, known as gyoza, or hard-boiled eggs. The noodles vary from noodle house to noodle house, and broth to broth. Look for curly (thick and thin) and flat (thick and thin) that the noodle master chooses to pair with his creation. (So the Shio ramen at one place may have thin curly noodles, but at another ramenya the Shio ramen will have flat wide noodles.)
This cuisine, though simple, has no shortage of American devotees, especially on the web.
Most students will recognize the name “Top Ramen”:
http://www.nissinfoods.com/topramen/ most easily, and gravitate toward that product without question. Here are a few other sites of note:
Ramen love has actually spawned an independent record label, Fueled By Ramen, signing bands such as Fall Out Boy, Gym Class Heroes and Lifetime. And true ramen lovers agree that Tompopo, a 1986 beloved cult classic in Japan about opening a ramen restaurant, is a must-see for those interested in immersing themselves in ramen culture on this side of the Pacific.
Here are a few places to check out real ramen for your next dining excursion.
- Ramen Halu in San Jose, Calif.
- Ebisu Restaurant in Fountain Valley, Calif.
- Matsuchan in Canton, Mich.
- Asahi Ramen in Los Angeles
- Togoshi Ramen in Las Vegas
- Toshi’s Ramen in Eugene, Ore.
- Rai Rai Ken in the East Village in New York
- Momofuku in New York
One of the hottest ramenyas in the country at the moment is Santoka Ramen, located in the food court (yes, it’s true) of the chain Mitsuwa Market, dubbed the Mall of Japan. It’s getting rave reviews at all of its locations. Check out the website for the Chicago Mitsuwa to get a feel for what’s available in the market. There currently are locations in Chicago, New Jersey and Southern California.
And we’re looking forward to at least one mainstream ramen noodle house opening soon in the U.S.A. Wagamama, the UK’s favorite fast-food ramen joint, is opening two stores in Boston this year: one in April, the second this summer.
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