What is ramen (ラーメン)? When and how did it come to be? Learn all about this beloved Japanese dish in all its delicious glory!
Simply put, ramen is a noodle dish. That much you probably knew. But while it’s today considered distinctly Japanese, its roots are actually Chinese. Let’s go back in time and examine these roots.
During Japan’s Meiji Era (1869-1912), many Chinese immigrants settled in the country. They brought with them noodle dish recipes from home.
Chefs adjusted these noodle dish recipes to match local tastes. They eventually added things like kelp and dried fish. In short, ramen was born as a result of these adjustments!
The world’s first EVER ramen restaurant, Rairaiken, opened in Tokyo in 1910. This is widely regarded as the official starting point. If you’re looking for a historical bowl, the grandson of Rairaiken’s owner still makes ramen in Tokyo.
Ramen Types (Seasoning and Soup)
Now what exactly defines ramen? It’s essentially 3 elements – soup, noodles, and toppings. But this describes a lot of noodle dishes around the world, no? So let’s individually look at these elements, starting with the soup.
There is an INSANE amount of ramen variety today. However, there are four main types, which I call “The Big 4”. These 4 are defined by their seasoning and soup.
SHIO (Salt-Seasoned) 塩ラーメン
Shio ramen normally features a crystal clear soup. This soup can be made up of vegetables, chicken bones, pork bones, or other ingredients. The salt seasoning can be light and soft…or salty and punchy.
Okinawan sea salt won’t be the same as Mongolian rock salt, for example. This type is not easy to get right, because it tends to be more delicate and layered.
SHOYU (Soy Sauce-Seasoned) 醤油ラーメン
This one fuels Japan. It’s the most common type across the country – the same type that Rairaiken started in 1910. It’s brown or even black in color and depending on the soy sauce, can be more sweet, more salty, etc.
Just like SHIO, the soup can be a number of different things – chicken bones, onions, ginger…the list goes on. Also like SHIO, SHOYU can carry a lighter flavor. But SHOYU does have heavier soup variations too.
MISO (Miso-Seasoned) 味噌ラーメン
Japan’s most famous miso ramen is from the snowy city of Sapporo, Hokkaido. Engineered to combat the cold temperatures there, it’s served piping hot. Naturally, this type features a bold base of miso (fermented soy beans).
The soup in this type tends to be pork bone forward. But it really depends on the shop. One of my favorites in Tokyo uses pork bones, kelp, high-grade dried sardines, mackerel flakes, and shiitake mushrooms.
TONKOTSU (Pork Bone Soup) 豚骨ラーメン
This Kyushu (West Japan) ramen is all about boiling pork bones until you have a rich, collagen-heavy soup. The seasoning is sometimes soy sauce. But it’s the pork bones that define this creamy ramen.
Hakata (Fukuoka) style is best known, with its ultra thin noodles and noodle refill system. They change things up in other styles, whether blending chicken bones into the soup or employing thicker noodles.
In the future, I’ll create a whole new page with other types (subcategories)!
Ramen noodles are basically 4 ingredients – wheat flour, water, salt and kansui. Kansui is alkaline mineral water. This is a critical ingredient, giving the noodles extra bite and springiness. You don’t find kansui in other noodles.
Ramen noodles come in all shapes and sizes. Shops typically have to consider what noodles will best match their soup. For example, thick noodles would go better with a thick and nutty miso ramen soup.
Below are your typical ramen toppings:
Negi (Spring Onions)
You’ll discover refreshing negi in most bowls. The top green portion of the stalk is milder in flavor. The bottom white part is more oniony. As a topping, negi can come in big chunks, or be thinly sliced or even diced.
Menma (Bamboo Shoots)
Menma are another important source of texture (crunch). Some shops may marinate them.
Back in the day, ramen eggs were mostly hard-boiled. It was only in the early 2000s that runny, soft-boiled eggs became the norm.
Just like with menma, it’s customary to marinate eggs in ingredients like soy sauce.
Staying in the protein department, pork slices are a key ramen topping. Pork belly, ribs, and shoulder are popular cuts. Unlike their roasted counterparts (“char siu” in China), Japanese pork chashu is often boiled and marinated.
Narutomaki (Fish Cake)
Spongy in texture and fishy in flavor, these are a colorful addition to any bowl.
You’ll normally see dried sheets of seaweed, half submerged in your bowl. They almost resemble a deck of cards.
Besides what’s on the above list, toppings can vary. Whether bean sprouts in miso ramen or minced pork in tantanmen, you’ll see differences from region to region, shop to shop.
How to Order
In ramen restaurants, you often have to order from a ticket machine. This is especially the case in Tokyo. Ticket machines help the restaurant staff save time. When you’re greeted by all those buttons, don’t panic.
The house special is usually the top left button! Make sure to put your money in first. After you push one of the buttons, the machine will spit out your ticket(s). Place your ticket(s) on the counter or give them directly to the staff.
In Tokyo, ramen is priced around ¥800 to ¥1,300 (approx. $7.50 to $12). In smaller Japanese cities or rural areas, it costs even less. Higher priced bowls typically include more toppings (extra pork chashu, for example).
The world of ramen is pretty relaxed (unlike sushi). But here are a few things to keep in mind.
Slurping is OK, even encouraged
Japanese slurp ramen for three reasons. Firstly, you’re cooling it down (it’s served hot in Japan). Secondly, just like with wine, your nose is taking in more aromas. Lastly, you’re showing that you’re enjoying it.
You don’t have to slurp if you don’t feel comfortable doing so – it’s just what locals do.
This magical noodle dish is best enjoyed hot. The noodles get soggy if you you wait too long. In other words, dive in immediately!
Furthermore, ramen restaurants are not places where people hang out and linger. You eat…and then leave. This is also how the owners keep everything priced so low.
A silly video on Things Not To Do:
Don’t Standup Chopsticks Vertically
It’s more polite to rest your chopsticks on top of the bowl (not in the bowl). Furthermore, standing up your chopsticks vertically is a big no-no. This is harder to achieve in ramen anyway (the context is usually rice).
In countries around the world, people are probably most familiar with instant ramen. It was invented in 1958 by Momofuku Ando, who eventually set up Nissin. Today, instant ramen is a MASSIVE market, boasting over 100 million servings every year. There are 3 basic styles.
Kicking things off in 1958, this is the most simple style. The packets include noodles and soup.
Boil the noodles in water, add the soup, serve in a separate bowl…and you’re good to go!
In the 1970s, these were a game changer. This is because you no longer needed a separate bowl.
Pop the lid, pour in boiled water, and eat right from same cup. Super convenient.
Bowl Style (Premium)
Premium, bowl-shaped instant ramen are as close as you can get to eating at an actual shop.
It’s a better experience all around – whether properly chewy (non-flash fried) noodles or big chunks of juicy pork.
If you’re interested in purchasing premium instant ramen (free shipping worldwide), check out my other website:
In conclusion, I hope this has helped answer the question “What is Ramen?” I’ll expand upon this series…next up is Regional Types!