Though it might not be the first dish that pops to mind when thinking about famous Japanese foods, ramen’s culinary footprint has grown significantly in the West in recent years, buoyed by its eruption onto the New York food scene through prominent restaurants like Momofuku.
This eruption has been mirrored in the Toronto food scene, where we’ve been absolutely spoiled for choice when it comes to ramen restaurants, and new, gastronomically acclaimed ramen-ya seem to be opening every month. However, with so many ramen restaurants out there, it can be tough to get your head around all the various styles and variations of ramen on offer.
And you may ask yourself what all the fuss is about. I mean, this is noodle soup we’re talking about, right? How much room is there for innovation?
In a word? Tons.
Over the course of this article, I hope to distill down the years I’ve spent slurping through Toronto’s various ramen restaurants into a handy guide to ramen, cataloguing its many intricacies and variations. Though it can take years of careful study to become a true ramen guru, with this article we hope to elevate you to the level of at least “ramen aficionado,” if not the esteemed title of “ramen expert.”
The Japanese love for ramen runs so deep that folks are happy to slurp up some noodles wherever they find themselves, like at open ramen counters, or these stalls in the Hakata district.
Let’s start by answering some basic questions: when and where did all this noodle-y madness start? And what makes a bowl of noodle soup ramen?
Despite its deep roots in the culinary pantheon of Japanese comfort foods, ramen is a fairly recent addition that was imported from China. The dish gained popularity in the 1940s and ’50s on the basis of the necessary ingredients being relatively cheap and plentiful in post-war Japan.
The recipe, as the Japanese have perfected it, is pretty simple. It starts with a fatty, animal-based broth, which is further flavoured with spices and a particular variety of salt. Springy, chewy, alkaline noodles are added, and they’re topped with slices of cooked meat and a selection of vegetable garnishes. The finished bowl is served piping hot, and customers are encouraged to slurp their way to the bottom before it cools.
Seems pretty straightforward, right? However, with ramen the deliciousness is really in the details. Let’s start by breaking down all the variety possible in the four simple ingredients that make up a bowl: broth, flavour, noodles and toppings.
The perfect bowl of ramen balances four essential ingredients: broth, flavour, noodles and toppings.
Even with the freshest noodles and most intriguing toppings, a bowl of ramen can only shine with a solid choice of broth for its base. This is where the real culinary alchemy finds its way into the dish, as each restaurant combines its own unique blend of protein and spices to stew for hours until the perfect delicious umami flavour is unlocked.
Also known as tonkotsu, this thick, rich option is the gold standard of ramen bases.
A lighter alternative to pork that can still bring a satisfying depth of flavour.
The most curious option that can provide pleasantly delicious surprises.
Noodles come in thick and thin varieties, and a quality noodle should always be springy with a little chewiness.
The real stopping power of a bowl of ramen is its noodles, which provide the solid carb hit that leaves you feeling full. Though noodles alone might not make or break your bowl, every ramen chef will tell you that it’s best to slurp your noodles up immediately (and loudly!) as there’s nothing sadder than waiting until they’ve gone soft and saggy.
Ramen’s saltiness comes from the flavouring chosen, but you can also learn a lot of the history of the dish through its salt. The oldest form of seasoning is shio (salt), which is now most popular in the region around Hakodate. Shoyu (soy sauce)-flavoured ramen is the next oldest, originating from Yokohama. Finally, miso (fermented soybean paste) ramen was born in the 1960s—inspired by Hokkaido’s cold climate.
Don’t confuse this with table soy sauce; this flavour makes the stock darker and sweeter.
Adds more of a unique flavour than shio or shoyu, making a complex, opaque broth.
A light flavour that is slightly saltier than the other options and leaves the broth clearer.
Though ramen chefs express their creativity by tweaking their toppings, any self-respecting bowl usually includes two or three of the following garnishes.
One of the two fresh staple toppings, this one adds the crunch to ramen.
A pop of vibrant green onion, and a vain attempt at pretending you’re eating vegetables.
Delicious fried pork belly: an absolute must-have for your basic bowl.
These tender, seasoned, soft-boiled eggs with custard-like yolks serve as ramen’s “cherry on top.”
Experiment at Home
Life hack: Creating ramen noodles from spaghetti
Though the idea of this makes ramen purists cringe, if you’re looking to make ramen at home but find yourself without the necessary springy noodles, try this workaround.
1. Boil water—just like you would to make pasta.
2. Very gradually add 1 tablespoon of baking soda.
3. Add spaghetti when the bubbling of the soda has stopped.
4. Watch closely, because baking soda can get very bubbly.
5. Strain and add to broth.
Styles by Region
While you can find ramen across Japan, some regions have their own twists on the dish.
Famous for its creamy, rich tonkotsu pork ramen and strong-flavoured toppings like wood-ear mushrooms and spicy mustard greens.
New Ramen Trends
Determined to try for extra credit in our ramen expert crash course? Learn about some of the trends taking ramen to the next level.
With all those styles and regional variations on ramen, you’d think we’d completely covered the subject. However, there exist some further schools of ramen that are innovating on the classic dish. These are some of the most recent variations.
Oodles of Noodles!
Though not ramen, exactly, these variations on the noodle soup are just as popular.
Hailing from Nagasaki, this hearty, stew-like dish sees thick noodles boiled in a pork and seafood soup.
All the ramen goodness with no soupy mess: this is just noodles and strongly flavoured oil—like ramen carbonara.
TAN TAN MEN
A Japanese take on a Sichuanese favourite, featuring ground pork, spinach, bok choy and lots of fiery spices.
Ramen, deconstructed—this dish is served as one bowl of noodles and one bowl of broth in which to dip them.
Regional Ramen Tour
by Sarah Dickson
Warm up with a hot bowl of Hakata ramen
Generous toppings are piled on each steaming bowl of rich, Hakata-style ramen.
Have you slurped up all the noodles from your ramen, only to be faced with an empty sea of broth still waiting to be enjoyed? Never fear. At Hakata Shoryuken you can order kaedama, or extra (refill) noodles, to top up your bowl for $1.99.
Like any other Japanese dish, ramen’s regional varieties are numerous and subtly diverse. Within Toronto you can find varieties from areas like Tokyo and Hokkaido. But when Takuma Shimizu opened his shop in 2014 in the midst of Toronto’s “ramen boom,” he noticed something missing from Toronto’s ramen landscape: Hakata ramen, originating from his hometown of Fukuoka, Japan. He made a call to his friend back home in Japan, a chef, who moved to join him in Toronto—and Hakata Shoryuken was born.
The secret to Shoryuken’s own special ramen broth (or tonkotsu) is that it takes 20 hours to reach perfection, resulting in a rich texture that is thicker than the usual ramen broth. Shoryuken’s Hakata ramen also features melt-in-your-mouth chashu pork, cooked to the point when the meat is just about to fall off the bone. Diners can also choose smoked chashu, which is placed in a smoker fuelled by wood chips from cherry blossom trees. For extra-hungry patrons, Mr. Shimizu suggests trying the “Chashu Lover,” featuring seven delicious slices of chashu pork instead of the usual two.
While Hakata ramen is Shoryuken’s specialty, the menu offers other popular ramen styles like spicy tan tan men. It also offers a vegetarian ramen option alongside traditional Japanese favourites like karaage, edamame and takoyaki. The menu is full of unique toppings to personalize your dish including the exceptionally spicy ghost pepper, which Mr. Shimizu recommends, but says should be ordered on the side for the uninitiated!
5321 Yonge St., North York • 416-733-3725 • www.hakatashoryuken.com
More Stops on the Tour
Continue your ramen journey through Toronto with these other variations.
Hokkaido Style Santouka
Santouka started with a single shop in Hokkaido and has grown to a number of locations around the world, including Toronto’s very own location on Dundas Street. Santouka features Hokkaido-style shio ramen, and a special salad ramen dish that is unique to the shop’s Canadian locations.
91 Dundas St. E., Toronto 647-748-1717 • www. santouka.co.jp/en
Tokyo Style Kyouka Ramen
Kyouka, where they strongly encourage slurping, features Tokyo-style ramen. The chefs work diligently to adhere to the original recipe developed by founder Mr. Machida, whose pioneering efforts have led to a ramen revolution in Japan.
Beaches: 2222 Queen St. E., Toronto • 647-748-6288 Markham: 8384 Woodbine Ave., Markham • 905-604- 4022 • kyouka.ca
Mye 2 was founded in 1987 in Oakville by Executive Chef Motoaki Aoki, who moved to Canada from his hometown of Tokyo by invitation from the mayor of Oakville. Mr. Aoki brought with him a commitment to authentic Japanese flavours, including Mye’s own pork-belly ramen.
360 Dundas St. E., Oakville 905-257-7747 • www. mye2restaurant.com