First things first: When we talk about the different types of ramen, what we’re really talking about (ahem, most of the time) is the types of broth that ramen is made with.
Of course, there are a ton of variables in ramen, from the types of noodles (straight or wavy, semi-strong flour or all-purpose, plant-based or not) to the endless types of toppings (from bean sprouts to ground pork). But for most people, the type of broth that all these ingredients are swimming in — that’s where the flavor is, and that’s how ramen is referred to. So that’s what we’ll focus on here.
Shio, meaning “salt” in Japanese, is the oldest known seasoning in the history of ramen and one of the most popular ramen types. Its history began in 1800s China, where ramen, or Chinese noodles, as they were then known, was born. In the nineteenth century, Chinese tradesmen brought their delicious invention to Japan, where it spread like wildfire thanks to Chinese shopkeepers who settled and established their Chinese-Japanese fusion noodle dish.
But back to shio ramen: It’s usually clear(er) in color and not as heavy as the other broths. Of course, it’s seasoned with more than salt, too: It’s usually made from a base of chicken or pork broth, dashi, and/or vegetables. And it’s often paired with bamboo shoots, nori, scallions, or pork. Some chefs actually purport that shio ramen is actually the most difficult to master, as it can’t rely on a single umami-packed ingredient like miso or soy sauce to add depth and flavor. So, while it might seem like the most simple ramen variety, a good bowl of shio ramen might actually be prepared with the most thought and care.
Shio ramen is also a great ramen to have with a side, such as a light green salad or a chicken katsu. As the broth isn’t overpowering, it pretty much pairs well with everything.
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Probably the most conventional type of ramen in Japan and specifically in Tokyo, shoyu (or “soy sauce,” in Japanese) ramen is made by adding shoyu to a chicken broth (sometimes, it’s also added to pork or seafood-based broth), along with dried sardines, dashi, and kelp. The resulting flavor is highly savory and umami-packed with an added bit of tang from the shoyu. Personally I liken shoyu ramen to the perfect, comforting bowl of ramen, much like chicken soup, that always hits the spot without weighing me down with too much creaminess or ingredients. It’s ideal for that first day of winter when you just can’t seem to shake the cold!
Like shio ramen, shoyu isn’t opaque, but a light, brown color. Its ubiquity in the ramen scene means that when the type of broth isn’t identified, it’s pretty safe to assume it’s a shoyu broth. Kitakata ramen, one of the most popular ramens in Japan, is actually a shoyu ramen, and is usually made with thicker, chewy noodles that have a higher water content and “left to age” before cooking. You can try it out at its original location in Kitakata, in the Fukushima prefecture.
Tonkotsu (pork bone)
The milkiest and considered the most mouth-watering of all and indulgent of all, tonkotsu ramen is made by boiling pork bones for hours — sometimes days! — until all the flavor, gelatin, fat, and every molecule in between has been disintegrated into pure umami flavor. It’s beige-white in color and rich in flavor.
Tonkotsu (not to be confused with “tonkatsu,” or pork cutlet, by the way) ramen was invented in Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu, by a noodle shop called Nankin Senryo in 1937. Back then, most ramen broth was created using a base of chicken broth. As the story goes, the owner of that food stall, wanting to save on operating costs, decided to try creating a broth using the cheaper pork bones. Ten years later, another chef improved on that recipe by accidentally leaving the heat on his tonkotsu broth on, resulting in the super rich, milky, pork bones-based broth we love today. While my neurotic side is extremely unsettled by the idea of leaving the heat on for an entire night, I’m glad that this story has a happy ending.
Today, the creamiest tonkotsu ramens are fortified with pork or chicken fat and are so thick that they’ll coat the back of a spoon. And they’re served with a wide variety of toppings, including chashu, green onion, seaweed, and corn.
Flavored with miso (or “soybean paste” in Japanese), miso ramen’s thick brown broth is hearty, complex, and layered in flavor.
Morito Omiya, the Hokkaido-based chef who is credited with miso ramen, created this broth because he believed that miso, or fermented soy beans, was good for health. It made sense in the context of an undernourished Japan that was still rebuilding after the second World War. This origin story might also explain the fact that this ramen is one of the heaviest — in Hokkaido, bitter cold winters are the norm, and nothing but a piping hot bowl of soup did a better job at soothing those cold shivers away.
Miso ramen is best served with springy, chewy, yellow noodles and topped with menma, green onion, ground pork, and corn. If you needed further enticement: cold pats of butter are also sometimes added to miso ramen. And remember: No two miso ramens can be alike, because no two misos are alike!