When we in the West think of ramen, what typically comes to mind is something that comes in a packet and has the flavor of a salt lick that had some chicken thrown at it. While instant ramen may be the most ubiquitous form of ramen, it is by no means the only kind; in fact, even with the recent rise in popularity of fresh ramen in the West, we really only see one or two varieties of ramen in the U.S. Granted, an individual chef may put their unique spin on a classic bowl of ramen, but we are still nowhere near the number of regional ramen styles found all across Japan.
Japanese ramen is classified into a few different categories based on the kind of broth and condiments used in its preparation; this is generally a regional preference, and while different regions may produce similar types of ramen, you’d be hard-pressed to find true Kitakata-style ramen in Hokkaido, even if you can find something almost identical. Ramen is typically made with either tonkotsu, shio, or shoyu broth, with any variations in the way the broth is made coming down the region it’s being made in and the chef it’s being made by. Tonkotsu broth is made by boiling pork bones, chicken bones, pork fat, and aromatics for hours until the broth has reduced to the consistency and appearance of light cream. Shio or salt broth is made by boiling chicken bones and either bonito flakes or dried sardines with aromatics; contrary to what its name implies, this produces a light, clear broth that lacks the intense richness of tonkotsu broth. Shoyu broth is the most common iteration of ramen broth and is made by combining a broth made from chicken and possibly pork bones or dried fish with soy sauce. This produces a broth that is flavorful and redolent of umami flavors and falls somewhere in the middle on the spectrum of richness.
These broths form the basis for the breakdown of regional ramen styles, with presentation and soup additions forming the rest; in spite of this, there’s still a basic framework for the kind of things that go into a typical bowl of ramen. The first is meat, which is typically chashu (or “char-siu”, if you’re going by the Chinese pronunciation) pork shoulder or belly – the cut is marinated in a combination of soy sauce, mirin, sake, and aromatics and then braised until delightfully tender and juicy. You may also see the addition of chicken, seafood, and/or ground pork, depending on the style of ramen being made. Next up is the boiled egg, which can be soft or hard boiled, depending on the shop and possibly the preference of the customer. The eggs may be added as-is, albeit cut in half to let the yolk mix with the broth, or they may be marinated in soy sauce and mirin beforehand; this lends a wonderful salty sweetness to the eggs that compliments the other flavors present in the ramen. Other additions include pickled bamboo shoots, known as menma, or pickled ginger; nori or wakame seaweed, which add an ocean-y flavor and texture; lots of freshly chopped scallions; various fresh and sautéed vegetables, such as cabbage or mushrooms; and a variety of seasoning blends and flavored oils. These elements, in combination, produce the many regional styles of ramen found in Japan – here are the most notable variations by region!
Hokkaido is the most northerly island of Japan and is known for its frigid, snowy winters. This means that its food has to be able to stand up to the cold temperatures, and nothing does this quite as well as a bowl of ramen. The city of Sapporo is particularly renowned for its miso ramen, a rich tonkotsu broth mixed with fragrant miso paste and topped with roasted pork belly, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, a boiled egg, corn, and a pat of butter. Hokkaido is also the home of Hakodate-style ramen which is considered the quintessential version of shio ramen; a light, seafood-based broth is served with noodles, kelp, seafood, slices of pork shoulder, and pieces of chicken. The addition of seafood is thanks in part to Hakodate’s status as one of Hokkaido’s port cities, as is the addition of kelp. Hokkaido’s final claim to ramen fame is found in the lesser known Asahikawa-style ramen, a shoyu-broth based ramen served with a layer of flavored oil floating on the surface. This not only serves to coat each bite in flavor but also has the very practical purpose of keeping in heat, keeping your ramen piping hot even in a Hokkaido winter’s sub-zero temperatures!
Honshu is the largest island in the Japanese archipelago and is considered Japan’s mainland. Honshu is broken up into many individual prefectures, and for every prefecture, there’s a style of ramen! In Fukushima prefecture, you’ll find Kitakata-style ramen. Made with slightly thicker and more slippery noodles than other types of ramen, Kitakata-style ramen is based on a shoyu broth that is almost light enough to be considered a shio ramen and flavored with the addition of dried sardines. It is usually served with several slices of pork shoulder, a slice of naruto fish cake, and a marinated egg; it’s the main attraction in the town of Kitakata which, despite its ramen-related renown, is otherwise fairly sleepy and rural.
Around the middle of the island is Chiba prefecture, in which you’ll find the Japanese capital city of Tokyo. For a long time, Tokyo ramen was considered the essential bowl of ramen in Japan – a flavorful shoyu broth made with dried bonito flakes and chicken bones served with chewy noodles, fatty chashu pork belly, and an egg. Recently, Tokyo became the birth place of the newest style of ramen, known as tsukemen. Unlike a standard bowl of ramen where all the elements are served together, tsukemen is served like traditional soba noodles – the noodles and broth are served separately, with the noodles usually served cold, and the broth is concentrated so that the noodles can be dunked into it before eating. The result is a ramen with the flavor of ten bowls in one, and it’s become a hugely popular alternative to the traditional, steaming bowl of ramen. The noodles will usually come with a marinated egg, while the broth will be filled with fresh scallions, chopped pork, and other nibbles that can be eaten with the noodles or on their own.
Continue heading south and you’ll run into Nagoya, home of Nagoya-style tantanmen, also known as Taiwan ramen. This ramen is really a take on the Chinese classic dandanmian and was originally invented by a Taiwanese chef living in Nagoya; the shoyu broth gets punched up with Japanese toasted sesame paste, miso, and chili oil, as well as other traditional Chinese condiments. Instead of slices of chashu pork, tantanmen instead features spicy ground pork, which adds a delicious element of crunch and yet more spice. Still further south sits Wakayama, which is home to one of the most famous ramen shops in Japan and has set the standard for Wakayama-style ramen, though you’ll be hard-pressed to find any locals who call it that – most refer to it as chuka soba! Characterized by its hybrid tonkotsu-shoyu broth and straight noodles, this style has surpassed Tokyo ramen in recent years as the gold-standard for ramen in Japan, the best bowls being found at the restaurant Ide Shoten.
The last stop in the ramen tour of Honshu has to be Onomichi in Hiroshima, home of the infamous Onomichi-style ramen. Onomichi ramen starts out reasonably enough: piping-hot shoyu broth is flavored with the addition of dried seafood, the standard thin noodles are replaced with flat noodles, and the whole thing is done-up with chashu pork and fresh vegetables. Be warned though: sealing in all that flavor, and particularly the heat, is a layer of molten pork fat floating at the top of the bowl. This makes Onomichi ramen particularly tricky to eat, as the fat seals in any steam with the heat, making it impossible to tell if your next bite is going to sear your mouth or not. However, it’s well worth the risk as the fat coats every bite with a luscious layer of flavor and turns an otherwise humble bowl of ramen into a truly luxurious experience.
Kyushu is the southwestern-most island of the main chain of Japanese islands and is known for its tropical climate as well as its volcanic activity. Less well known in the West are the various styles of ramen that have evolved in cities around Kyushu, particularly in the area of Fukuoka, which has come to be known as a true ramen Eden. Fukuoka ramen starts and end with tonkotsu broth – everything else in the bowl is there to compliment the unctuous pork bone broth or to be complimented by it. Fukuoka ramen is broken in three different styles: Nagahama, Hakata, and Kurume. Kurume-style is considered the original Kyushu version of ramen, and both other styles can trace their own evolution back to its flavorful broth. According to legend, it was invented when an errant ramen chef accidentally overboiled his tonkotsu broth; rather than throwing it out, he discovered that he had stumbled onto a tremendous food discovery. This kind of extra-fatty, extra-rich broth has become the foundation of Kurume ramen, as have noodles that only barely cooked, to prevent them disintegrating into the broth. Hakata-style is essentially the same, albeit with a slightly lighter broth, and Nagahama-style includes an extra side of noodles; in fact, the Japanese concept of kaedama or a second helping of ramen noodles is believed to originate with the birth of Nagahama-style ramen!
Southwest of Fukuoka sits Nagasaki, a prefecture which is primarily coastal thanks the set of peninsulas it encompasses. This is reflected in the Nagasaki take on ramen, known as Nagasaki champon – hearty pork is stir-fried in lard with seafood and vegetables, then everything is boiled in a rich broth reminiscent of tonkotsu broth. Champon-style ramen noodles are also added to the soup as it cooks, resulting in a meal that is less of a soup and more of a stew; the whole thing is topped with slices of naruto fish cake and served piled high. Champon is more closely derived from classic Chinese cuisine, and versions of it can found across Japan and into Korea; while it’s not technically considered ramen, the two dishes are close enough to be considered culinary siblings.
At the southern tip of Kyushu lies Kagoshima, and it seems to be the one place in Kyushu that hasn’t been influenced by the ever-present Kurume-style ramen. Kagoshima ramen broth doesn’t fit neatly into any established broth category – it does include the standard pork and chicken bones, but it also includes dried sardines, dried shiitake mushrooms, vegetables, and kelp. This mix of ingredients produces a broth that’s significantly lighter than Kurume ramen but still manages to be complex and nuanced in flavor. The noodles also tend to be thicker and may even venture into a more udon-like size and texture. As with all ramen styles around Japan, each shop has a slightly different take on the dish, and it’s not uncommon to find completely different versions of Kagoshima ramen depending on where you get it.
Japan is an overflowing food Mecca, and nowhere is this more apparent than with ramen – though this list may seem expansive, it only manages to scratch the surface of the real variety of ramen styles to be found around the country. So forget your previous conception of ramen as the cheap and salty treat we enjoy in the West and start thinking of it as the savory bowl of comfort it truly is. And while you’re at it, use your noodle and stop by Oliver’s, we have everything you need to bring a taste of Japan to your kitchen tonight!