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What’s In A Bowl of Ramen

What’s In A Bowl of Ramen

Jed Doble
03 January 2023


The city has an ever-growing love affair with one of Japan’s most loved exports, Ramen.


Each bowl of ramen contains four key ingredients: toppings, noodles, broth, and tare (a seasoning base). Let’s start from the bottom of the bowl and make our way up.


Tare is something you will not usually see but is integral to the makeup f the flavor of your bowl of ramen. Tare is the flavor base that anchors each bowl, that special potion or secret sauce, if you may – usually just an ounce or two of concentrated liquid. Some examples of tare are shio (salt), shoyu (soy), and miso. Some ramen are named after their tare, but it is not always so. The most basic function of tare is to bring saltiness and umami to the broth. It can also provide additional sweetness, sourness, or spiciness.

Some tare may have soy sauce or miso paste as the main ingredient, but it’s not uncommon to have five or even up to ten other components. Again, consider tare as the secret sauce, so a good ramen shop’s tare is a well-guarded secret.

Other common ingredients include dashi, vinegar, mirin, sake, spices, garlic, ginger, and oils. In Sapporo, tare is mostly made with miso. In Tokyo, soy sauce is the key ingredient.


Shape, size, color, and texture vary depending on the region and style of the ramen. But where ever you are, ramen noodles have one thing in common; they contain alkaline salts. Ramen noodles are made from flour, water, salt, and alkaline salts (kansui in Japanese). The last ingredient gives the noodles their natural yellow pigment, the characteristic golden hue. Alkalinity also increases the strength and extensibility of the noodles. In other words, the alkalinity makes a ramen noodle a ramen noodle.


Next is the heart and soul of any bowl of ramen, the broth. Remember, ramen IS soup. The broth unites the different tastes and textures in the bowl and makes it all work. This is what makes or breaks a ramen shop. Broth can be made from an endless list of ingredients: pork, chicken, fish, shrimp, beef, mussels, mushrooms, root vegetables, herbs, and spices. Ramen broth isn’t about individual ingredients, though; it is about conveying flavor and bringing umami. It’s about impact, which is why making most broths involves high heat, long cooking times, and giant heaps of chicken bones, pork bones, or both.

Ramen broths can be loosely divided into two main categories. Paitan (white soup) and Chintan (clear soup). Paitan is thick and cloudy, while Chintan is clear. Tonkotsu ramen is obviously paitans. These soups are thick and creamy. They contain fats and collagens, usually extracted from pork bones, marrow, and cartilage. The fats provide tons of flavor and body to the broth. Chicken, which contains a lot more glutamate (which means it has more umami) than pork, is suitable for making chintans. 


In theory, toppings can include almost anything, but 95% of the ramen you may consume in Japan will be topped with Pork Chashu (Japanese-style roasted pork). Of course, here, you can easily find Chicken Chashu as well. But in my perfect world, toppings are pork: luscious slices of marinated pork belly or shoulder, carefully roasted over low heat until the fat has been rendered and the meat is exceptionally tender, almost disintegrating as you stare at it. The only other mainstay in a bowl of ramen is Negi or thinly sliced green onions. Others may have pickled bamboo shoots, sheets of nori, bean sprouts, corn kernels, raw garlic paste, and soy-soaked eggs.

So next visit to your favorite ramen shop, try to take a closer look or try to identify the different components of your ramen. Whatever you discover, remember to slurp and suck in your noodles – the louder, the better. In Japan, that’s how you let the ramen shop owner know that you like his dish.

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