This isnít your $0.50 ramen from Walmart, you and your friends downed like water in college. No. Iím talking about a truly rich, creamy broth in the bowl the size of your face. Iím asked all the time ďWhat makes a Ďgoodí bowl of ramen?Ē In my opinion, there are three major components to an amazing bowl of ramen. Of course Iím only half-Japanese, went to Japan every few years growing up, and lived there for a couple of years during college. There are plenty of experts out there with unique criteria, but let me give you mine.
The absolute heart and soul of a good bowl of ramen is the broth. I have walked into a ramen shop and known the food is not going to be good just from the menu. Three types of traditional ramen exist. Tonkotsu ramen, Shio ramen, and Shoyu ramen. If I see a menu that says, Pork, Beef, or Chicken ramen I immediately know Iím in the wrong place and I walk out.
Tonkotsu ramen is my go-to style and one that I order at almost every ramen shop. Tonkotsu broth is made from boiling pork bone for about 12 hours. As it simmers, the bone marrow releases the collagen and creates a delicious thick creamy texture. The subtle differences in flavors comes from the mixture around the bone thatís soaked. I love this style because of creamy texture and umami flavor that comes with it.
Shio ramen is a salt based ramen. Shio ramen can be defined as any ramen that gets its salinity and flavor from salt rather than soy sauce or other salty flavors. This leaves the bar wide open for what the undertone flavor could be, but itís the salinity that makes this bowl what it is. Different chefs will use chicken stock or fish stock in addition to dashi or lemon to give it some nuance.
Shoyu ramen is a soy sauce based ramen. Itís distinguishable by the brothís brown color. Again, many chefs have their different takes on how to prepare this dish. Chicken broth, vegetable broth mixed with soy sauce. Some may use seafood broth here as well. Ultimately, the distinguishing factor from the others is the use of soy sauce in the base.
Miso ramen is an occasional broth flavor that you may encounter, but I found that itís rarer than the other three. The soybean paste (miso) distinguishes this ramen from the others. My guess is that miso is commonly drank by itself as a soup, so traditionally ramen was never put in the same bowl, but occasionally this style of ramen will show up.
Wheat flour, salt, and alkaline mineral water (kansui) are the primary ingredients of ramen noodles. The kansui is what gives ramen their Ďyellow-ishí look and their firm texture. The noodles can come in a variety of sizes and lengths. Thick, medium, thin, straight, crimped, or ribbon-like.
I prefer medium, slightly crimped noodles in my ramen. Thin and straight noodles remind of other Japanese dishes, such as somen, and doesnít give the same satisfying bite as thicker noodles. If the noodles are too wavy, I can tell it came straight from an instant noodle packet and it goes directly in the garbage.
The best ramen shops will have their ramen hand-made, the morning of the sale. They will have them made in house or brought to them by a local noodle maker. Good ramen noodles are also delicious on their own, without the broth.
This is where ramen shops vary widely. I believe that a good bowl of ramen should have at least Chashu (barbecued or braised pork) meat and a seasoned half-boiled egg. Good Chashu meat should be tender and melt in your mouth. It should have a braised edge and a strip of fat that gives it flavor. If you have to chew the meat, then it was prepared incorrectly. The egg needs to be soft-boiled to perfection and marinated in a complementary flavor of the broth for a few hours beforehand. The ramen meets minimum standards as long as these two toppings are prepared well.
Other toppings that you may find in your ramen are green onions, sesame seeds, fish paste (narutomaki), seaweed, bamboo shoots (menma), sprouts, wakame (a type of algae), butter, corn, olive oil, black garlic oil and myriad of other options.
Each chef should make sure that the combination is complementary to the broth and adds well to the flavor rather than detracts from it. The toppings are also where the chef has the most creativity and can put their signature spin on the traditional dish.
The atmosphere and quality of service of the restaurant are very important factors for anyone to have an enjoyable meal at any restaurant. I believe that you can have strictly a good bowl of ramen without these two aspects, but having them will give any restaurant a leg up.
Atmosphere is a hard one to explain but it just comes down to the feeling you get when you walk in the front doors. The lights, people, sounds, smells, interior design all contribute to the atmosphere. If the atmosphere is good then it raises customer spirits, if itís bad customers will likely not come back.
Quality of Service deals with the time it takes for the ramen to be prepared and brought out. The timing of the waiter to bring drinks and the menu and the overall attitude of the waiter makes a huge difference. One applicable situation especially in ramen shops is that the owner will sometimes be out front watching guests. This can create a bad atmosphere or an amazing one depending on how itís done. Unfortunately, Iíve seen far too many restaurant owners create bad atmospheres with this strategy. Be friendly, smile, say hello. Your customers keep you in business so make sure you show them your thanks even with just a smile.
Overall, a good bowl of ramen needs three things to make it stand out. The broth, the noodles, and the toppings. Every ingredient needs to be fresh and every factor needs to be able to stand out on itís own. The broth should be delicious by itself. The noodles should be delicious by themselves. The toppings should complement the flavor of the broth and give the guest an idea of the cookís unique spin on the dish. Pair a good ramen bowl with an awesome atmosphere and amazing quality of service and you have yourself a winning ramen shop.