By Adam Liaw
Noodle soups have been around in China for thousands of years, but they only became popular in Japan in the late 19th century, after a Sino-Japanese friendship treaty brought with it a wave of Chinese immigrants.
Despite its relatively short history, Japanese ramen occupies a place in the country’s national cuisine that falls somewhere between soul food and art. Not only is it a world apart from the instant noodles sometimes called ramen in the West, but it’s also very different from the Chinese soups from which it originated.
Ramen can be broadly categorized into four main groups around the primary flavorings of the soup stock: shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), miso and tonkotsu (pork bone). But these categories are just the beginning, and there are thousands of variations. The nuances in expression and subtle differences from shop to shop are a matter of pride for every ramen maker, and they make for an exciting prospect for the ramen eater.
Having grown up eating Chinese and Southeast Asian noodle soups, I must confess that my first impressions of Japanese tonkotsu ramen a decade ago weren’t favorable. I found the soup heavy and oily from chopped pork fat, and a single thin slice of chashu (the Japanese version of Cantonese barbecued pork, or charsiu) seemed an inadequate portion of meat in comparison to the generosity of a pho or laksa.
But much like learning to appreciate wine or whisky, over the years I have come to love ramen, and to be inspired by the care that goes into making it. At a good ramen-ya, every element of the dish has been carefully designed, from the consistency and flavor of the soup and the texture of the noodles, all the way through to smallest detail such as the orientation of the bowl and the angle at which the nori sits within it.
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