Thursday 10 January 2013

World of Noodles 9: A Quick Guide to Ramen

I'm not really sure that the opening of a handful of ramen joints in London last year really constitutes a trend. Mind you, there's been a lot of hype about these Japanese noodles as of late. That's no bad thing, but what if you don't know your ramen from your udon? Or your tonkotsu from your tonkatsu? Well fear not, help is at hand.

No 1 Special Ramen @ Kudan Ikaruga, Tokyo
What is ramen?
Like so many great things ramen has its roots in China, and it was immigrants from that country which introduced this soup noodle dish to Japan in the 19th century. In its simplest form, ramen dishes consist of noodles served in broth with toppings. The toppings vary depending on the style of ramen, but pork, egg, menma (fermented bamboo shoots), spring onions and different types of seaweed are most common. However, there's a fair bit of experimentation, and toppings such as sweetcorn and butter sometimes make an appearance. Ramen noodles are wheat-based, and although they vary in shape and size, have a common characteristic of being springy (from the alkali water used in the noodle dough) in contrast to udon, a thicker chewier noodle. But for all that, the most important aspect of ramen is, undoubtedly, the broth.

What are the different broths?
The broths served with ramen are based on a stock made from either pork, chicken, seafood, veggies or a blend of some or all of the aforementioned. The style of broth can be characterised by its tare or flavour base. For example, shio (literally, salt) is based on a tare made from a reduction of dried seafood and seaweed that imparts salty and umami flavours. Other tare include shoyu (soy sauce) and miso. These categories are quite broad, and there's no set way of preparing the different styles, as chefs like to put their own signature on their creations. There is, however, one style of broth I have yet to mention: the legendary tonkotsu (not to be confused with tonkatsu, a breaded pork chop), and it is this milky-white porky broth that is at the forefront of the ramen renaissance in London.

Tonkotsu stock @ Bone Daddies, London
So what's the big deal about tonkotsu?
Tonkotsu (originally from Hakata in southern Japan) differs from other types of broth in that the flavour comes mainly from the stock itself rather than from the tare. To make tonkotsu broth, pork bones are boiled for ages so that they break down and release collagen into the stock. The end-product can be a bit too thick and porky, though, and therefore it's usually blended and thinned out by mixing with a lighter chicken, fish or veggie stock. Such is the richness of tonkotsu broth, the noodles served with it should be thinner and straighter than those served with lighter soups.

Where's best to go in London?
Ramen isn't all that new to London. After all, Wagamama (and a whole host of noodle bars inspired by this chain) first popularised ramen way back in the 1990s. However, like the London burger explosion, a number of restaurants are attempting to take things to the next level. In the past year, Ittenbari, Tonkotsu Bar & Ramen, and most recently, Shoryu and Bone Daddies have all set up shop in the capital. The latter two are my current favourites.

However, let's not discount the likes of more traditional Japanese restaurants such as Nagomi and Cocoro, which have been quietly serving ramen (including the prized tonkotsu) for a number of years. I've also noticed that sushi chains such as YO! Sushi and Feng Sushi have recently jumped on the ramen bandwagon. Although I've not tried the offerings at these places, it's unlikely that they’re much cop (yes I know, I'm such a noodle snob).

The London ramen scene is exciting but there isn't, in my opinion, a killer ramen shop just yet. Having said that, the recent spate of openings can only be a good thing for the capital's noodle fans. I have only really skimmed the surface when it comes to ramen, and for further reading I can point you to Kavey who identifies some of the different regional styles in this post. And for those of you that really want to geek-up on the subject then check out Rameniac whose interactive map is a work of art.


  1. Please DO NOT go to Wagamama for Ramen. I hated myself for doing that. haha.

  2. ha ha dishpiglets : D

    thanks mr noodles, must try out tonkotsu

  3. Wasn't it lovely to share ramen and chat at Shoryu tonight. Thanks for being part of such a lovely evening and thank you for your kind link. x

  4. good summary sung! I liek that you mentioned all the other broths because everyone seems to judge ramen by how thick or milky the broth is when that is only just one type of broth. I actually like the simpler shio ramen broths.

  5. dishpiglets - I hear what you're saying, but for some peeps Wagamama is their sole noodle option.

    LELUU - you must!

    Kavey - my pleasure.

    Shu Han - to paraphrase a famous author, tonkotsu is not the only broth!

  6. I feel that any discussion of shite noodles joints isn't complete without EAT's infamous "Udon ramen" (Meemalee writes about it here).

    I've yet to find good ramen, even from usually reliable joints, so the two recommendations are timely. This is a useful guide as I didn't think i had fully appreciated what Tonkotsu actually was and how it differed from other types of ramen. it;s also something I have yet to try despite having much ramen in Japan.

  7. There used to be a lovely basement place along Tottenham Court Rd, near Goodge St station that did a very nice bowl of ramen at a very good price. But it's sadly been closed for many years now. Very traditional place, complete with private seiza tables (and some sunken floor "cheating" ones) and tanuki statues complete with enormous bollocks.

  8. Great post! I keep reading about Bone Daddies and really want to try it. Must make a visit next time in the village.

  9. Gworm - haha! I forgot about EAT's noodle shame. It's (finally) good to see some ramen specialists in London.

    Anon - I often wonder whether the Japanese have a secret network of hidden ramen joints that they don't want the locals to know about.

    Becs - you must.

  10. Great post. Have you been to E-Kagen in Brighton? A must if you're down by the sea.

    1. BirdsandBats - thanks for the Brighton tip. I don't get down there often but it's always good to know of indie noodle options.