Most people know ramen as a cheap college meal -- the instant pasta in a plastic packet or foam cup that's prepared in minutes. But real ramen is so much more than that -- it's an art and a revered food.
Authentic ramen is worlds apart from the instant kind, invented in 1958 by Momofuku Ando and made famous in America. Ramen's history can actually be traced back hundreds of years to China and Japan -- but the interesting thing is the fact that the noodles came from China, but the dish was invented in Japan. This sort-of melting pot dish of noodles and soup took off in popularity, becoming famous all over the world.
What makes ramen so special is the combination of freshly made noodles and flavored broth (usually made from chicken, pork or a combination). The tender wheat noodles are made by hand, either by pulling dough until thin strands of noodle form, or pressing dough with a thick, long rod until very thin and cutting into slender noodles (watch videos here to see how hand-pulled noodles are made and how hand-cut noodles are made).
The broth combines lots of flavors or what the Japanese call umami. In Japan almost every region has its specialized ramen -- that's just how important it is. Originally considered a food for special occasions, ramen is now an everyday food -- and that's especially so with all the ramen places all over New York City. And ramen-making is really an art beyond the noodles and the broth-- each topping is placed with importance into the bowl of steaming broth and tender noodles (see this clip from the 2008 film "The Ramen Girl", where an American played by Brittany Murphy learns to become a ramen chef).
Near authentic ramen can easily be done at home with a few store-bought ingredients -- even canned broth. A few Asian condiments are essential, like soy sauce or miso. The Japanese seven-spice powder (called shichimi togarashi) is great for adding a bit of heat to ramen. And of course there are the noodles. Many of the recipes below use the instant noodles, which are fine as long as you discard the MSG-laden flavor packet. Or you could use dried ramen-style noodles, such as Chinese noodles or Japanese somen. In a pinch angel hair pasta even works.
Depending on your taste, you can model your homemade ramen after any of the following varieties of classic ramen.
Shio ramen is the subtlest form with a clear, light-bodied salty chicken broth. Sometimes fish or pork are included.
Shoyu ramen is soy sauce flavored and made with a chicken and vegetable broth base. Sometimes fish or beef are included.
Tonkotsu ramen is rich and pork based, almost milky white in color.
Miso ramen is rich in flavor from miso paste -- it also comes in a spicy version that's topped with spicy bean paste. The broth can be a combination of chicken, fish and/or pork.
Undoubtedly the best part about ramen are the toppings. Most ramen soups have their typical toppings, but they can easily be varied. Toppings can include slices of pork (chashu), ground meat, bamboo shoots (menma), a soft-boiled egg, seaweed (nori), fish cakes (kamaboko), corn, cabbage, spinach, scallion, pickled ginger or plums.
What's your favorite ramen soup? Leave us a comment below.