Story & Photos: Nick M.

Deceptively simple and undeniably delicious, ramen is one of Japan’s culinary cornerstones.

During the reign of Emperor Meiji in the latter half of the 19th century, ramen noodles were adopted in Japan in the wake of the country’s modernization and ascent to global powerhouse status. Historians assume that ramen originated in China, but they fail to exactly identify the date of origin of this dish. It is now reported that there are up to over 30,000 ramen noodle stalls all over Japan, making it a national cuisine of the Land of the Rising Sun.. Each year, millions of tourists flock to Japan, sometimes just for the perfect bowl of ramen that keeps drawing them to cramped noodle stalls again and again.

Signature texture and refined recipe
Each prefecture and ramen stall in Japan boasts its particular taste, but fundamentally, ingredients and recipes are similar. Ramen noodles are made of wheat flour, water, salt and lye water (kansu). Ramen noodles must be textured to be sturdy, in which lye water is the key component to enhance the chewiness, stickiness and signature yellow color.

The broth of ramen can vary in ingredients from chicken, pork and beef bones to fish stock, seafood, celery or seaweed. Cooks carefully choose ingredients and blend them up to make the broth. Tare is a component employed to make broth and enhance the overall taste of the noodles. Shio, Shoyu and Miso are three most popular Tare spices. The five most popular variations of ramen are Shoyu (soy sauce), Shio *(salty), Miso (soy bean paste), Tonkatsu (pork bone) and Gyokai (seafood). A bowl of ramen can be enhanced with fresh herbs, chasu pork, dried bamboo shoots and poached eggs with soy sauce.

Ramen is even revised into Tsukemen, also known as cold ramen. When served, the ramen noodles are warmed up to soften, coupled with a bowl of broth that tastes milder than that of standard ramen. The dish can be alternatively called “mixed noodles” because guests are supposed to evenly mix every ingredient and soak in a special stock sprinkled with black sesame.

A national obsession
Ramen may be not suitable for high-class restaurants and posh spaces, but it is a national fascination among both rich and the poor. The realm of ramen is usually cramped food stalls, accommodating fewer than 20 guests and laid out in U shape. In the center is the functioning space of the chef and guests can fully observe all steps from boiling noodles to mixing all ingredients together to create the attractive, well-presented hot noodle soup.

It is often humble noodle stalls deep in alleyways that produce the best ramen, thanks to special broth recipes. Chefs may be young cooks or old men with deep wrinkles, but all devote their passion to ramen, waking up early every day to make broth, knead flour for the noodles, grill pork and poach eggs.

One of the most famous ramen restaurants in Japan is Ichiran. Many international magazines such as Forbes even dub their specialty “the best ramen in the world”. The space of Ichiran is divided into cabins and waiters are separated from guests with curtains, with only small holes for guests to order receive their ramen bowls

Sapporo in Hokkaido Prefecture is home to miso ramen. In the city there’s a small alleyway called Ramen Yokocho, which hosts dozen long-standing ramen stalls crowded side-by-side for over half a century. Each boasts its particular ramen recipe and all are incredibly small and cramped, served by just one or two proprietors.

Slurping is a must
While in many countries eating noisily is deemed vulgar, slurping ramen is the proper way to savor the dish. In a crowded place that accommodates fewer than 20, b sounds made by guests slurping on ramen can form a sort of concerto.

The slurping of the broth has its own special methodology. While eating ramen, the Japanese rarely use spoons, but munch the noodles and its toppings, and finish by holding the ramen bowl up with two hands and swallowing up every single drop of the broth, as a way of paying tribute to the hard-working chef who laboriously carried out numerous steps to yield such a memorable dish.

Ramen stalls are open quite late, sometimes 24 hours, and ramen tastes even better if served later. On chilly wintry nights, particularly when it snows, trudging into an alleyway, open the sliding door, stepping into the stall and savor piping hot ramen, is a one-of-a-kind Japanese pleasure. It’s easy in these moments to understand why ramen is worshipped as one of the country’s culinary cornerstones. For more than a century, ramen has passed down through generations and won the hearts of millions.

Must-visit ramen stalls in Japan

– Ichiran Chain, AFURI in Tokyo and Osaka

– Ramen Yokocho Alley in Sapporo

– Hakata Ramen dish in Fukuoka

– Kitakata Ramen in Fukushima

– Toyama Ramen in Toyama Prefecture

– Fuunji Ramen in Shinjuku Ward (Tokyo)

– Ginza Kagari in Ginza Ward (Tokyo)

– Mouko Tanmen Nakamoto in Shibuya (Tokyo)

–  Tsuta Tokyo (ramen restaurant certified with one Michelin star and serves 150 bowls a day only).