As with pizza, pasta and tacos, there has never been more availability of high-quality ramen stateside as there is today. There have also never been as many delicious new innovations in the dish popping up every day, some of which may perturb purists. No matter how you like yours, great ramen is easy to make at home as well, and it naturally pairs well with saké, wine and beer.
The primary elements of this humble noodle soup have developed over centuries. Early forms of the dish were introduced to Japan in the late 1800s by Chinese restaurants, where it was called shina soba, or “Chinese noodles.”
After World War II, the influx of cheap wheat flour from the U.S. made noodles a nutritional staple in Japan, and ramen began its march toward becoming a household term.
“It’s funny to watch Americans get so serious about the authenticity issue, especially when ramen is one of the few foods in Japan where endless innovation is widely embraced,” —Matt Goulding, author of Rice, Noodle, Fish
Now as ingrained in Japanese culture as sushi, ramen is the subject of glossy magazines, TV debates and academic treatises. While still a prepackaged staple of supermarkets and vending machines, ramen can also represent the apex of Japanese culinary artistry.
“It’s funny to watch Americans get so serious about the authenticity issue, especially when ramen is one of the few foods in Japan where endless innovation is widely embraced,” says Matt Goulding, author of Rice, Noodle, Fish (Harper Wave/Anthony Bourdain, 2015), an immersive narrative guide through Japanese food culture from the perspective of a curious outsider.
“Whereas most pillars of the Japanese food world—from soba to sushi to yakitori—follow a relatively stringent formula, a bowl of ramen is a blank canvas for the cook,” Goulding says. “You’ll find shops in Tokyo doing everything from Spanish-style ramen with broth made with jamón bones and smoked paprika to bowls with South Asian influences like coconut milk and curry paste.”
At its heart, ramen is a simple dish: Broth, noodles, toppings and a base seasoning called tare. Every ramen variation stems from this, though the key to great ramen is to not compromise on any component.
Tare is almost always one of three simple seasonings: Shio, or salt, which makes a clear broth perfect for seafood; shoyu, or soy sauce, which intensifies meaty flavors; and miso, fermented bean pastes rich in umami.
Generally speaking, shio, shoyu, and miso comprise three of the four basic ramen styles, the fourth being tonkotsu, a style of broth rather than a seasoning base, whose complex broth needs no additional tare.
There are as many toppings as there are ramen chefs, but chashu, or sliced roast pork, is very common (also look for kakuni, chunks of braised pork belly). Other popular toppings include egg, scallions, fish cake, seaweed, bean sprouts and bamboo shoots.
“There are a few commonalities that all great bowls of ramen share: Deeply flavored, nuanced broth, a complex tare and sturdy noodles cooked with care,” says Goulding. “Good toppings are a bonus, but juicy pork or seasonal vegetables or a soy-soaked egg can’t save a bowl of otherwise average ramen.”
The broth is usually made from pork (which is most common), chicken, beef bones, fresh or dried seafood, or vegetarian broths made from seaweeds and vegetables.
Assari describes a light, clear broth that’s been lightly simmered. A kotteri broth is long-cooked and opaque, with an emphasis on richness. Tonkotsu, one of the most popular ramen varieties, is a style of kotteri broth using pork bones that are simmered for extended period of time. This milky, porky, luxurious broth is like no other soup stock you’ve tried.
“Good toppings are a bonus, but juicy pork or seasonal vegetables or a soy-soaked egg can’t save a bowl of otherwise average ramen.”
Ramen noodles are made of wheat flour, water and alkaline salts called kansui that provide a springy, toothsome texture. Restaurants generally use fresh noodles, though both fresh and dried are available in stores. Buy a Japanese brand if you can.
Prepare al dente, since the noodles will continue cooking in the broth. Some ramen chefs insist that the noodles be eaten within five minutes of preparation, lest they get too soft.
In a pinch, you can approximate ramen noodles by boiling spaghetti in water that’s been alkalized with one tablespoon of baking soda per quart of water.
Pairing Wine With Ramen
A crisp and lighter-bodied beer can cut the richness of ramen, while more savory styles of saké can merge beautifully with complex broths. But wine lovers also have plenty of options.
At Two Birds One Stone in Napa, California, where local ingredients meet Japanese-inspired preparations, ramen takes center stage on Monday nights. Kevin Reilly, master sommelier and general manager, gave us these wine recommendations for the four primary ramen styles.
“Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier-based Champagnes are clean and refreshing, but their fuller fruit component complements the full flavor of the broth,” says Reilly. “Meanwhile, both carbonation and acidity provide a nice counterpoint to the broth’s texture. For still wines, the slight sweetness of an off-dry Kabinett or Spätlese German Riesling complements the broth’s richness. Ginger and garlic are common in tonkotsu, and they intermingle very well with Riesling, while the acidity, again, provides a needed counterpoint.”
Shio (with seafood)
“Mineral-driven white wines that have pronounced acidity, with neutral or gently aromatic profiles, are great with this lighter style of ramen. [The pairing] depends on the seafood in the broth. For lighter seafood, I would recommend Chablis or Muscadet. Both of these wines [can] gain texture to contrast their pronounced acidity by lees stirring. That texture helps highlight the seafood, while savory minerality plays nicely with the briny broth. With richer seafood, like shellfish or oily fish, I like the more aromatic wines like Italian Vermentino, or Albariño and Godello from Galicia. Their fuller aromas highlight richness, while these wines typically have some salinity to meld well with the brininess.”
Whether classic or creative, there are hundreds of world-class ramen restaurants around the U.S. Here are some favorites:
“For shoyu ramen, I like light- to medium-bodied red wine, lighter in tannins and with little or no new oak. Bright and light California Pinot Noirs with tart red fruit won’t overwhelm the texture, yet can still play well with the savory flavors. Cru Beaujolais—especially Chiroubles, Fleurie, Chenas, and Brouilly—also share that youthful fruit, soft tannins and savory minerality.”
“For miso ramen, I’d typically prefer a Japanese rice lager-style beer or a fuller-bodied yamahai ginjo saké, but many wines would work as well. To balance the salt and richness, a white wine with light to moderate residual sweetness is a great option [like] Grand Cru Pinot Gris from Alsace, or Vouvray Sec. For the wine drinker not fond of residual sweetness, Viognier’s fuller body and less-pronounced acidity can work very well. Its ripe fruit character and creamy texture intermingle nicely with the broth’s intense flavors.”