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October 15, 2014

The Ramen Trend: What You Need To Know

A steamy bowl of ramen noodlesIf you’ve ever been a poor struggling student, you already know about living on a cup of ramen noodles to make that dollar stretch. Heck, even a pack of gum costs more than those crispy, curly bricks. But these days, ramen is a whole ‘nother cup of noodles. 

Ramen restaurants focused on full-flavored broths and fresh ingredients—including the noodles—are new showplaces for a chef’s talent. It’s thought that ramen began in China and spread to Japan in the nineteenth century. Noodle shops are ubiquitous in Japan but most folks credit David Chang, the famous New York chef and restaurateur, for introducing the concept of a high-end noodle shop to America. Chang opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York in 2004—and within 10 years, the noodle bar concept, built around ramen, has spread across the country.

So what is it about ramen that has made it the next hot topic for restaurateurs and consumers? And why would consumers eat it up when they’re counting carbs on a regular basis? Speaking for one ramen lover (that would be us): “What’s a few noodles among friends when something tastes so good?” Here’s what you need to know about those magic noodles:  

1)   What is ramen?

Ramen refers to the soup and the noodle. It’s composed of a slow-simmered stock of seafood, chicken, beef, or most popular, pork. Ramen soup is made with wheat noodles, and often black pepper, garlic, chili pepper, and sesame seeds. Soup recipes are often closely guarded secrets that go back through generations. Other popular additions might include a soft-boiled egg, pork, scallions or seafood. One recent bowl we slurped our way through had a lobster broth with a touch of dashi (dried bonito flakes and seaweed), yellow curly noodles and pieces of lobster.

2)   How is ramen the same or different from that other famous noodle soup—Vietnamese pho?

In both cases, the term refers to a soup and a noodle, but Vietnamese pho is usually a beef or chicken-based broth, seasoned with ginger, cinnamon and star anise. Pho uses rice noodles and is served with a plate of basil, lime juice and sliced chiles that can be added to taste.  

3)   What terms are important to know when talking about ramen?

Tonkotsu: One of the most popular ramen styles, with broth made from pork bones. 

Shoyu: This variety features plenty of soy sauce for a tangy, salty, savory taste that pulls all your favorite umami flavors into one dish.

Shio: Probably the oldest type of ramen, shio is made with salt and any combination of chicken, vegetables, fish or seaweed.

Miso: This newcomer to the ramen game—if you consider the 1960s new—utilizes miso paste to create a thicker, nutty, slightly sweet soup.

Kansui: The alkaline water used to make ramen noodles. Originally the water came from specific wells. These days it’s more likely to be a solution containing sodium carbonate and usually potassium carbonate  that turns the noodles yellow and makes their texture springy. 

4) What’s next for ramen?

There’s room for growth in the fast casual market. Several Japanese-style fast casual groups that already offer ramen are rapidly expanding into other states. Chefs are also serving ramen with a soft-cooked egg as a special to mix up their brunch menus.

BYO (build, not bring) ramen is increasing in popularity. Restaurants create a base broth and allow consumers to add vegetables, meats and even a soft-cooked egg to top off their steamy bowl of goodness just how they like it.

While most traditional ramen includes meat in the broth, chefs are also experimenting with vegetarian ramen, using mushrooms, seaweed, and miso paste to create flavors that rival the complex flavors of meat-filled counterparts.

5)   What’s the proper technique for eating ramen?

Of course chopsticks and a spoon are the authentic way to do it, but we don’t’ think you’ll get too many stares if you dig in with a fork.

While eating at a local noodle shop one day recently, we looked around as we began making those noisy slurping sounds to see if we were bothering the other customers. Turns out that slurping is music to the chef’s ears. So, slurp away, fellow ramen lovers – it’s the ramen diner’s equivalent of my compliments to the chef.

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