Just as two slices of bread make up the pillars of a sandwich, it’s a largely acknowledged fact that broth and noodles — and perhaps a soft-boiled egg — make up the basic components of a bowl of ramen. But like a sandwich, this classic Japanese dish can be made and served in a variety of ways and with an endless array of creative toppings.
Depending on seasonings used, or which region of Japan a style originates, the noodles, broth consistency, broth flavorings and toppings of ramen differ. There are thick and thin noodles; curly and straight. There are broths made with pork, chicken, beef, fish and vegetables; some are cloudy and creamy, others are clear and light. There are seemingly endless variations of ramen, but this article will focus on six popular types, all of which can be found in the East Bay.
Perhaps the most popular style of ramen in America these days, tonkotsu ramen originated in Fukuoka, Japan, on the island of Kyushu. In its simplest form, tonkotsu broth is made by simmering pork bones, but it can sometimes also include pork back fat, trotters and chicken carcasses. Tonkotsu is creamy and cloudy because the pork bones are boiled for hours on end, in some cases for almost for an entire day, until all the fat, collagen and other components of the bones begin to break down into the soup. Tonkotsu ramen is typically served with thin, straight noodles cooked al dente. Hakata is the historical name of central Fukuoka, so tonkotsu is sometimes referred to as Hakata-style ramen.
Japanese ramen chain Ippudo is best known for its tonkotsu ramen. The moment you enter the downtown Berkeley location, you’re immediately immersed in the tantalizing aroma of simmering pork. The restaurant offers four varieties of tonkotsu: The Shiromaru Classic (Shiro means “white,” referring to the color of the classic tonkotsu broth), Akamaru Modern (Aka, means red, the color of the miso paste topping), Karaka Spicy (Kara means spicy, for the peppery spices added to the tonkotsu broth) and Bonito Tonkotsu (a combination of the original pork bone broth infused with bonito stock). The first three types are topped with fatty slices of chashu pork, bean sprouts, kikurage (wood ear) mushrooms and scallions. The Bonito ramen, which is the newest addition to Ippudo’s menu, comes with menma (fermented bamboo shoots), naruto (fish cake), spinach, roasted nori, bean sprout, scallions and chashu. For an extra $1.50, a soft-boiled egg can be added to any of these dishes — I recommend doing so. I tried the Karaka Spicy, which in addition to the toppings I list above, also has ground pork in it, which was a pleasant surprise. The chashu and broth were silky soft and rich with flavor. Ippudo Berkeley, 2015 Shattuck Ave. (near University), Berkeley
Miso ramen originates from Sapporo, the largest city on Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, where freezing cold winters call for flavorful, hearty and warming dishes. For the broth, umami-rich miso paste is combined with pork or chicken bone broth. As miso itself is made from soybeans fermented with salt, the reddish cloudy broth has a deep, earthy flavor. Typically, miso ramen is served with wavy noodles that are thicker than hakata-style noodles.
At Yuzu Ramen & Broffee House in Emeryville, the miso ramen is made with a pork bone broth and is served with chewy, thick noodles. Bowls are topped with two pieces of chashu pork, cabbage, green onion, soy marinated soft-boiled egg and seaweed. Yuzu uses a red vegetarian miso paste, which gives this ramen a distinctly strong hint of nuttiness. This, combined with the cloudy pork broth, coated the noodles well and left me wishing for more once I finished my bowl. Yuzu Ramen & Broffee House, 1298 65th St. (near Hollis), #1, Emeryville.
Shoyu ramen hails from Tokyo, and is the most common flavor of ramen. Shoyu means “soy sauce,” which is exactly what seasons the broth, which is most commonly made with a chicken bone broth and dashi (a stock made with Japanese sea kelp and shaved cured bonito) base. The soy sauce gives this light, clear soup a brown hue. As with miso ramen, shoyu ramen is often served with curly, springy noodles.
Oakland’s Shinmai offers two types of ramen: tonkotsu and shoyu. Its shoyu ramen has a broth made with chicken broth and dashi and thin, straight noodles. Bowls are topped with chashu pork, soy-marinated soft-boiled egg, menma, cherry tomatoes, corn, spinach, scallions and fried tofu. The egg was especially well-cooked and perfectly soft-boiled, and the simple but savory soup was a harmonious blend of soy sauce and seafood flavor. Shinmai, 1825-3 San Pablo Ave. (between 18th and 19th), Oakland
Shio, or salt is the ingredient seasoning this ramen. Shio ramen is considered to the oldest flavor of ramen, and is thought to originate in Hakodate, a city in southern Hokkaido. Its creation was most likely influenced by the area’s exposure to Chinese cuisine. Usually, shio ramen broths are the lightest and cleanest of all ramen styles and are served with thick, soft noodles.
As shio is a flavoring (as are shoyu and miso), and not a defined style of ramen, there are exceptions to the rule. Take the shio ramen at Isshin Ramen House in Richmond. Unlike traditional clear shio ramen, its version is tonkotsu based. For the dish, Isshin combines a shio tare, or sauce, with a thick, creamy pork bone broth. The tare has a decidedly seafood essence, which stands out against the rich, fatty pork base. The bowl is dressed with kikurage mushrooms, chashu slices, menma, scallions and a square piece of nori, and the noodles used are thicker than the typical tonkotsu ramen style. Isshin Ramen House, Pacific East Mall, 3288 Pierce St c136, Richmond
Chicken paitan ramen
Like tonkotsu, this style of ramen features a thick, rich and creamy broth cooked with chicken, rather than pork, bones. (Paitan translates to “white soup,” and refers to any opaque and milky broth, including tonkotsu.) As with tonkotsu ramen, chicken paitan often comes with straight, rather than curly noodles.
There’s almost always a line at the Temescal location of Marufuku Ramen, where the specialties are rich, flavorful bowls of tonkotsu and chicken paitan. ramen. The chicken paitan comes with chicken slices, soft boiled egg, kikurage mushrooms, scallions and bean sprouts. When ordering, diners choose the level of spiciness (from no spice to ultra-spicy). Like any long-simmering soup, the thick, creamy broth at Marufuku clings perfectly to the thin and chewy noodles, giving each slurp of ramen an incredible taste. Marufuku Ramen, 4828 Telegraph Ave. (between 48th and 49th), Oakland
Tsukemen is a ramen style that is still growing in popularity, so finding it on a menu feels as exciting as finding a rare gem. The broth and noodles are served separately, with the cold, thick and firm noodles meant to be dipped into the salty, rich and potent broth. The shape and consistency of the noodles allows for more surface area for the sauce to stick, ensuring every bite is full of flavor. When the noodles are finished, a light broth called wari is poured into the dipping sauce, for the diner to enjoy as a soup. Wari can also be added during the meal, to dilute the potency of the sauce.
Sobo Ramen in Old Oakland serves tsukemen on its specialty menu. The dry ramen noodles are served on a makisu mat, topped with chashu, kikurage mushrooms and scallions. The dipping broth is pork-based, with chunks of pork and hints of ponzu. Its flavor is tangy, citrusy and refreshing. A small bowl of chicken broth is given on the side as the wari for diluting. At Sobo, the tsukemen comes with thin, rather than thick noodles, which I rather enjoyed. The thinness allowed for the pleasant sharpness of the dipping broth to fully soak in. Sobo Ramen, 988 Franklin St. (between 9th and 11th), Oakland
Since October is often known as one of the last months for warm weather in the Bay Area, the season for cold noodles has not fully passed its time just yet. Hiyashi chuka, a cold, brothless ramen style, sometimes known as a salad ramen, is a great option for those who are looking for a lighter bite to eat. For more about hiyashi chuka, read my roundup of cold Asian noodle dishes.