Why Is Japanese Ramen So Good? 3 Things You Might Not Know About Japan's Beloved Noodles

Japanese ramen is said to be the most favorite food among foreign tourists in Japan. The love for this cheap yet hearty and delicious noodle dish has even spread around the world! But do you know why Japanese ramen is so delicious? There are three main reasons that make Japanese ramen one of the signature dishes of Japan’s cuisine today.

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The First Secret Behind Why Ramen Is So Good: The Soup

According to the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum, there are records from the 15th century that describe a type of Chinese noodle dish similar to Japanese ramen being eaten. However, it wasn’t until the 1800s when Japan opened its ports to the world that Chinese noodles became more accessible.

With its easy preparation and delicious flavor, it quickly became the nation's favorite comfort food. Over time, the Japanese made the dish their own. Nowadays, authentic Chinese ramen and Japanese ramen are distinctly different, and one of the biggest reasons for this lies in the soup.

Japanese ramen soup is a delicate combination of three different elements: dashi, tare, and aroma oil. These three can be adjusted to form tons of flavor options, which is a big reason behind why ramen is so delicious – it’s endlessly customizable, suiting a wide variety of palates. 

Each element also adds to or boosts the umami of the noodle dish, turning it into a flavor bomb. Umami is regularly translated as “savory,” and is a type of basic flavor that is separate from sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Some people say it is the key factor in creating an addictive dish that keeps people coming back for more.

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Dashi (Soup Stock or Soup Base)

Traditionally, Chinese ramen soup is almost always made from chicken bones. Japanese ramen soup, on the other hand, is not just made from chicken bones, but also ingredients that were never traditionally used in China, such as pork bones, shellfish, beef bones, fish, or even vegetables. The most common ingredients used to make the soup base are known for being especially rich in umami, such as kombu (kelp), katsuobushi (bonito flakes), and niboshi (dried sardines).

Coincidentally, many of these ingredients are also staples of traditional Japanese “washoku” cuisine which is a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Since long ago, Japanese chefs have put unimaginable effort into figuring out how to draw out the umami from food. Glutamates are thought to play a major role in producing umami flavor. These cooks figured out not just which ingredients had lots of them, but what ingredients acted as umami boosters when paired together with glutamate-rich foods.

Japanese ramen is the result of these many years of experimentation and effort. Each sip of soup contains various kinds of umami-rich foods paired with umami boosters, creating a flavor profile like no other. No wonder Japanese ramen tastes so good!

Tare (Sauce or Seasoning)

Tare is another way in which Japanese ramen chefs add umami and flavor to their food. Dashi on its own is just flavored water, which can taste somewhat bland. You need the addition of tare, which is loaded in one universal flavor enhancer: salt. Salt is said to reduce bitterness and increase sweetness and umami, which is exactly what most broths need, especially ones made from animal parts.

In Japan, ramen is largely separated by the type of tare, with three basic types: shoyu (soy sauce), shio (salt), and miso.

Shoyu ramen is the most common, made by taking a rich umami-packed broth and adding soy sauce to it. Soy sauce is packed with salt. It also contains lots of amino acids, especially glutamates, thanks to the fermentation process it undergoes. Adding it to a bowl of Japanese ramen no doubt makes it even more delicious! And with hundreds of soy sauce variations in Japan alone, there’s countless ways to adjust shoyu ramen to fit pretty much any palate.

Shio ramen, as the name suggests, has a ton of salt added straight to it. Since it’s just salt, the resulting broth is normally lighter in color and has a more delicate flavor. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t packed with flavor!

Then there’s miso ramen, made with a thick, fermented soybean paste. Just like soy sauce, miso has a lot of salt in it, and since it is a fermented ingredient, it is packed with amino acids as well. Furthermore, there are also many variations of miso in Japan, adding endless customization options to any bowl of ramen.

Komi Abura (Aroma Oil)

Studies show that our sense of smell is responsible for around 80% of what we taste. This is why aroma oil is an essential component of any Japanese ramen soup, to the point where some argue that ramen would be tasteless without it.

Aroma oil can be based on animal or plant fats, or a combination of both for a more balanced taste. The oil is usually added to the bottom of the bowl at the same time as the tare, before the broth is poured in. Since water and oil don’t mix, it rises to the top and coats the noodles and soup, adding a delicious aroma to every slurp and sip.

Some chefs believe that aroma oil helps the soup stick to the noodles better, making every slurp just that much more delicious. Others believe that on top of boosting the aroma of a dish, thus improving the perceived flavor, it has the added effect of layering flavor. For example, if beef bones are used in the soup, beef tallow might be used for the aroma oil. Not only does this boost the richness and umami of the beef throughout the overall dish, it adds a layer of complexity to the beef flavor.

The Second Secret Behind Why Ramen Is So Good: The Noodles

Ramen noodles are widely known and loved for being delightfully firm with just the right amount of chew. No matter what type of ramen you’re served up, they always complement the soup. But have you ever wondered just how the chefs make this possible?

Kansui (Lye Water)

The basic ingredients needed to make any noodles are flour, water, and salt. Japanese ramen noodles stick to the same recipe, but what makes them stand out is “kansui.”

Also known as “lye water,” kansui is a type of alkaline water, made by mixing together sodium carbonate, potassium carbonate, and sometimes phosphoric acid with water. When added to wheat flour, it partially inhibits the development of gluten and lowers the acidity.

On top of making the noodles slightly easier to stretch, this chemical reaction is what gives ramen noodles their distinctive “springiness” or firmness. Their yellowish coloring is also a result of kansui’s interaction with pigments in the wheat flour.

Without kansui, the noodles will still be elastic, but have no firmness. Adding more salt will make the noodles more firm, but you’ll lose some of the elasticity. Kansui is therefore an essential ingredient to give the ramen noodles just the right amount of firmness and stretchiness.

Matching the Ramen Noodles to the Soup

To create a perfect bowl of ramen, the noodles need to perfectly match the soup. Through experimentation, Japanese chefs have gained expert knowledge on how to combine different types of noodles with a variety of soups to make delicious ramen.

The most common kind of noodles used for Japanese ramen are “hosomen,” which are thin ramen noodles. They suit lighter ramen soups and take very little time to cook, which is a must as ramen in Japan is seen as a dish to eat when you’re in a hurry. 

Occasionally you’ll find thicker “futomen” noodles that are used for richer ramen soups, such as the type you’d see when eating a bowl of tsukemen. This is a type of ramen where the noodles and soup are served separately and you use the soup as a dipping “sauce.” 

Other than the thickness of the noodles, ramen chefs also play around with the level of firmness and textures, which changes the mouthfeel of the noodles and how well they “catch” the ramen soup.

Some restaurants let you choose the thickness, firmness, and texture of the ramen noodles so that you can truly customize your ramen exactly to your liking.

The Third Secret Behind Why Ramen Is So Good: The Way You Eat It

Yes, even the way you eat can influence the taste of ramen! If you’ve never been to a ramen restaurant in Japan, then you might be surprised when you first hear people loudly slurping while they eat. This isn’t seen as rude behavior in Japan – in fact, this is the normal way of eating ramen here.

According to a University of Oxford study from 2017, they found that people who were told to eat soups with and without slurping thought that the soup had a significantly more intense flavor when it was slurped rather than sipped. One possible reason for this is that food seems to be better appreciated when all five senses are involved. The additional sense of sound from slurping contributes to the dining experience and can add a new level of enjoyment.

Another reason could be the additional oxygen that is drawn into your mouth by the action of slurping. This can contribute to subtle changes in the flavor, similar to how wine tasters draw in air before they try the wine.

In addition, slurping allows you to ingest food at higher temperatures. This small change can help when it comes to ramen as it’s best enjoyed when piping hot. Ramen noodles are served in hot soup and quickly lose their texture as they continue to cook in the soup, so the faster you can eat them, the longer you’ll have to enjoy the noodles at their best.

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Appreciate the Skill That Goes in Each Bowl of Japanese Ramen

It’s surprising to know all the different things that come together just so that you can enjoy a delicious bowl of ramen. The next time you have Japanese ramen in front of you, make sure to savor it that extra bit more knowing how much skill, hard work, and knowledge went into making it!


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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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Jen Laforteza
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