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Over the past few years, in America and Europe, Japanese ramen, or noodle soup, is seeing a huge boom in popularity. It’s not an exaggeration to say that most foreign visitors to Japan will go to a speciality ramen restaurant to enjoy real ramen. Japanese ramen is changing day by day, and new and different flavors are appearing one after the other. Here in this article, we are going to look at the recent evolution of Japanese ramen.
The Start of the Ramen Boom in Japan
One of the causes of the ramen boom in Japan was the establishment of the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum, a museum dedicated to the Japanese Ramen that features a recreation of Tokyo in 1958, the year that instant noodles was invented. Set up approximately 20 years ago, the museum introduced ramen to a whole new audience, bringing about the ramen boom, and a whole range of changes to ramen itself, such as variations in the flavor.
One of the causes of the diversification of ramen was with the ramen cooks themselves. Up until then, ramen cooks would study at a specialist ramen restaurant to learn the flavor, and then go to set up a restaurant of their own, but recently, the number of cooks who are creating their own unique and delicious ramen is growing, leading to new variations and flavors.
The Evolution of the Variation in Flavors of Ramen
Famous restaurants from the Kanto region as well as other regions around Japan set up shop in the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum. Here, visitors to the museum could enjoy not only the typical shoyu (soy sauce) or miso ramen, but the unique flavor variations from all over the country, such as the Kitakata ramen from Fukushima Prefecture, Hakata ramen from Fukuoka Prefecture and the Se-abura Chaccha style ramen from Tokyo. In other words, the variety of flavors represented the variations between each region.
*Se-abura Chaccha style: In order to bring out the flavor of the soup, stewed backfat (the white substance floating in the soup) is added to the soup. The backfat is sprinkled into the soup with a mesh, and this sprinkling action is known as “chaccha” in Japanese, which is where the name of the dish comes from.
In 1996, a restaurant called Aoba added seafood to its meat-based, thick stock, creating a “double-soup.” This unique variation made the restaurant famous, and had a huge impact on the ramen industry, triggering the “double-soup” boom. Even now, you will find lots of restaurants using this technique.
Up until the “double-soup” boom, the soup for ramen was mainly meat-based, made from chicken bones, but using seafood in the soup was a major change, and it was at this time that the number of restaurants offering fish-based shoyu ramen grew dramatically.
Tsukemen and Aemen, the Popular Soupless Ramen
Tsukemen is a variation of ramen where the noodles are not put into the soup, but served separately on a tray and dipped into the soup.
The tsukemen style itself has been around for a long time. The restaurant Taishoken is the pioneer in the dish, where noodles heaped onto the tray are eaten with a slightly sweet shoyu-based soup. The restaurant itself was popular, but the tsukemen style of eating didn’t become popular.
However, this was all changed by the tsukemen speciality restaurant Ganja. Until Ganja’s appearence, tsukemen had simply been ramen where the soup and noodles were served separately, but Ganja’s thick soup, created in around 2000, gave the dish an entirely different texture to ramen.
On top of this, Ganja mixed fish meal (dried, powdered fish) into the soup, making it a hit with ramen fans. Ganja also introduced a “soup-wari (soup mix)” system, where the thick soup is thinned with another soup and then drunk, giving a very flavorful finish to the dish.
This “soup-wari” system was probably taken from morisoba, where soba water is added to the sauce and drunk, but all these factors helped to make Ganja the trigger for the tsukemen boom,
The tsukemen boom also brought forth a new genre called “aemen”. With aemen, ingredients are placed on top of the noodles and a rich sauce is poured over the noodles, which is then mixed an eaten. Depending on the restaurant, the name of the dish varies, with some examples including “abura soba (oil soba),” “maze soba (mixed soba),” or “shirunashi soba (soupless soba),” but the fundamental style of the dish is the same.
Aemen was served seasonally as a sub-brand of ramen or tsukemen by many restaurants, but due to the popularity of the dish, some restaurants became aemen speciality restaurants. Recently, it has become so popular that some of the more famous aemen restaurants have become chains.
While it hasn’t quite become popular enough to be the mainstream in the ramen world, you are guaranteed to find at least a few aemen restaurants in the highly competitive ramen areas.
There is also another reason why tsukemen and aemen have become popular. At most tsukemen and aemen restaurants, you can choose the amount of noodles you want, with large helpings of up to 400g for free. When you think about how ramen restaurants offer large helpings of noodles for an extra charge, tsukemen and aemen restaurants are an ideal option for big eaters.
However, there is a reason for this. As the flavor of ramen has developed and become more complex, the cost of the dish has gone up. The most expensive part of ramen is the soup, which uses all sorts of ingredients. So as tsukemen and aemen don’t use a base soup, they can be offered at a lower cost. This is the trick behind the free large helpings.
For consumers choosing which style of noodles to eat, the fact that you can get full from tsukemen rather than ramen is a big advantage. Also, for the restaurant side, not having to make the time consuming soup allows them to keep their costs down. These two points are the reason why tsukemen and aemen have become popular.
In the old days, you used to pay the restaurant owner straight after eating, but recently, the majority of restaurants have adopted a meal ticket system.
The meal ticket vending machines are usually written entirely in Japanese, so it can be difficult to understand the menu if you are visiting a restaurant for the first time. If that’s the case, the top left item of the menu is usually the restaurant’s recommended dish, so if you’re a bit lost, it should be ok to go for that one.
Of course, asking a member of staff is fine as well, but in a famous restaurant, you can always look at what the person in front of you ordered and go for that as well. Famous ramen restaurants usually only offer 2 or 3 dishes, so about 80% of the people who saw the restaurant in a guidebook or on the internet as well as the regulars at the restaurant are eating the same thing, with the only difference being the amount of noodles and the ingredients put on top.
Also, it depends on the restaurant, but there are some places where you need to use a special phrase, called a jumon or spell, when you order.
This jumon is made up of the details of your order, for example, lots of noodles, less vegetables, etc. There are a lot of options for the orders so we won’t go into too much detail here, but if you ever visit Ramen Jiro, a traditional cult ramen restaurant, one jumon worth remembering is the one about garlic.
At Ramen Jiro, you are guaranteed to be asked if you would like garlic with your dish when you order. If you don’t say anything in reply, the member of staff will decide themselves, so if you don’t want any garlic, be sure to say, “nashi de (no garlic)” when ordering.
Again, depending on the restaurant, there are some special phrases or terminology that you need to say before and after eating, so please be careful. While the Japanese are said to show great hospitality, known as omotenashi in Japanese, for some reason, there may be cases where you get some strange looks at a ramen restaurant, so before going, make you sure do some research before going.
Self-taught restaurants and the trends in flavors
One example of this type of restaurant is the famous Nakamuraya.
Their soup, which is transparent and made from adding fish stock to a pork and chicken bone based stock, is their speciality. Shortly after opening, the restaurant became popular, and has won many awards.
The number of ramen enthusiasts who have opened restaurants to create their own ideal ramen is also growing. The flavor is usually based on the tastes of the owner of the restaurant. A while ago, you could find a lot of very thick fish-based soups, but over the past few years, rich white chicken-based soups have become popular.
Ramen schools and cooking classes have also started, and there are ramen cooks who have studied at these schools, but there are a lot of cases where the cook won’t publicly admit that, and the more famous the restaurant is, the less clear it becomes.
Bonus point: Our top picks of places to go for ramen in Tokyo
To round up the article, we’d like to introduce a few of the ramen restaurants mentioned above. Please note that we have included some restaurants that are quite difficult to order at in the list, so be sure to check out the comments and reviews on the internet before going.
1. Aoba [Doble-soup]
The original creator of the thick, meat-based stock and seafood “double-soup.” The main restaurant is in Nakano in Tokyo, but they have lots of branches in the capital, and you can find them in Shinjuku and Ikebukuro as well,
2. Ganja [Tsukemen]
A tsukemen restaurant with a fish meal and thick, fish-based soup. The main restaurantt is in Kawagoe City in Saitama Prefecture, but they have a number of branches and open up shop at events as well, so be sure to check their homepage to find the best place to visit.
3. Ramen Jiro – Meguro Branch
The main restaurant is in Mita in Minato Ward in Tokyo, but there are a number of affiliated branches that have opened up, as well as restaurants that have been inspired by Ramen Jiro and imitate the taste.
The typical look of a Jiro ramen. All of the restaurants pile vegetables high on the dish.
The queues at the main restaurant become incredibly long, and the way to order can be quite difficult, so if you really want to go, it might be a good idea to bring a Japanese friend along with you as a guide.
For a Ramen Jiro restaurant with a taste that is close to the original restaurant and an enjoyable atmosphere, we recommend Ramen Jiro in Meguro.
Sometimes here you will find visitors from overseas checking what the person in front of them ordered and copying them.
4. Yaro Ramen [Jiro type]
For a place where foreigners can relax and enjoy, we recommend the Ramen Jiro type restaurant, Yaro Ramen.
There are a lot of branches in the capital, and the meal ticket ordering is easy. The staff are also friendly, and they will be happy to answer any questions you may have in English.
5. Tokyo Menchintei Honpo [Aburasoba]
The originator of aburasoba, Tokyo Menchintei Honpo. Based in Waseda in Tokyo, they also do mail order.
6. Tokyo Aburasoba Sohonten [Aburasoba]
Tokyo Aburasoba Sohonten is a chain restaurant with branches throughout Tokyo.You can find them in Shibuya, Ginza, Ikebukuro, Akasaka and other places as well, so you can enjoy a meal there whilst doing your shopping.
The flavor does not vary depending on the branch, so it is suited for beginners. Despite using a lot of fat, it is different from the traditional soup and the servings are smaller so they don’t contain as many calories. Also, generally, large portions are free.
7. Nogata Hope [Se-abura Chaccha Type]
Se-abura Chaccha Type is originally a technique used by ramen restaurants along the major roads of Tokyo. In order to bring out the richness of the soup, stewed pork backfat is added to the soup. There are also a lot of ramen restaurants in the country that use backfat in their ramen.
You can enjoy the se-abura chaccha type ramen at Nogata Hope which has branches all around the capital.
This restaurant has kept this style for more than 20 years, and with its mix of pork bone and chicken based double-soup and backfat, it is recommended for people who want to try a thick and rich ramen. There is a branch in Harajuku as well, and definitely recommend a visit if you are out shopping there.