The one thing to always remember when eating ramen is that you are definitely doing it right when the broth splashes wildly around you. Not kidding, the larger the broth puddle around your bowl the better. Sluuuuuuuuuuurp!
Food plays an important role in many cultures, and if you really want to dive into the cultural traditions of the countries you visit, eating local will make any journey more memorable and unique.
So, if you are planning to teach English in the land of the rising sun, don't miss out on an unforgettable Japanese noodle slurping experience; you'll need to know how to eat ramen like a pro!
Ramen is the type of food anyone can eat in Japan. It’s affordable, simple, and doesn’t have any pretext. Originally sold as a casual meal for factory workers, ramen has now become a Japanese cultural phenomenon. Wandering the narrow back streets of Tokyo or maneuvering through world class shopping malls, you will be spoilt for choice on where to taste ramen.
However, it’s worth noting that ramen shops are not quite the same as any of the dining places you might have visited before. Ramen shops are not the place to hang out with friends, enjoy a few beers or have a romantic date. Ramen shops are a place where people come, order, pay, eat, and leave.
Usually filled with the noises of an entire ramenya of slurping people, exclusively Japanese speaking staff and confusing vending machines to order your dish, ramen shops can be quite intimidating, especially for first time visitors. Fear not, here is your ultimate guide on how to eat ramen like a pro in Japan:
1. Find a Ramen Shop
You are most likely to start your experience by joining a long queue outside your chosen shop (if you've chosen well!). However, the “eat and leave” concept guarantees that your wait will not be insanely long and torturing with the delightful smells of garlic infused ramen coming out of a tiny shop window.
2. Place Your Order
Look out for a vending machine either outside or inside the entrance. If there is a machine, select your dish and drink, pay and grab a ticket. If there is no machine, you will need to pay at the counter.
There is a popular culinary equation in Japan: Ramen = broth + noodles + toppings. Therefore, to place your order, you'll need to make three key decisions:
- Select a Broth: Broth is the most important part of ramen, it’s the body of the dish and takes days to prepare. Ramen chefs usually train for a very long time to be able to prepare a good bowl of fish or meat based broth and it can take up to 60 hours to boil a perfect one. There is an overwhelming variety of different broths. With vending machines featuring a small image of the dish with Kanji explanation, you are bound to fail to order what you actually want. To make the right decision, you should know the basic broths, which you can easily recognize visually: tonkotsu (white, milky, pork based soup), shoyu (brown, transparent, soy sauce based soup), miso (brown, non-transparent, miso based soup), and shio (transparent, salt-based soup).
- Choose Your Noodles: All ramen dishes come with noodles: thick, thin, ribbon-like, straight, wrinkled, long or short, all made from four basic ingredients: wheat flour, salt, water, and kansui (type of alkaline mineral water). Making noodles with kansui lends them a yellowish hue as well as a firm texture.
- Make it Your Own: Now it’s time to get creative with the toppings. Most popular ramen toppings include: chashu (barbequed or braised sliced pork belly), narutomaki (cured surimi produced exclusively in Japan, a delicacy made from white fleshed fish), ajitsuke tamago (Japanese marinated soft boiled eggs used specifically for ramen), negi (spring onion), nori (dried seaweed), and shinachiku (fermented bamboo shoots). Yummy!
3. Find a Seat & Wait Patiently
Once inside, grab the first available stool by the counter. Remember, ramen shops are usually manic, so if you are a party of two or more, you are very unlikely to sit together. Once you have secured your seat, watch the chefs crafting your perfect bowl of ramen right in front of you, usually ushered by the head noodle chef constantly yelling as he pulls noodles from boiling water and shakes them.
Most ramen shops will provide you with a glass of tap water which will be automatically refilled once empty. However, if that’s not the case, look out for a jug of water or a dispenser somewhere in the shop and help yourself.
4. Dig In!
Congrats for getting this far! Now that the stressful and sometime surprisingly confusing part of finding a seat and ordering some ramen is over, it’s time to dig into it. This is when the most important part of your ramen experience is about to begin. These are the most important steps of how to eat ramen like a pro:
- Lean toward your bowl and support it with one hand. Take a minute to indulge in the senses of sight and smell of your perfect bowl of ramen.
- Grab your chopsticks and start by tasting the noodles first. The noodles draw up all the flavors from the broth, so you are about to experience an explosion of tastes. Coat the noodles in the broth and just slurp it! As loud as you can! Sink the chashu into the soup and leave it to enjoy later. The more soup it absorbs the softer it gets.
- Slurping the soup. Know that slurping your ramen is a must with the Japanese. Not only is it the ideal way to enjoy a bowl of ramen, it can be downright insulting to the chef if you eat your ramen too quietly! Now it’s time to indulge in the incredible chashu softness.
5. Thank the Chef
Once you finished the last drop, put the bowl down and say: “Gochisousama!" (Thanks for the meal). Then watch other customers leave to see if the shop expects its customers to put the empty bowl on the upper counter. Just do as they do and you’ll be fine. Leave as soon as you are done.