Ramen has become a global obsession and people are willing to queue up and pay premium price for the iconic bowl of hot noodle soup. You probably know where to get good ramen and which establishments offer nothing but mediocre copycat stuff.
But, apart from what meat or seafood go into your bowl of ramen, did you know that there are several kinds of ramen broth and what you choose can make or break your ramen experience? Are you also aware why ramen in some establishments is pricier than others? Read on and discover a thing or two.
Shoyu is soy sauce. Shoyu ramen has broth made with soy sauce. And when I say “made with soy sauce”, I don’t mean that soy sauce is merely added to the cooked broth. Soy sauce is added to a pot of bones (usually chicken), vegetables and water, and everything is simmered together to make a light brown broth.
Shoyu ramen was my favorite until I discovered tonkotsu ramen.
Shio means salt. Shio ramen’s broth is made with chicken or fish bones (pork bones are sometimes added too), vegetables and salt. Shio ramen broth is pale to golden yellow depending on what bones and vegetables are used, and in what proportion.
Shoyu broth and shio broth are clear.
Tonkotsu ramen broth (no, it is not the same as tonkatsu) is opaque and milky in appearance. Why it looks that way deserves more than a cursory explanation.
Tonkotsu ramen broth is made with pork bones—in particular, pork hock and trotters. They are boiled for several hours until the collagen and fat break down and liquefy. Collagen, found in the bones and in the tendons that surround the bones, makes the broth dense and slightly sticky. Collagen and fat, together, turn the liquid milky and opaque.
How long do the bones have to be cooked? Mine took ten hours. On the stovetop. Over medium heat. Let me explain.
In order for the collagen to break down and get mixed in the liquid, two things are essential:
1. A long cooking time.
2. Temperature that is above simmering point. It is not enough that the liquid is simmering. It has to be boiling gently so that the pork hocks and trotters are continually tumbling in the broth. It is the constant agitation, together with the heat, that breaks down the collagen.
Tips for making tonkotsu ramen broth
1. It is not possible to make tonkotsu broth in the slow cooker because the low heat will not cause the required agitation. Trust me, I tried. Using the slow cooker to make broth may be more convenient but it won’t give you the rich, opaque and milky broth that is such a pleasure to slurp.
2. Parboil the bones to get rid of scum. Boil hard for ten minutes. Strain the bones. Turn the tap on and bathe each bone in running water to remove all traces of blood and any dark matter. This is the key to making a milky broth.
3. Start with plenty of water. Place the rinsed bones in the pot and cover with water twice or thrice the depth of the bones. As the liquid reduces during cooking, do not be tempted to add more water. You want the liquid to reduce because it is the reduced liquid that makes the best tonkotsu broth. By the time you’re done, you’ll be left with just a third or a quarter of the original amount of liquid. This is why truly good tonkotsu ramen commands such a high price.
4. What is the best test to determine if the bones have cooked long enough and the liquid has reduced sufficiently?
Okay, when the bones had cooked for ten hours, take a cup of broth and pour into a bowl. Take a larger bowl and half fill with ice. Place the bowl with the broth on the ice to cool the broth faster. Transfer to the fridge and chill for an hour or so.
Now, the test. Did the broth turn into a gel or is it still liquid? If the broth turned to gel, then, the collagen had broken down sufficiently. If the broth is still liquid, reheat the pot of bones and cook for another couple of hours.
Miso ramen broth may be clear broth (shio or shoyu) or tonkatsu broth to which a generous amount of miso paste is added. Miso ramen broth is a sweet-tangy thick liquid.
Where does the sweet-tangy flavor come from?
Miso is a paste made by fermenting soy beans. The fermentation process is essentially where the tangy flavor comes from. The sweet component is derived, at least generally, from the other ingredients added to the soy beans during fermentation.
Curry ramen and miso ramen are younger incarnations of the Japanese noodle soup. Both were born in Hokkaido during the second half of the 1900s.
Just like miso ramen, curry ramen broth may be clear (shio or shoyu) or opaque and milky (tonkotsu). Curry paste is added for a different dimension of spice experience.
Mixing Ramen Broth and Toppings
Now that you know your ramen broth, you can start experimenting with what toppings go well with each kind. There are no rules, personal preference must take precedence, but know that a light broth may be overpowered by too rich toppings while an ultra rich broth like tonkotsu can withstand the inclusion of a generous amount of meat and garnishes.
Happy ramen eating!