Ramen Types Explained (Tonkotsu, Shoyu, Shio, Tsukemen, and More!)
There are so many kinds of ramen out there, and you've got questions:
What's the difference between 'tonkotsu ramen' and 'shio tonkotsu ramen?' What is menma, anyway? What's the difference between ramen and chuka soba?
All of these questions, and more, will be answered!
To be considered a 'ramen noodle,' a noodle dough has to contain kansui (かん水), a salty, alkaline liquid that is mixed with the flour and other ingredients to give the noodles their characteristic springy texture.
Within the umbrella of 'ramen noodles,' there are a huge variety of noodle types with varying color, shape, length, thickness, springiness, etc. However, the addition of kansui is what officially classifies a noodle as a 'ramen' noodle.
Boiling down some thick tonkotsu broth
Apart from the noodles, the other characteristic of ramen is the soup. Like the noodles, there are too many types of ramen soups to count, and each ramen shop has its own special recipe.
However, a ramen soup almost always consists of a meat or fish-based broth (cooked for a long time) and tare (a sauce that gives the saltiness to the soup, mixed with the broth before serving). Shops will often add other seasonings, oils, and various ingredients to the soup before serving, but the broth and tare are essential.
Chuka soba vs. ramen - what's the difference?
Chuka soba (中華そば) is simply an old-fashioned way of referring to ramen. Chuka (中華） refers to Chinese foods, so 'chuka soba' really just means 'Chinese soba.' You'll still see plenty of ramen restaurants in Japan calling themselves chuka soba restaurants, but there's not really any difference.
Types of ramen
Ramen soups can be divided into two types: chintan (clear soup) and paitan (cloudy soup). The difference in these soups comes from the way they are cooked. Clear soups (chintan) are simmered at a lower temperature, while cloudy soups are boiled hard over high heat. It is this hard boiling that turns the collagen in the bones into gelatin, which in turn binds the water and oil particles together, making for a milky soup (paitan).
The ingredients used to make the broth can vary widely. Some shops will make a simple and refined broth using only one type of meat, such as chicken, pork bone, or fish. Other shops will add a hodgepodge of ingredients to their broth, making a complex soup. It is the combination of ingredients and cooking methods that produces such a wide range of different ramens.
Chintan (clear soup ramens)
Ramen broth itself doesn't contain salty ingredients. The salty flavor of ramen comes from the tare that is mixed with the broth before serving. Chintan ramens are named based on the type of salty tare mixed into the broth.
Classic shoyu ramen
This is the classic Tokyo style ramen. Shoyu means 'soy sauce' in Japanese, and that is exactly what the tare mixed into the soup is based on.
Shio means 'salt' in Japanese. Thus, the tare used to make shio ramen is salt-based. Shio ramen tends to be more delicate than other types of ramen, and really shows off the flavor of the broth.
Miso ramen gets its saltiness from a miso-based tare. This type of ramen originated in Hokkaido, where it is still very popular today.
Paitan (cloudy soup ramens)
Milky-looking tonkotsu ramen
Tonkotsu means 'pork bone' in Japanese. Although many chintan ramens also contain pork bones in the broth, tonkotsu ramen specifically refers to pork broth that has been boiled until an emulsion is formed, giving it a cloudy appearance.
Tonkotsu shoyu ramen
When tare is added to a tonkotsu broth, ramens such as 'tonkotsu miso ramen' or 'shio tonkotsu ramen' are the result. Just remember: tonkotsu means that the broth is cloudy and made from pork; shio, shoyu, and miso specify what type of tare is used.
Tori paitan ramen
Tori（鶏） means 'chicken' in Japanese. Tori paitan, therefore, is a chicken-based ramen where (just like tonkotsu) the broth has been boiled until an emulsion forms, giving the soup a cloudy appearance.
Tantanmen is a Japanese interpretation of a Chinese dish. Unlike most other ramens, tantanmen is spicy, and usually contains ground pork and sesame oil.
Extra-thick soup with noodles on the side
Tsukeru (漬ける) means 'to dip' in Japanese. Tsukemen, therefore, are dipping noodles. As the picture above shows, tsukemen is basically a deconstructed ramen. Since the noodles don't rest inside the soup for very long, a tsukemen soup is usually stronger than a normal ramen soup. In addition, tsukemen noodles tend to be on the thicker side, although this isn't always the case.
Dipping the noodles into the soup
Abura soba and maze soba
Abura soba, waiting to be mixed and eaten
Abura soba and maze soba are two types of ramen that are served without soup. The flavor of abura soba (literally 'oil soba') comes from the tare and oil mixed in the bottom of the bowl. Abura soba usually includes basic, classic ramen toppings served on top of noodles that you mix together before eating.
Maze soba used to be just another name for abura soba, but now usually refers to a Taiwanese-inspired version of the dish. Maze soba typically includes more toppings, and is often spicy.
Ramen toppings can vary greatly based on the type of soup, location, and shop specialty. Here is a brief list of some of the most common toppings.
Chashu is traditionally made from pork, but nowadays, it isn't uncommon to see chicken chashu as well. Although various cuts are used to make chashu, classic chashu is made by searing pork belly before cooking it in a soy sauce-based brine. Cutting-edge shops nowadays often cook their chashu sous-vide, making it irresistibly tender.
Menma is pickled bamboo. You'll find it in various shapes and flavors.
'Ajitama' is short for 'aji tamago,' which means 'flavored egg.' Ajitama are made by soaking a perfectly cooked hard-boiled egg in flavoring. A good ajitama will have a gooey interior that oozes out when you break into it.
Negi is Japanese for 'green onion.' Enough said.
This dried seaweed is a popular ramen topping.
Moyashi (bean sprouts) are another popular topping, especially on heavier ramens.
Narutomaki are a type of kamaboko (fish cake), that are sometimes found on the top of a bowl of ramen. The swirl in the middle is reminiscent of a famous whirlpool called the 'Naruto Whirlpool' in western Japan, hence the name.
Corn and butter
Corn and butter are ingredients often found in Sapporo-style ramen.
I hope that you found this article insightful. The world of ramen is huge. In addition to the ramens listed here, there are plenty of ramens that I didn't cover. However, if you want to read more about ramen, check out the link below to see more of our ramen-related articles and ramen restaurant recommendations!