Ramen is a Japanese adaptation of wheat noodles. Its roots stem from China in the 1800s and it made its way to various surrounding Asian countries. Each country has its own edition of the Chinese soup noodle, but no adaptation has become like ramen in its popularity and reach. For many, ramen culture is heavily embedded in pop culture like manga or even in episodes of the Netflix series – Chef’s Table. It seems like a comfort food that can never go wrong. Unfortunately, my latest encounter with a ramen joint that opened recently in Edmonton was far from superior. Having sampled many Japanese restaurants, my expectations of ramen are distinct but simple. Here are my four criteria that might help you identify the best local ramen restaurant.
The broth contains a complexity of the flavors, richness, and viscosity that bathes the wheat noodles. Taking care to enjoy a spoonful of the broth can awaken the taste buds before chowing down on the glutinous noodles. Without a flavorful broth, often prepared by pressure cooking or stewing pork, chicken, or beef for hours on end, foodies like myself simply can’t have a satisfying meal. Because, just as central as seaweed is to sushi, the broth of the ramen should steal the spotlight. There are two general types of soup broths either a clear or a creamy colored broth. Both are unique to the palette. Whereas the clear broth gives a light soy sauce flavor, the murkier broth is thicker and richer. Besides the saltiness of the broth, there should be hints of the protein, as well as scallion, garlic and other flavors from hours of stewing and pressure-cooking.
“Al dente”-ness of the noodles
“Al dente” directly translated to “to the tooth” is an Italian term describing the elasticity of noodles and wheat-gluten dishes. Something with greater chewiness such as escargot would rank higher on this scale than a soggy croissant. In speaking to ramen noodles, the firmness of the noodles is a testament of the freshness in which it was made. The longer the noodles sit in the broth, the poorer the elasticity. Most ramen joints prepare the noodles fresh or purchase them in bulk from a factory. Paying attention to the texture of the noodles will tell you the care in which it was prepared.
One of the highlights of a ramen bowel include the texture of the accompanying protein. Regardless of the type of protein (pork, chicken or beef), the meat should have a fall-off-the-bone consistency in our mouths. If the protein is tough and jerky-like, it may be a sign of over-cooking. The classic bowl of ramen uses rolled char siu that consist of both fatty and lean parts of pork.
A custom bowl of ramen ordered in Japan often allows full customization of the ingredients, the soup base, and the garnish. The garnish creates variety from bowl to bowl. Hence, no two bowls of ramen are quite alike! The traditional bowl of ramen features a sliced egg. The egg yolk having a semi-liquid consistency is preferred over a hard-boiled egg. Other choices include bamboo shoots, black fungus, seaweed, pickled veggies and corn.