Ramen is a complex dish, made of many components. While its popularity has surged in Australia, there’s still a lot to learn, and thus plenty of opportunity for chefs to challenge themselves by taking on one of Japan’s most famous exports. By Madeline Woolway.

No one is exactly sure about the origins of ramen. Some say it came to Japan from China around the turn of the 20th century, others say it’s an entirely Japanese invention. The first theory is a good a bet; the noodles are similar to the Chinese wheat noodles lamian, which could explain the etymology of ramen (the ‘r’ sound in Japanese is somewhere between an English ‘r’ and ‘l’), and it was once referred to as shina soba, which roughly translates to ‘Chinese noodle’. Whatever the origins, ramen is a now a truly Japanese dish, ubiquitous across the country.

Ramen is made up of four components: broth, tare, noodles and toppings. The broth is generally made using a mixture of pork, chicken, seafood and/or vegetables, with each ramen shop, as they’re called in Japan, developing its own recipe based on different combinations. The tare (pronounced ta-reh) is typically categorised into four types, from which variations of ramen take their name; shoyu, a complex soy sauce reduction; miso, the familiar fermented bean paste; shio, a seafood-based, umami heavy style made with dried seafood products like katsuobushi (think bonito flakes) and kombu (think seaweed); and tonkotsu, which is named more for its rich, creamy pork broth than the seasoning. 

Although the tare is used to name the type of ramen, it should complement rather than overpower the broth, and there is often more to it than just the namesake ingredient – like with broth, many ramen shops have tare recipes with an extensive list of ingredients. The tare is placed in the bottom of the bowl, which is then filled with noodles, broth and toppings.

The noodles are made from wheat flour, water, salt and, importantly, an alkaline mineral water (kansui), which gives the noodles their elasticity. They can be thick, thin, wavy, straight, soft or hard. Toppings range from pork slices (chashu), green onions and soy-marinated boiled eggs, to vinegar, garlic and chilli oils and more.

From Hokkaido to Kyushu there are more than 20 regional varieties, all featuring different combinations of the four. “Ramen is a national dish, every part of Japan has its regionally authentic recipe and then in different rural areas there will be a few creative chefs doing their own thing.The most northern part [Hokkaido] specialises in miso ramen and then right down in the south [Kyushu] they specialise in tonkotsu, with more than 20 different types in between,” Taro Akimoto of Taro’s Ramen in Brisbane told Hospitality.

salaryman-72.jpgSalaryman in Surry Hills, Sydney. Image: Alana Dimou

Tonkotsu fever

It’s tonkotsu, Kyushu’s creamy, pork-marrow broth, that is Australia’s chosen bowl.

“My signature dish is a tonkotsu ramen, that’s been simmered away for a long time,” Akimoto said. “The really porky flavours you get from cooking the bones for so long are the beauty of tonkotsu.

“The pork broth is our most popular, but we make a lighter version, because I think the lighter broths are better suited to our climate,” Stephen Seckold, executive chef at Sydney’s Salaryman, said.

Making good ramen takes time, but tonkotso can be particularly labour intensive. “Pork broth can be at least two to three days, while chicken takes overnight,” Seckold said.

“I use a pressure cooker to condense the flavours to my liking,” adds Akimoto. “In Japan, some shop owners will have been simmering the broth for decades, but the pressure cooker does the same process in a few hours. My tonkotsu ramen carries the same philosophy of condensing the pork flavours into a silky, creamy soup, but we don’t have to waste resources by keeping the burners on 24 hours a day.”

Taro-s-Tonkotsu.jpgThe Tonkotsu ramen at Taro's in Brisbane. 

Ramen in evolution

At Salaryman, Seckold’s team wants to move away from the tonkotsu style and has been experimenting with vegetable broths.

“We always wanted to focus on vegetable broths, before we even opened,” Seckold told Hospitality, “You’re never going to get the same body as you can with tonkotsu, but you can get unique flavours. I think there’s a bigger range of flavours in vegetables and the broths can be made in a matter of hours.”

The latest iteration of the vegetable ramen on Salaryman’s rotating seasonal menu is a native finger lime broth. “The basis for the finger lime ramen is very simple. We make a light fennel stock with a nice delicate aniseed flavour, and then we squeeze the pods out of the finger limes and steep the shells in the broth. When we serve it we put the pods in the bottom of the bowl with a shoyu tare,” Seckold said.

Seckold stresses the importance of simplicity. “The more you put in the more confusing it gets. We’ve made a cabbage broth before and there was nothing in it except charred cabbages. 

We’re keen to keep experimenting with more and more vegetables. It’s better for the environment and cheaper too,” he said.

Akimoto has also experimented with vegetarian variations and is currently offering a cold corn ramen. “We take some dried kelp and dried shiitake mushrooms and make an umami-flavoured broth out of that, then blend in the corn for added sweetness and texture,” Akimoto said. “It’s good, but if you compare it with the tonkotsu, it’s not as complex. I’m trying to make a tonkotsu equivalent vegetable broth, something cloudy and mysterious. I want people left guessing ‘what’s that?’”

Salaryman-pork-1.jpgPork ramen at Salaryman, Surry Hills. Image: Alana Dimou

Challenge begets opportunity

Developing the perfect broth isn’t the only challenge for ramen chefs in Australia. “We make the noodles in-house, but we’re just going through so many we are looking at taking our recipe to a noodle maker in Sydney,” Seckold said.

The dish’s increasing popularity could soon make life easier for ramen shop operators in Australia, by creating enough demand to make outsourcing affordable, both in terms of quantity and quality. “Kansui is available here now. I used to have to import it directly from a Japanese food additive company myself, but because our volumes have increased we’ve been able to hand the importing process over to a Japanese wholesaler,” Akimoto said.

While ramen is certainly enjoying a surge in popularity in Australia, it’s still a relatively unknown dish.  “A lot of people coming to Salaryman aren’t ramen people, it’s their first time in a lot of cases. People say it’s exploded and that ramen is everywhere, but I just don’t think that’s the case. In certain groups it is, but there is still a lot of education that needs to happen; I’m still learning. If we start talking about mazemen or tuskemen, people will be overwhelmed,” Seckold said.

Events like Salaryman’s Ramen Wars, the first volume of which was held on 15 May, combat this by getting chefs together to experiment with and talk about food. “And everyone else gets to have a bit of fun and learn something too.”

With the first event sold out, Seckold has plans for volume two to be held in July, with Phil Wood from Rockpool and Luke Powell from LP Quality Meats.

Akimoto also expressed the difficulty in introducing different varieties to the Australian public. “The dilemma I have is that the tonkotsu is so popular. I use my monthly special as an avenue to introduce the different types of ramen,” he said. “We had a ticketed event, called Golden Shio Ramen, which we did with Wandering Cooks in Brisbane. About 120 bowls were sold as tickets, they sold out in 48 hours. At the end of the day, most of the feedback was that it was like nothing they had tasted before and many of them loved it. From six years ago when I started the business, people are becoming more aware and expecting different products, so there is hope.” 

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