We have a lot of laws in America.
Some laws regulate what we can eat; horsemeat and puffer fish, for example, are banned in America.
Some laws regulate where we can eat; believe it or not, Miami Beach prohibits outdoor food stands, and it’s illegal to eat peanuts in Massachusetts churches.
Thankfully, there are no laws – at least, not yet – regulating how we eat.
Eating certain foods the “wrong way,” however, can subject you to public ridicule if you’re a politician. Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, John Kasich and even New York Mayor Bill DiBlasio have all been criticized for eating pizza with a knife and fork. Presidential candidates John Kerry and Scott Walker each made news when they ordered Philly cheesesteaks with Swiss or American cheese instead of the traditional Cheez Whiz.
The media won’t care if any of us commit a dining-out faux pas. But to put it nicely, everyone else in the restaurant would certainly wonder about you if they saw you eating a steak and baked potato with your hands instead of your silverware.
In other words, there are right and wrong ways to eat – even when you’re enjoying a potentially-messy bowl of ramen containing broth, vegetables, meat and extra-long noodles.
Here’s a step by step instruction manual.
The A-B-C’s of Eating Ramen
It can be intimidating the first time you sit down to eat a bowl of real Japanese ramen, whether you’re in one of the Michelin-starred ramen restaurants in Tokyo, Ivan Orkin’s famed ramen restaurant in New York, or one of the many ramen shops that have sprung up throughout America. (We’re not talking here about the stuff that you make from a package of Top Ramen or Maruchan instant noodles, although you can certainly use the “right” technique to enjoy ramen in your dorm room or office break room, too.)
The noodles are long, so you’d understandably think about wrapping them around a fork the same way you’d eat spaghetti. The base of ramen is broth, so it might make sense to use a soup spoon. The bowl is loaded with yummy vegetables and protein, which could be stabbed with a fork or scooped up with a spoon. And Japanese restaurants will give you chopsticks when they serve your meal.
What’s the proper way to eat ramen?
First, put the fork aside. You won’t be using it. The proper way to eat ramen noodle soup involves the spoon, the chopsticks – and your hands.
Don’t be concerned about the noise you might make when you slurp ramen noodles. Slurping is not only totally acceptable when eating ramen, it’s the best way to cool down the noodles. They’re meant to be eaten when they’re extremely hot.
Don’t spend an enormous amount of time savoring each mouthful, either. Ramen, even when prepared by an expert chef (or “ramen master”), is not just comfort food – it’s fast food, and meant to be enjoyed quickly. That’s particularly appreciated at the 10,000 or so Japanese noodle shops, where people regularly line up around the block just to get their own bowls of ramen. There’s another reason to eat ramen quickly: ramen chefs will tell you the noodles get mushy after being in the broth for more than five minutes.
Here’s how to do it.
- Start by tasting a spoonful of soup, which will allow you to fully appreciate the flavor of the broth itself. It’s also considered to be a compliment to the chef. Then you can add any of the additional toppings that may be provided, like soy sauce, chopped scallions or garlic.
- OK, now you’re ready to eat. Use the chopsticks to pick up a small amount of noodles, raising them up high until they separate from the rest of the noodles still in the bowl. (Pro tip: never twirl them around the chopsticks like spaghetti.) If you’re a ramen newbie you can use your other hand to hold the spoon underneath them and catch any drippings. Don’t take too many noodles, or you’ll be likely to make a mess.
- Drop your head so it’s about 6-8 inches from the bowl, bring the noodles to your mouth, and slurp them in quickly. Eating ramen isn’t a time to be delicate; inhale the noodles in four or five short bursts. If any noodles remain tangled up with the others in the bowl, just bite down to cut them and let the ends fall back in.
- Once you’ve had some noodles, it’s time to enjoy all of the other ingredients in your ramen. You can use your chopsticks to pick up larger items like meat or bamboo shoots, or your spoon to scoop up the smaller ones along with some of the yummy broth. If your ramen contains the traditional egg, use the chopsticks to break it apart and enjoy it with the rest of the ingredients.
- Once the noodles and ingredients are gone and there’s only broth left in the bowl, you have three choices. You can finish your ramen the Japanese way by picking up the bowl with both hands and drinking it right from the bowl, you can be a polite Westerner and use your spoon, or you can just leave without finishing the broth. You won’t be insulting the chef.
- If you’re at a traditional ramen shop instead of a restaurant serving fancy Japanese food, you’ll probably be expected to clear your table just as you would at a McDonald’s. If there are wipes or a towel on the corner of your table, that’s so you can clean the table for the next customer.
OK, you’re probably noticed that the heading of this section was truncated. That was really the A-B-C-D-E-F of eating ramen, but we wanted to be complete. If this seems complicated for a bowl of soup, feel free to eat your ramen any way that you’d like; just don’t blame us if other customers watch you and shake your heads. A better idea is to practice on a bowl of instant ramen at home, so you can feel like a pro when you order in public for the first time.
And a little homework might be in order as well, because ordering ramen can be a lot more complicated than just choosing between packages of chicken, soy sauce or pork-flavored ramen noodle brands in the supermarket.
What’s in a Bowl of Ramen?
There are four categories of ramen ingredients: the broth, the noodles, the protein and the vegetables.
Some places will offer limited choices, at best – but if you visit one of the best ramen shops in your area you may be able to customize your meal in an enormous number of ways.
Ramen broth is usually made from pork bones, chicken bones, or both. Less often, beef bones or seafood may be used.
That’s not the end of the story, though. That broth is combined with a stock (known as dashi) made from things like niboshi (dried anchovies), bonito flakes (dried tuna) and kelp. And then seasonings are added to produce one of the four flavors ramen is known for:
- Shio Ramen: A light and salty flavor, which is the most traditional.
- Shoyu Ramen: A flavor similar to that of soy sauce.
- Miso Ramen: A cloudy broth with a savory taste, produced with the use of fermented soybean paste.
- Tonkotsu Ramen: Another cloudy broth made when pork bones are boiled until their collagen dissolves. (Don’t confuse this with tonkatsu, a deep fried pork cutlet.)
Some shops also offer a curry broth.
This is the easy one. Ramen noodles are ideally hand-made in the ramen shop, almost always from wheat flour, salt, and two types of water (regular and alkaline). Sizes and shapes may vary, but the noodles are most commonly made thin and straight so they will cling together.
Many shops now offer vegetarian ramen. But traditional ramen contains very tender or shredded meat, usually pork loin or pork belly (chashu in Japanese). If the pork is in chunks, it’s known as kakuni. Other common options include stir-fried ground meat, lightly-cooked seafood, or the red-and-white fishcake known as kamaboko.
One other protein is also traditional: an egg. It can be hard-boiled, soft-boiled or poached in the broth, but it adds a depth of flavor to any type of ramen.
Some fresh vegetables are almost always found in ramen (or at a ramen shop’s self-serve ingredient bar): scallions (green onions), cabbage and mushrooms. Others like corn, bean sprouts, carrots and onion may also be added, either fresh or stir-fried. If you’re lucky, there will be seaweed (nori) in there as well. Just eat it quickly because it isn’t as good when it’s soggy.
Preserved or fermented veggies are also commonly added to ramen, including menma (fermented bamboo shoots) and kimchi.
Choosing different ingredients can give your ramen a different – and delicious – taste every time you visit a ramen shop or restaurant. But no matter what goes into your ramen, the first time you try the real thing you’ll realize that it’s nothing like that soup you’ve made for years from packaged instant ramen and boiling water.
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