What’s in ramen? It depends.
Ask college students, people who regularly grab a quick lunch in the office break room, or anyone who’s ever been on a tight budget. They’ll tell you there are two things in ramen: noodles and whatever’s in that seasoning packet that comes with the noodles.
But ask anyone who’s enjoyed the famed noodle soup at authentic ramen restaurants, and they’ll tell you that noodles and spices are only the start of a great bowl of ramen.
(Don’t worry, most won’t laugh at the packaged ramen that is so popular in the United States. Believe it or not, the people who consume the most instant ramen are, in order, Chinese, Indonesians, Vietnamese, Indians, Japanese and – in sixth place – Americans, right ahead of Koreans. That’s right, even though there are more than 10,000 ramen shops in Tokyo alone, and even more restaurants serving other types of wonderful Japanese food, they still love instant ramen in Japan.)
There are several types of ingredients that can elevate ramen way beyond the 25¢ or 50¢ supermarket variety. Let’s check them out.
Grocery Store Ramen: A Lot of Shortcuts
Once you’ve boiled water, it only takes three minutes to make instant ramen. As you might guess, it takes substantially longer for a restaurant to prepare a “real” bowl of ramen. That’s because store-bought ramen noodle soup is really meant to be a snack food. What restaurants serve is an actual meal.
There are three big differences between the two.
The first is that “real” ramen contains high-quality noodles, instead of the dehydrated ones you find in a package of grocery store instant ramen. The second is that the soup is a delicious and flavorful broth, not reconstituted soup made from a packet of often-artificial flavorings.
Last but certainly not least, authentic ramen contains proteins, vegetables, spices, sauces and herbs which give it its distinctive texture and taste. Some are mixed with the broth and absorb its flavors – and the “cherries on top” are yummy ramen toppings that can turn a great bowl of ramen into a masterpiece.
Here’s the best news: even though you’re more or less stuck with dehydrated noodles and instant broth when you buy a package of ramen from the store, add-ins and toppings aren’t reserved for ramen made from scratch. You can use them to turn your humble bowl of instant ramen into a feast.
Let’s explore the world of ramen that exists way beyond Maruchan and Top Ramen.
Ramen Soup Noodles and Broth
Before listing the many ramen toppings you can add, let’s run down the types of ramen soup you can order in a restaurant – or even make at home. The reason for understanding them is simple: there are add-ins and toppings that go better with some varieties of ramen than others.
Any Ramen shop worth its salt will serve fresh noodles in its soup. Traditional ramen noodles are made from wheat flour (unlike soba noodles which are made from buckwheat), salt and two types of water. One of the liquids is an alkaline water called kansui, which gives the noodles their trademark color and texture. Fresh Japanese shirataki noodles, made from the root of the konjac yam plant, are keto-friendly and may be used as a low-carb alternative.
By contrast, the dehydrated noodles in a package of Maruchan instant ramen also contain potassium carbonate, sodium phosphate, sodium carbonate, and a problematic preservative called tBHQ.
It’s not hard to see what makes the fresh noodles better – and better for you.
The shape, length and thickness of ramen noodles will vary by restaurant, and even by type of broth. For example, straight and thin noodles pair better with tonkotsu pork broths, while wavy ones are commonly used for miso broths. No worries; fresh noodles are great no matter their shape.
Ramen broths can be prepared from the bones of pork, chicken, beef or seafood, with pork and chicken the most common choices. (Beef or chicken broth may be used at home in a pinch, of course.) It’s then mixed with dashi (stock) made from Japanese ingredients like bonito flakes, dried anchovies and kelp.
And that’s not the end of the story. Seasonings are then added to the soup base to create one of the four traditional ramen flavors:
- Shio: The salty, light broth most often associated with ramen soup.
- Miso: Hearty and savory, with the distinctive taste contributed by miso (fermented soybean) paste.
- Shoyu: The flavor that comes closest to what most Westerners think of as “Asian,” thanks to the soy sauce it contains.
- Tonkotsu: Distinguished less by its seasonings and more by its cloudy and sticky broth made from pork bones, which have been boiled until the collagen dissolves into gelatin.
You’ll notice that the “chicken noodle flavor” and “Oriental flavor” so popular for packaged instant ramen aren’t among the options. More importantly, there’s no maltodextrin, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate or MSG – just some of the “stuff” you’ll find in a packet of Maruchan ramen seasonings.
What else is in that packet? If it’s chicken noodle flavor, for example, there’s powdered cooked chicken, cabbage extract, “dehydrated vegetables,” and hydrolyzed corn.
That contrasts starkly with the fresh, delicious goodies that are used to make restaurant ramen. And they’re the same goodies you can add to your store-bought instant ramen, to make it a lot more authentic, healthier and delicious.
Ramen Toppings and Add-Ins
It’s difficult to distinguish between the toppings and add-ins that can go into a bowl of ramen, because most of the ingredients we’ll be discussing can be used either way. For that reason, even a chunk of pork that sinks right to the bottom of the bowl is commonly referred to as a topping.
Here are the yummy extras that, when added to ramen, can make it something truly special.
Chashu is not only the most common type of pork found in ramen, it’s the most common protein overall. Chashu is served as several thin slices of braised or roasted pork, typically with most of the fat still present. It’s sometimes also identified by the area of the pig it comes from; butabara is pork belly chashu, katarosu is from the pork shoulder, and rosu is much-leaner pork loin.
The second most-popular pork add-in is kakuni, which is braised pork belly and is usually served in chunks rather than slices (which distinguishes it from butabara). Shredded pork may be used instead, because it’s slightly easier to eat.
Pork destined for bowls of ramen is usually marinated before being cooked. It’s likely to be marinated in miso, salt or soy sauce, but it can be served with any type of ramen broth.
Beef and Poultry
Many diners prefer beef, chicken or duck in their ramen, and it’s often served that way. Those proteins are normally served in thin slices as well, so you may find them referred to as beef chashu, chicken chashu or duck chashu.
Beef chashu usually is cut from the bottom round, and chicken and duck are most likely to be cut from the breast. Other forms of type of protein that may be added to ramen are shredded chicken or pork, bacon, or something known as niku soboro which is ground pork, chicken or beef that’s been seasoned with soy sauce and sugar, and then stir-fried.
Lighter broths like shio pair well with many types of shellfish. You’ll often find a terrific mix of simmered crabs, clams, mussels, shrimp and/or scallops floating in a tasty ramen bowl.
Or you might see the spiraled, red-and-white fish cake called narutomaki sitting on top of shoyu, shio or miso ramen soup. Other types of fish cakes can also be cut into slices and added to ramen, and they’re collectively known as kamaboko. There’s nothing wrong with adding flat fish to ramen noodle soup either. It’s just not quite as common.
We’re including eggs in the “toppings and add-ins” category, but many people would tell you that ramen isn’t really ramen without at least one egg on top. There’s no “right way” to cook an egg for ramen; hard-boiled, soft-boiled and poached eggs are all popular choices.
You can also scramble an egg and add it, mix the egg with other ingredients before they’re stir-fried – or go with the time-honored ajitsuke tamago, a soft-boiled egg marinated in mirin and soy sauce before they’re served.
Still wondering whether egg really goes well with ramen soup? Don’t take our word for it. Perhaps the world’s greatest ramen authority, celebrity Kylie Jenner, swears by it in her ramen recipe that’s gone viral.
Quite honestly, just about any vegetable you can think of (except perhaps overly-juicy ones like tomatoes) can serve as a terrific ramen topping. Some are more suited to being mixed in with fresh ramen soup, while others like scallions are usually, and literally, dropped right onto the top of the bowl. The latter can often be found displayed at “topping bars” in ramen shops, which are much like the salad bars we’re familiar with.
We’ll look at two categories of veggies that work extremely well with ramen soup – but none is a better choice than any other. If you find it tasty, go with it!
- Scallions (Green Onions): You’ll see them in almost every bowl of “real” ramen, so we had to lead off with them. Negi, as they’re known in Japan, can be chopped and added to any type of ramen, but some people prefer to use the green stalks in tonkotsu and the white parts in shoyu.
- Nori (Seaweed): Yes, there may be a cringe factor here for some people, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Nori is dried and compressed seaweed that tastes faintly of the sea (you might know it as a common sushi wrapper), and it’s perfect for lighter-flavored bowls of ramen, particularly ones with seafood. It can be crumbled up and sprinkled on top, or cut into strips mixed into the bowl. A different type of seaweed, wakame, is commonly added to shio ramen.
- Kimchi: This is fermented cabbage; it’s similar in texture to nori, but definitely spicier.
- Menma: Menma are bamboo shoots that have been fermented. Unlike kimchi, they have a nutty and somewhat sweet flavor.
- Benishoga: Pickled ginger is often served with sushi, but this version of picked ginger has a sharper flavor. It’s mostly served with tonkotsu ramen.
- Greens: We’ll get to more “standard” greens in a moment, but you may find either takanazuke (pickled mustard leaf) or karashi tanaka (mustard leaf fried with spicy pepper) in Japanese ramen dishes. Each adds its own unique taste.
- Mushrooms: Fungi work with almost any dish, whether it’s Japanese, Chinese or all-American. And all types of mushrooms are great in ramen, although some of the traditional ones to use are enoki mushrooms which add an earthy flavor, shiitake mushrooms that absorb the taste of the broth particularly well, and wood ear mushrooms which add texture.
- Cabbage: Usually cooked first, cabbage and bok choy are often used to add volume and bulk to ramen along with their crispy goodness.
- Garlic: A must-add for tonkotsu ramen and typically included in most other types of the noodle soup, garlic can be minced, grated, or even added in the form of garlic oil. Some ramen shops actually provide raw garlic and a grater, so it can be as fresh as possible when you’re ready to eat.
- Onions: Green onions are ubiquitous in ramen, but diced white onions are commonly added as well. They provide a stronger flavor (umami) and are particularly good in shoyu ramen; leeks match well with shio ramen and may be served after they’ve been marinated in a spicy sauce.
- Bean Sprouts: Miso and tonkotsu ramen will almost always contain bean sprouts, but they can add a fresh element to any other style as well. Radish sprouts work well with miso, too.
- Spinach: This is another vegetable that will make ramen fresher, colorful and more nutritious, even though leafy vegetables aren’t often served in traditional Japanese ramen.
- Corn: Yes, corn. It might not seem to be a match with ramen, but it’s almost always used (usually used straight from the can) as a topping for miso or shio ramen, since its sweetness balances off the savory taste of miso. Corn is also grown extensively in the Japanese city of Hokkaido, where miso ramen originated.
Many of these vegetables can be stir-fried before they’re added to a bowl of ramen; that lessens their nutritional value somewhat, but makes them softer and easier to eat.
Other Common Ramen Toppings
We’ve mentioned that you can use almost anything as a ramen topping – and if you didn’t believe us, here’s the proof.
This is just a small list of other food items that are often used to add flavor, texture or just a different appearance to a bowl of ramen.
- Sauces, Pastes and Condiments: Some common additions include yuzukosho (a chili pepper and yuzu peel paste), rayu (a spicy and hot oil), chili oil, sesame oil, and good old soy sauce. There’s nothing saying you can’t add sriracha, either.
- Gyoza: Japanese dumplings are a welcome bonus in any noodle dish.
- Ground Daikon Radish: Common in Asia, delicious anywhere.
- Parsley: A garnish of green parsley (Japanese mitsuba, if you can find it) on top of ramen provides a pretty finishing touch.
- Butter: A surprisingly common ramen topping for shio or miso ramen, a little butter will make the soup taste richer and creamier as it melts in the soup.
- Sesame Seeds: These are also commonly added to the top of ramen just before eating; they provide both texture and, if they’re ground, a yummy nutty aroma.
There’s a good chance you already have many of these toppings in your refrigerator or pantry. Try using a few of them to create your own ramen recipe the next time you open a package of your favorite instant ramen brand for a quick meal; they may add a few minutes to the soup’s preparation time, but they’ll also add an awful lot of taste, texture and nutrition to your bowl of ramen.
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