Ramen: the 3 main categories (+2 special ones).

The kinds of ramen are numerous and each one put its roots in a different regional culinary culture.

In this article, without going into detail, we are going to write in a simple way about the three bigcategories, to which we are going to add two sub-categories that must absolutely be mentioned.

Regardless of the type of noodles (men) or the added toppings, this dish is first of all categorized according to the kind of seasoning used for the broth. The choice falls on three options: the use of soy sauce, the use of miso paste, or the simply use of salt.

Shōyu ramen (醤油ラーメン, soy sauce ramen).

toyohara on Flickr

Soy sauce ramen is the most popular in Japan. It is said to have made his first appearance at the beginning of the last century in a restaurant in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. To the broth, derived from ingredients such as pork, chicken, fish, seaweed and / or more, the characterizing soy sauce-based seasoning is added. What ingredients and in what quantities are used is all at the discretion of the chef, it follows an immense vastness of styles impossible to group in a single description.

What generally characterizes shoyu ramen is however a tasty, but not excessively, broth. To maintain an organoleptic simplicity is essential to enhance the taste of noodles and the various toppings, like chashu pork slices, menma (fermented bamboo shoots) and so on.

Miso ramen (味噌ラーメン, miso ramen).

社食シリーズ - 味噌ラーメン
cyberwonk on Flickr

Miso ramen has spread in all Japan from Hokkaido. The broth is usually made with pork and vegetables, to which is added miso, which gives that typical intense japanese flavor, making the soup more opaque and more consistent. In addition to the classic toppings such as chashu pork or negi onion, also corn and/or butter are often added, both of which give the dish a characteristic sweet tendency. However, spicy versions are found too, as the use of chili peppers is also widespread for this type of ramen.

In short, compared to soy sauce ramen, the toppings are more varied and numerous but less distinct from each other.

Shio ramen (塩ラーメン, salt ramen).

Shio ramen - 塩ラーメン
eeems on Flickr

The characteristics of shio ramen (literally translated with the unappetizing expression ramen with salt) are the simplicity of the broth (pale transparent color) and the valorization of the single ingredients, which are not covered by intense flavors such as miso or soy sauce. For this reason it is called the ramen that does not fool you, since for a tasty broth you can only rely on the quality of the raw materials.

By the way simplicity does not means to be poor in flavours; on the contrary, we could consider two keywords that contain its essence: tasty and light.

Tonkotsu ramen (豚骨ラーメン, pork bones ramen)

博多一蘭 とんこつラーメン
Naoya Fujii on Flickr

Even if is usually the used seasoning that gives the name to ramen, a particular exception is the tonkotsu ramen where is the basic ingredient used for the broth, pig bones, that names this type.

The bones are boiled intensely over high heat; this procedure creates an emulsion, giving the broth a more viscous consistency, an opaque color and a rich and characteristic flavor.

Then are all the ramens where pig bones are used called tonkotsu ramen?

Well no. Usually the pork bones (along with other ingredients) stewed over low heat are used in most of the ramen to give flavor to the broth. It is only when the preparation involves the aforementioned high heat process where the pot is brought to a boil that the denomination tonkotsu ramen is used. Then if the seasoning is soy sauce based it will be called tonkotsu shoyu, if seasoned only with salt it will be called tonkotsu shio and so on.

The Kyūshū tradition wants the noodles (men) to be thin and, in proportion to the other genres, served in small quantities, favoring the order of the bis of only noodles (kaedama, 替え玉) during the meal that will be immersed in the broth.

Toripaitan ramen (鶏白湯, chicken white broth ramen)

Hideya Hamano on Flickr

As for the tonkotsu ramen, also the toripaitan is a separate category that takes its name not from the seasoning but from the main ingredient of the broth, that in this case is chicken (or rather the bones and what remains after boning).

Similarly to the tonkotsu, the chicken bones are boiled for a long time thus giving the broth an opaque white color and a characteristic consistency.
On the other hand, unlike it, the flavor, although quite intense, does not have that strong smell that distinguishes (and often leads to not prefer) the tonkotsu ramen instead, making it a lighter, easily appreciable dish and, if we can also say, healthier.

Noodle shop | Shimbashi, Tokyo
jamesjustin on Flickr

In addition to these five styles, we can also mention the tsukemen(つけめん), where the noodles and the broth are served separately, or the yusoba (油そば) which in simple terms is a ramen without broth that is consumed by pouring a sauce by choice.
There are even more specific ones such as the niboshi ramen (煮干しラーメン) in which the main ingredient of the broth are dried blue fishes (like sardines).

Going even more specifically, there are at least 20 listable regional styles, and on these each restaurant can freely range according to its preferences. Who points more on vegetables, who on a greater quantity of chashu pork slices… In Shinjuku there is a place famous not for the broth or for the choice of toppings, but for the original and secret method of fermentation of the single menma (bamboo shoots).

During your trip in Japan you absolutely should not feel satisfied by trying just one genre! Venture out and try to ask the cook or waiter what kind you want. Usually every good place serves at least two different styles.

If you are in Tokyo take a look at our suggested Ramen by clicking here and find out what GiappoGourmet recommends!


Michele La Rosa, sommelier living in Tokyo with a passion for ukiyo-e art, kokeshi, ghibli studio films. Lover of Yokohama ramen, natto and washoku in general, his favorite beverages are the junmai dry sakè, the yuzu-shu and the barley shochu. By the way what he can't live without is, after all, the simple Asahi Super Dry.