When you hear the word “ramen,” you probably cringe. I don’t blame you! It conjures up thoughts of one of the unhealthiest foods out there. Fried noodles loaded with sodium, no vegetables in sight, and no protein either. Of course that doesn’t sound like a very healthy choice. It also probably reminds you of college, when ramen was all you could afford. In fact, for many Americans, I imagine those cheap fried noodles and seasoning packets are the extent of what they know about ramen.
If this sounds like you, then you might be surprised to learn that ramen is one of the most popular foods in Japan.
Although Japan does have a hefty selection of pre-packaged, dried ramen ready for boiling water and a seasoning packet, fresh ramen can be found everywhere. By everywhere, I mean just about every place you can think of, including tiny alleyways solely dedicated to ramen shops. The best ramen shops have only a few tables, typically no English menu, and a line out the door — at least in Japan's larger cities.
Wondering what makes this ramen different? First, the noodles are fresh. Not every shop makes them from scratch, but the more famous shops and some in larger cities will hand-make the noodles. The broth provides the essential flavor. Typical broth flavors are pork, miso, soy or salt. All are meat-based, although sometimes you can find fish stock. These are all very high in sodium, but for the most part, the Japanese don’t drink the broth — at least not all of it.
The next difference is vegetables. A fresh bowl of ramen will come with plenty of them: seaweed, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, leeks, scallions and sometimes other green veggies. Lastly, there is some protein. The most common way to serve ramen is with a slice of pork. Other options include a soft-boiled egg or fish paste/cake. Some will have tofu, although this is primarily fried. As you can see, this is very different from what most Americans know as ramen.
Maybe what you need this winter is a nice, steaming bowl of Japanese comfort food. I know for me, when the snow is coming down here in Japan, sitting in a tiny ramen shop, slurping (oh yes, we slurp here) on a hot bowl of ramen certainly hits the spot.
My suggestion, as winter is now upon us, is to try making your own healthier version of ramen. Check out a nearby Asian market or specialty store and look for fresh ramen noodles. Create your own broth, then fill with green veggies, bamboo shoots, a little kelp, and top it all off with your favorite protein. It may not be entirely authentic, but I bet you will start to understand what all the hype is about when people talk about Japanese ramen.