A Short Guide to Ramen Ingredients and Toppings
Over the past few months, ramen’s star has risen precipitously in Charleston, as restaurants have embraced the dish’s popularity. From ramen pop ups around town to entire menu shifts focusing on fancy versions of the stuff so many of us subsisted on in college, Charleston may have arrived a tad late to the ramen popularity party, but we’ve certainly arrived in a big way.
If you’re new to ramen, you might encounter some terms and ingredients you’re unfamiliar with. So, we’ve provided you with short descriptions of several popular ramen menu items, so that you can more confidently order your perfect bowl! For a more in-depth ramen education, we highly recommend you seek out the film “Tampopo”. It’s a weird, wild Japanese comedy, telling the story of one woman’s attempt to develop Japan’s best ramen shop alongside several other food-focused side stories that will amuse, delight, befuddle, and ultimately make you hungry. It’s currently available on Criterion and is not for kids!
Onsen tamago: “Tamago” is Japanese for egg, and an onsen is Japanese hot spring – a ubiquitous feature on the volcanic island nation. Onsen towns around Japan have existed for hundreds of years – places where these natural jacuzzis are abundant, and where travelers visit to relax in the baths. Japan’s hot springs are HOT, so you can imagine what would happen to an egg that found its way into one of these springs. Onsen tamago is a soft-boiled egg, generally with silky soft whites and a just-cooked yolk. Traditionally, whole eggs were often placed in hot springs to cook, but you don’t have to bathe with your tamago in order to appreciate the silky, savory quality that it lends to a bowl of ramen.
Nori: Fans of sushi are already familiar with nori as the roasted seaweed wrapping covering the exterior of most sushi rolls. Nori is sometimes served with ramen as a sheet that can soak on the edge of the bowl to be munched on whole as it absorbs broth, or to be ripped up and sprinkled over top. Nori soaked in ramen broth acquires a pleasantly chewy texture and its light, briny seaweed flavor pairs very well with a rich and salty ramen broth.
Menma: These pickled bamboo shoots have salty and slightly sweet flavor and add a nice chewiness to any bowl of ramen. The type of bamboo that menma is made from actually originates from Taiwan, and the raw young bamboo is quite toxic to humans. Thus, clever cooks figured out the process of seasoning and dehydrating the shoots in the sun before pickling, to rid the bamboo of its harmful chemicals and make this an edible and tasty addition to ramen or even to a bowl of rice.
Kikarage: Black wood ear mushroom (aka jelly ear or black fungus) is often found in Chinese cooking, and makes a great soft, jelly-like textural addition to a bowl of ramen. Like many mushrooms, kikarage are also very nutritious! They’re packed with fiber and B-12 vitamins and boast a mild earthy flavor. This healthy veg addition to your bowl is perfect for lighter, clear broth ramens.
Kae-dama: Kae-dama just means extra noodles! If you’re feeling extra famished or just happen to be a very enthusiastic noodle lover, you can ask for kae-dama to get a second helping of ramen noodles added to your bowl.
Nitamago: Nitamago is a simmered egg, usually flavored with soy sauce and mirin. Nitamago will generally be cooked for longer and at a higher temp than the soft onsen tamago, resulting in firm whites and a jammy yolk. Fans of hard boiled eggs should go with nitamago in lieu of onsen tamago. The seasoned whites also make for an extra delicious feature of this ramen addition. Ramen adepts will be able to pick up half of a nitamago with chopsticks and take a bite. It might seem like a challenge if your chopstick skills are limited, but it’s a great way to practice! Before long, you’ll be able to impress your friends by polishing off a whole bowl of ramen with just chopsticks.
Narutomaki: If you’ve ever noticed a small white disc with a pink swirl in a bowl of ramen or even a picture of ramen, that’s narutomaki or fish cake. Much like the imitation crab that’s become popular in California rolls, narutomaki is made of fish that has been broken down into paste, colored with food dye, and then pressed into logs for slicing. Narutomaki’s texture is also similar to imitation crab – soft and springy with an easy chew. As for flavor, narutomaki has slightly more of a fish flavor than imitation crab, but it is very subtle and won’t overwhelm or often even register against a flavorful pork or chicken broth. Seasoned ramen fans might argue that these cheery little discs generally serve to add a pleasant, and slightly kawaii aesthetic to a bowl of ramen.
Chashu: A popular addition for those wanting a little extra protein in their bowl, chashu is pork that’s been seared and seasoned with soy sauce before being served atop ramen in thick slices. Chashu is known for being quite tender (you want to be able to pick it up with chopsticks and bite it, as opposed to having to cut it with a fork a knife) and very flavorful.
Shio: Shio is Japanese for salt, so shio ramen broth is a clear broth flavored primarily with salt as opposed to pork or chicken stock. While it might sound a little lackluster to fans of stronger broths, shio ramen is known for its delicate quality, which allows the flavors of other ingredients and toppings to shine through. This is a great pick for vegetarian or vegans (though definitely check with your ramen provider on their use of animal products elsewhere in the ramen) and can be a nice pick on a warm day or a refreshing break from the overwhelmingly porky or chickeny broths that have become popular among many ramen seekers.
Tonkatsu: Meaning “pork bone”, tonkatsu ramen is made from a pork broth containing emulsified pork fat, which makes the broth cloudy in appearance and lends it a velvety, savory richness. Tonkatsu ramen tends to be on the hearty side, served with thick slices of pork laid on top of the bowl to both soak up and contribute to the pork-stravaganza. The dense, filling nature of tonkatsu ramen makes it a great wintertime soup or a good pick for when you’re extra hungry. Note that you’ll want to steer clear from delicately flavored toppings with a tonkatsu, as less assertive ingredients are generally overwhelmed by the robust broth.
Local ramen chefs have been making great use of local South Carolina ingredients in their recent ramen recipes! To learn all about the finest local offerings on our farmer’s market scene, we recommend our Farm to Table Experience. Accompanied by an esteemed local chef, guests will be able to peruse the freshest local ingredients and learn how to build a fantastic farm-to-table meal.