Introducing Komiabura – the defining flavor in ramen.
Published: Mar 22, 2023/ Last Updated:Mar 22, 2023
- 6 min read
Hello to ramen fans all over the country! We hope you’re having a wonderful ramen life. Today, we would like to introduce komiabura (香味油), which is Japanese for “flavoring oil.” It’s not an exaggeration that this ingredient is the determining factor in the taste of ramen. In a previous article (WHAT IS RAMEN? HOW THE HISTORY AND ELEMENTS LEAD TO MODERN-DAY RAMEN), we wrote that ramen soup is a combination of dashi (Japanese soup stock), tare (sauce), and fat/oil. Each of these elements has a distinct role to play in ramen’s concoction. Dashi provides the umami, while tare (soy sauce, miso, etc.) is the specified flavor of the soup. What’s the role of fat/oil? Truth is that this ingredient plays a crucial role in ramen’s overall flavor and creates an impact and character in the first bite. Many of the Komiabura about to be introduced today fall into this fat/oil category. We will introduce a wide range of komiabura, from those that have become standard now, to those that are expected to attract attention in the future. Please enjoy this article until the end. Let’s begin!
- What is komiabura anyway?
- Komiabura used in ramen
■What is komiabura anyway?
Generally speaking, komiabura is fat/oil (animal fat such as lard or vegetable oil such as sesame oil, etc.) to which ingredients are added to provide flavor. With the many ingredients that can be combined with fat/oil, the variety of komiabura is infinite. Common ingredients in ramen komiabura are vegetables like leeks and garlic; seafood such as shrimp, scallops, and crab; and spices like red pepper. Each ramen restaurant carries the responsibility of perfecting their own komiabura for their ramen dishes.
As we’ve mentioned at the beginning of this article, the role of this ingredient is to create a distinctive flavor, but originally, komiabura was used for a very different reason. Due to the common odor of certain ingredients used in soup stock, komiabura was a vital ingredient to negate the smell. However, with the removal of the soup stock odor through the adoption of high-quality ingredients as well as carefully skimming the foam from the top, the reason to use komiabura is shifted from preventing odor to adding aroma and flavor. Additionally, the use of this element allows the flavors of the dish to entwine with the noodles while they’re lifted from the bowl. Moreover, we would like to add that komiabura creates a layer of oil at the top of the soup, sealing in the heat and keeping it from getting cold. It’s easy to recognize the importance of komiabura through its many roles, but it’s also important to acknowledge the chef that brings it all together to create a tasty noodle dish.
■Komiabura used in ramen
Komiabura is used in all kinds of dishes, not just ramen. However, in this article, we will focus of some of the most common komiabura used in ramen.
・Negiyu (Leek Oil)
Negiyu was likely used in the early days of ramen as komiabura. The word translates to “leek oil,” and is made by heating leeks with some garlic and salad oil to give it aroma. Negiyu is another example of Chinese influence on ramen as it’s a popular ingredient in Chinese cuisine. Ramen restaurants don’t typically advertise the flavor of negiyu as their own, but it’s highly possible that each restaurant uses the flavor of negiyu as one of the basic elements in their komiabura. Although technically not a negiyu, the flavor of kogashi negi (焦がしネギ, meaning “charred leeks”), made by stir-frying leeks with oil, is a distinctive characteristic of ramen at many restaurants, so it’s safe to say that leeks have a strong following in the ramen community.
・Chiyu (Chicken Fat)
Chiyu – also derived from Chinese cuisine – is fat that’s extracted from fried chicken skin. Although it doesn’t technically fall within the definition of komiabura (that is, “fat/oil with ingredients added to it for flavor”), we’re including it because it’s an essential fat that’s often used as a finishing touch in ramen. A few drops will add mild flavor and a unique aroma to the dish. Chiyu is versatile enough to be used in all types of ramen, but it’s especially well known among Japanese ramen fans for its use in Yokohama Iekei ramen. Here’s a useful tip: After the chiyu is extracted, the crispy chicken skin is a great snack to pair with beer, just sprinkle a little salt and pepper and voila! You can enjoy this tasty treat if you plan to make chiyu at home.
・Mayu (Black Garlic Oil)
While negiyu and chiyu are of Chinese origin, mayu was born in Japan. It was created by Liu Tan Hsiang (劉壇祥) from Taiwan, who at the time was head chef at “Keika (桂花),” a restaurant famous for its kumamoto ramen. The process involves frying garlic in lard in several stages and then grinding it into a paste. Adding mayu to tonkotsu ramen brings out the richness and umami while eliminating the nasty smell. It’s now recognized as a unique komiabura that’s an indispensable ingredient in kumamoto ramen. Incidentally, mayu (馬油) and má yóu (麻油) are often mentioned as having similar names, but please note that the former is fat extracted from horses and used as a skin care product, while the latter means “sesame oil” in Chinese.
・Rayu (Chili oil)
Last but not least, we would like to introduce you to rayu. In Japan, rayu is commonly used as a dipping sauce for dumplings, but its role in adding heat to spicy ramen dishes is just as popular. One example of this is tantanmen. As you may have guessed, rayu is a komiabura of Chinese origin, but it has a surprisingly short history, dating back to around the 17th century. At that time, chili peppers were introduced to China from South America (which means there was no mapo tofu before the 17th century!). Making rayu is simple enough to make at home by heating chili peppers with sesame oil. If you have the opportunity to make your own rayu, you can use the recipe below to make tantanmen as well.
In this article, we introduced komiabura, the ingredient that adds individuality to the flavor of ramen. How was it? The different komiabura discussed in this article are already well-known in the ramen industry, but we’ve found new komiabura emerging recently, some of which we list below.
Both Momofuku (starting their business in New York) and Tsuta (famous for earning a star in the Michelin Guide) have received attention for their ramen featuring truffle flavor. If you are a ramen restaurant owner aiming for upscale, this is a flavor you can’t overlook when considering your menu.
Technically speaking, olive oil is not a komiabura, but it’s worth mentioning due to increasing popularity in ramen, as seen on the menu of Mugi To Olive in Ginza and other restaurants in recent years. Just as extra virgin olive oil is used as a finishing touch for high-quality pasta, it’s also used for high-quality ramen, and its gentle and mild flavor is especially popular among women.
・Sichuan peppercorn oil
Around 2019, the characteristic ma la (麻辣, meaning “numbing hot”)” flavor in authentic Sichuan cuisine has enjoyed a huge boom in popularity in Japan. Here, ma (麻) refers to the numbing sensation from Sichuan pepper, while la (辣) refers to the spiciness of chili peppers. Recently, an increasing number of ramen restaurants in Japan offer innovative flavors, especially when incorporating ma (麻) elements of Sichuan pepper. This trend is expected to continue and will eventually arrive in the United States.
The Japanese are well known for their love of shrimp, as their per capita consumption of the crustacean used to be the highest in the world. So, it comes as no surprise that the use of shrimp oil in komiabura is uniquely Japanese. Made by frying shrimp shells in oil, we think it’d be a popular flavor among U.S. customers, as it’s the flavor in bisque.
Another point we noticed in this research is that the shift from Chinese-derived ingredients to Japanese-derived ingredients was not as apparent in komiabura as it was in dashi broth, as mentioned in our previous article THE SECRET TO UMAMI IS IN THE DASHI! LOOKING INTO DASHI IN RAMEN.). However, in recent years, there’s been an increase in ramen that utilizes distinctly Japanese ingredients like niboshi flavored oil or dried bonito flakes flavored oil. So, keep your eyes peeled for more developments in komiabura!
It is very likely that the number of ramen restaurants in the United States will continue to increase. In such an environment, it’s expected that each of them will develop their own unique ramen with komiabura combining any number of ingredients. In the midst of such a vibrant ramen market, we would like to leave this entry with the hope that you will be able to find your own favorite ramen using a novel komiabura that you’ve not yet seen. We are currently working on the next topic that will delight ramen fans, so please look forward to it!
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