Customize Your Ramen Toppings at Home: Introducing Traditional & Non-Traditional Ingredients
Published: Aug 22, 2022/ Last Updated:Aug 23, 2022
- 9 min read
Hello to ramen fans across the country! Today, I would like to delve into the subject of toppings, an essential element of all ramen. As with soup seasoning and noodle types, toppings are a defining aspect of the different types of ramen. For example, ramen toppings in Japan often characterize the local food culture of the regions and differ greatly from each other.
There is no right or wrong way to top off your ramen; you can choose to decorate your personal bowl however you like. Perhaps this freedom to customize ramen to your individual taste has led to its worldwide popularity.
Thanks to the trial and error of ramen lovers around the world, we can enjoy countless variations of toppings in addition to the standard chashu pork or menma. Let us begin by taking a look at the standard ramen toppings before exploring the exciting modern takes that stand out from the former category. Whether you want to master the classics or you are interested in something new to rejuvenate your ramen, this article is sure to delight, so please enjoy.
■Standard Ramen Toppings
First, we will note the toppings that are considered essential. If you want to recreate the delicious ramen you ate at your local Japanese ramen restaurant, this section is for you.
Chashu is one of the most popular ramen toppings. At ramen restaurants, two to three pieces a bowl is customary. However, if that will not satisfy your craving, an order of chashu-men is enough to make you feel like you hit the jackpot. The word chashu comes from the Chinese word “叉焼(chāshāo),” a term for pork thigh that is slowly roasted in a special oven. In contrast, the chashu used in ramen is made by tying pork (belly, thigh, or shoulder) with kite twine and then stewing it in a soy sauce-based sauce that is seasoned with salt and pepper. For that reason, chashu for ramen was originally called “braised pork.”
Chashu is a popular must-have topping when making ramen. Cooking it from scratch can be a bit tricky, but you can purchase chashu at your local Asian supermarket.
While regular boiled eggs are a delicious topping, soy sauce-marinated, soft-boiled eggs are currently the most popular type to complement ramen. In Japan, it is often referred to as “味玉 (Ajitama).” The first restaurant to use marinated boiled egg as a topping was Kan Chin Tei (漢珍亭) in Ogikubo, Tokyo. At first, hard-boiled eggs were the mainstream, but gradually, half-boiled eggs climbed to the top of the list. Not much effort is needed to make them, so we recommend giving it a try at home. If you do, be sure to use pasteurized eggs as a precaution. Here is a recipe.
Negi is a type of scallion that adds the perfect balance of crispy texture and refreshing flavor. It is an ideal match for ramen, especially ones with thick soups. In Japan, the type of negi differs depending on the region. In Kansai and Kyushu, the popular negi for ramen is similar to green onions. Examples are Kyoto’s kujo negi and Hakata’s green onion. By contrast, the Kanto region uses a negi that is similar to leeks. An example of this is the Fukaya negi in Saitama. Although they are commonly chopped, we recommend cutting them lengthwise for a crunchier texture.
Menma is another indispensable topping for ramen. Its unique chewy texture and refreshing taste accents the dish. When paired with other ingredients such as noodles and chashu pork, its flavor is further enhanced. Menma is made from a type of bamboo found in China and originally was a popular ingredient in Chinese home cooking. During the Meiji period (1868-1912), menma was added to ramen by Chinese immigrants from Fujian and Guangdong that relocated to Chinatown in Japan. It did not take long for its popularity to take off. Incidentally, menma was used as a topping in ramen served in Rai Rai Ken (来々軒), which is said to be the origin of ramen in Japan.
Crunchy and appealing, bean sprouts are a crowd favorite for their low-calorie count, reasonable price, and abundance. The first person to use bean sprouts as a topping was Morito Omiya, the inventor of Sapporo Miso Ramen. Since then, bean sprouts are widely recognized as a typical ingredient in Sapporo Miso Ramen. In fact, the bean sprouts used in Sapporo Miso Ramen are stir-fried bean sprouts. For those short on time, we prepared a simple recipe that requires only a microwave oven. Please refer to this recipe the next time you make ramen.
・Kikurage (wood ear mushroom)
With its delightful crunchy texture, kikurage is a topping often paired with tonkotsu ramen. A reason for this could be that it is an excellent fat-dissolving ingredient. Unfortunately, it is not always an easy topping to find in the U.S., but chances are your local Asian food supermarket has it in stock. Another option is e-commerce sites like Amazon and Walmart. If you are interested in recreating authentic tonkotsu ramen at home, consider using kikurage as a topping. We also have a recipe prepared for you.
Garlic’s punchy aroma and taste enhances the flavor of ramen. Ramen restaurants often serve freshly grated garlic, but we encourage you to try various uses for garlic when you are cooking at home. One suggestion is garlic chips, which are thinly sliced garlic pieces fried in oil. The crunchy texture adds a new element to ramen. Alternatively, whole fried garlic has a hot and flaky texture, like that of potatoes. Note that garlic has a strong after-eating smell, so please be careful not to overdo it.
・Naruto (a type of fish cake)
Naruto, with its distinctive and eye-catching pattern, was originally used as an ingredient in Japanese soba noodles. As mentioned in the previous article, ramen was originally called shina soba in the Meiji and Taisho Eras. It is thought that the idea to use naruto in shina soba was inspired by its use in Japanese soba. Naruto is most common in shoyu ramen, the predominant type of ramen in the early days of the dish. Although the number of restaurants that use naruto as a topping has decreased recently, its lovable form (the source of inspiration for the “Naruto” anime) should remain as a steadfast topping for years to come.
In addition to the toppings introduced in this article, the following are other possible standard ramen toppings. Why not try them the next time you make ramen?
- Nori (dried edible seaweed)
- Wakame (a type of kelp)
■Amazing Toppings for Various Types of Ramen
Next, we will introduce some innovative elements that do not fit into the framework of standard ramen toppings. Ingredients of Japanese origin are not the only toppings that perfectly match this dish. Did you know that there are ingredients in your refrigerator that can complement ramen? In this issue, we will introduce such unexpected toppings in the categories, “western-style toppings,” “vegetarian toppings,” and “spicy toppings.”
< Western-style toppings >
The first western style topping I want to introduce is cheese, which goes especially well with miso ramen. This revelation may leave you feeling skeptical, but there are countless reasons why cheese is great with ramen. For example, cheese and miso are both fermented foods, so it goes without saying that they pair well with each other. You can sprinkle parmesan cheese on top of your ramen, and do not hesitate to go crazy with the amount of cheese you add. When using camembert or mozzarella cheese, let them simmer a little with the noodles.
If you want to add some meat protein to your ramen, but the preparation of chashu sounds time-consuming, why not try bacon? Its flavor adds a unique accent to enrich the ramen. Thickly sliced bacon is also delicious.
Often served as a side dish for meat, the popular baked potato is delicious on its own. However, we came up with the idea of using a baked potato as a topping for our new Sapporo Miso Ramen. In fact, Hokkaido, where Sapporo is located, is famous for having the largest potato harvest in Japan, producing 80% of the total Japanese harvest! It only made sense to utilize the baked potato as a topping for Sapporo miso ramen. The result was a tremendous success! Potato, butter, and, surprisingly, sour cream gives miso ramen an exquisite richness that makes for a creamier soup. If you are interested, please try this recipe.
If you want to elevate your ramen game, truffle will take you to the top. It is one of the trendiest toppings nowadays and can be found on the menus of Momofuku and Tsuta (蔦), the first ramen restaurant to receive a Michelin star. Some restaurants have begun to add truffle oil to the finish of their ramen noodles for a more casual way to enjoy the flavor. If you want to create a high-class atmosphere at home, please consider this dish.
< Vegetarian Topping >
・Deep fried tofu
Deep fried tofu is a great source of protein and an alternative to chashu. The crispy-on-the-outside-fluffy-on-the-inside texture enhances the flavor of the ramen. In addition, extra fried tofu absorbs the broth well, allowing for the taste of the ramen to shine. It is an ingredient that is easy to find at your local Asian supermarket, but even if there is only tofu, you can deep fry it at home, so please give it a try.
For some added richness, pumpkin is a great topping for ramen. We recommend roasted, sliced pumpkin. It is best to make it in advance in an oven or air fryer, as it takes some time to prepare.
White mushrooms and other mushrooms are perfect toppings for ramen. One of the best is shiitake mushrooms, which have a flavor of their own. Throwing them into ramen adds new layers to the dish. Start by simply roasting them in the oven or air fryer. If you can get your hands on dried shiitake mushrooms, try using the rehydrated juice as a soup base for your ramen. You will be surprised at the depth of flavor of this topping.
The creamy flavor of an avocado can be paired with any dish, and ramen is no exception. Because of its superior nutritional qualities, it is also a perfect ingredient when you want to supplement your diet with nutrients that you cannot get from ramen alone. Simply sliced avocado is a great topping, but avocado tempura will add a touch of extra flavor. The avocado gradually melts into the soup, blending the flavors into a perfect dish.
In addition to the ones mentioned here, the following are other possible toppings for vegetarian ramen. Next time you try vegetarian ramen, please try these as well.
- Sweet potatoes
- Bok choy
< Spicy Topping >
The first spicy topping we would like to introduce is kimchi. It is a delicious complement to ramen on its own but adding some pork belly to make “Pork Kimchi Ramen” is even tastier. This is an adaptation of the Buta Kimchi Itame (Pork Kimchi Stir-Fry) popular in Japanese izakaya (Japanese style pubs) as a ramen topping. The Buta Kimchi Itame alone makes for a yummy snack, so please take this opportunity to add this dish to your repertoire. You can refer to the following recipes.
Recipe for Pork Kimchi Ramen
Recipe for Buta Kimchi Itame (Pork Kimchi Stir-Fry)
Doubanjiang is another great ingredient for a spicy accent in your ramen. To ensure the spiciness of Doubanjiang is mellow and tasty, heat it in oil before use. For that reason, it is better to use it for making tantanmen (Japanese take on Sichuan Dan Dan noodles) or mabo ramen with mabo tofu as a topping. We also recommend our recipe for tantanmen using the Doubanjiang.
Gochujang, an essential ingredient in Korean cuisine, is a wonderful mix of spicy and sweet. It is delicious as a standalone addition to your ramen, but we encourage you to try our “SPICY RED MISO” recipe, which is based on gochujang, with a little extra kick. It goes especially well with tonkotsu ramen!
Lastly, we have the crowd favorite: sriracha sauce. You probably already know the versatility of this sauce, but as you might have guessed, it also goes great with ramen! The slightly sour and spicy flavor of sriracha is especially complementary with ramen noodles and vegetables. If you want to add a spicy flavor to your regular ramen, give it a try.
In this article, we introduced as many ramen toppings as possible. From old to new toppings, all of them have one common denominator: excellent compatibility with ramen. How was it? What amazes me is that ramen offers the freedom to try all kinds of ingredients as toppings, regardless of their regional characteristics. From Nori to mozzarella cheese, ramen is a perfect example of Momofuku Ando’s famous saying, “Taste has no borders.”
Countless ingredients have been used for ramen toppings. Many of them are so popular that they became a staple. However, it is too early to assume that all the perfect toppings for ramen have been discovered. There are surely many more fascinating ingredients in the world waiting to be used. If there is an ingredient that you think is a must-try, use it the next time you make some ramen at home. And if your experimenting leads to a great topping combination, please let us know. We look forward to hearing from all of you!
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