Maybe you haven't heard, but there's a ramen war brewing in NYC. Which means it's time New York diners get acquainted with the minimalist soup (and we're not talking instant). We'll get to the noodles, but the first thing you need to know is that the Japanese dish is all about these four types of broth. Here's a primer.
Wed Aug 15 2007
Illustration: Jason Greenberg
Considered by many to be the most difficult broth to make, shio (salt) broths are typically clear, and have high-class roots—in Japan, clarity is a sign of a well-made, expensive soup. Shio broth is largely based on vegetable scraps, like carrot and daikon radish peels, onions, iriko (small fish similar to sardines) and sometimes sake. Japanese-food expert Elizabeth Andoh, author of Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen, admires the broth’s “silky mouthfeel,” and says it is typically made without the kelp that causes murkiness in other ramens. Shio ramen is popular on Hokkaido, a northern Japanese island where lots of expensive salt is mined, and in Tokyo. In Manhattan, try it at Setagaya (141 First Ave between St. Marks Pl and 9th St, 212-529-2740), a Tokyo-based chain that makes a satisfyingly salty shio ramen for $9.50. (Click here to read a review of Setagaya.)
Known to Americans as soy sauce, shoyu was discovered in the 17th century as the by-product of miso manufacturing. According to Andoh, a good shoyu ramen starts with a basic dashi (broth) of kelp and bonito flakes, with mirin, a syrupy rice wine, to balance the soy. The result should have a “round” flavor, not simply salty or pungent. Since a broth of straight shoyu would be nearly black (and thus unsightly), Andoh notes that typically an usukuchi (full-strength but pale shoyu) is used in addition to run-of-the-mill sauce. Shoyu ramen has a particular stronghold in the Osaka region, where the Kikkoman company is based. Here in New York, Minca Ramen Factory (536 E 5th St between Aves A and B, 212-505-8001) has a pleasantly thick, nearly golden-brown shoyu broth with slightly chewy ha gotai noodles (see sidebar), which you can sample for $8.50.
“Miso,” sighs Andoh, “is everywhere.” There are hundreds, if not thousands, of varieties of this fermented soybean paste, and Andoh says that it is to Japan what wine and cheese are to Europeans: Each region has its own type of miso, and thus, each has its own miso ramen. With all the different colors of the paste available, you can typically expect a broth that is somewhere between pale yellow and dark reddish brown. The miso itself is tossed in at the very end of the cooking process, because its chemistry is such that the paste separates quite easily, which is why you often see soup bowls with murky clouds lurking at the bottom. And there’s miso’s distinctly sweet aroma, which stands a chance only if it is added at the last minute. Sapporo (152 W 49th St between Sixth and Seventh Aves, 212-869-8972) is well regarded for its miso broths, which start at $7.50.
Lovers of animal fat, pay attention: This ramen is most easily understood as the sum of its words: ton = “pig,” and kotsu = “bone.” Smash a few pig bones, throw them in a pot with water and seasonings like kombu (kelp), iriko, bonito flakes, onion and dried mushrooms, and, as ramen enthusiast David Chang of Momofuku Noodle Bar says, “boil the shit out of them.” Popular in southern Japan, this broth is the hardest to find done well in New York (fans are apt to head to the Mitsuwa Marketplace in Edgewater, New Jersey, for their fix). The tonkotsu at Village Yokocho (8 Stuyvesant St between Second and Third Aves, 212-598-3041), which is cooked for three to four days, can be ordered off the menu for $7. Hakata Ippudo, a Japanese chain renowned for its broth, is slated to open at 65 Fourth Avenue in Manhattan this fall—stay tuned.