Americans love ramen -- especially in prison -- but also at some of the best ramen shops in the country -- but there’s plenty about this Japanese cult food that we don’t know. Like the fact that you’re supposed to eat it within 15 minutes to enjoy it at its peak. Or that a brick of cold butter is a totally traditional topping on miso ramen, and guess what -- your day just got a lot better. To take your ramen appreciation up to 11, we got some pointers from two serious noodle slingers: Toki Underground’s Erik Bruner-Yang in Washington, DC, and Jerry Jaksich from Ramen Shop in San Francisco. Here are their tips for ordering and eating ramen like a pro.
Don’t screw around when the food arrives
“I used to get super frustrated when I’d deliver a bowl to a customer, and they would take a photo and chat for a while before diving in,” says Jaksich. “The whole time I was just getting veins in my neck. Like, your ramen is dying in front of you.” A bowl of ramen starts to degrade almost straight away: the noodles break down, the broth cools and the fats separate. It’s at its peak when it hits the table so put your phone away and get to business. “I dive in right away. I might seem rude to the other diners at the table but I essentially forget who's around me, I stop talking, and I just focus on the bowl,” Jaksich says.
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Go easy on the hot sauce
“At the famous shops in Japan or Taiwan, the ramen is super simple. Here people have this Chipotle mentality where they load their bowls up with like 40 add-ons,” says Bruner-Yang. If the restaurant offers extra toppings, feel free to pick one; just remember that every addition is going to alter the balance of flavors, and certain toppings work better in some dishes than others. Hot sauce especially should be used carefully -- if you add an overpowering chili and garlic sauce to a delicate shoyu ramen, you’ve just ruined the bowl. “I always would put cream and sugar in my coffee at this really nice coffee place,” says Jaksich. “And the barista would get so angry and threaten to fuck with our ramen like I'm fucking with his coffee. He’d be like, alright, I'm going to bring a bottle of sriracha to your shop and pour that all over my ramen.”
Slurp it loud and proud
“When I notice somebody slurping the noodles and going to town on it, I know I'm dealing with someone who has experience with ramen,” says Jaksich. It’s not just a cultural thing that Japanese people do, there’s actually good reasons to imitate a bathtub drain. By sucking in air along with the broth and noodles, you’re cooling the food down, aerating it and spreading it around your mouth. That’s going to intensify the flavors, just like when you’re cupping coffee or tasting wine. Plus in Japan slurping is a compliment to the chef, so if you’re not eating your ramen noisily you’re basically being rude.
Explore beyond tonkotsu
Tonkotsu is that thick, milky-looking soup made out of pork bones that punches you in the face with every sip and makes you insanely thirsty for the next six hours. “It’s the most recognizable, mainstream flavor right now,” says Bruner-Yang. “That's the style that David Chang and Momofuku made famous.”
We get it, sometimes you just want to be pork slapped into next week. But defaulting to tonkotsu is like only having spicy tuna rolls, and missing out on the grilled eel and salmon-avocados of the world. If you love an intense, rich soup then try a tori paitan, which is like a chicken-based version of tonkotsu. And there’s a whole universe of lighter, clearer broths known as chintan ramen. “For the most part those are more subtle, balanced, nuanced, layered flavors,” says Bruner-Yang. “My favorite New York City ramen bowl is in the chintan ramen at Ippudo.”
Order extra noodles
Got leftover broth in your bowl? Ask for more noodles. It’s called “kaedama” in Japanese and it’s a totally common request at ramen restaurants. Or if you don’t want to double down on carbs, you can turn that intense stew-like liquid into a more drinkable soup to finish your meal with. “A common thing in Japan is they'll give you a little bit of the unseasoned broth afterwards that you can pour into your soup to lighten up the salt level,” says Jaksich. While most American ramen-yas won’t do this automatically, they’ll usually be happy to comply if you ask.
Use your server like a magic 8 ball
Don’t shake them, but do ask them for advice. They can steer you towards what will suit your tastes and guide you on which toppings will enhance or subtract from a dish. And if it’s your first visit to a restaurant, Jaksich recommends asking them for what their most popular ramen is. “Whatever the guy's pushing as his most popular one is that way for a reason, and it’s a fun way to see the skill level of the cook. So I’ll always order that if it’s my first time at a new place,” he says.
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