There are only two ingredients required for ramen to be qualified as ramen: broth and noodles. Which, when broken down to its basics, qualifies a lot of soups as ramen. But we all know better, don’t we?
In Japan, what else joins the ramen bowl varies widely depending on the region and even the basis of the broth and the noodles themselves change with geography. The variables of ramen include broth-base (like pork, chicken, beef or fish), noodle width and length, seasoning (from salt to miso to shoyu), and toppings (everything from eggs, bean sprouts, pork, pork belly, onions, fish cake, seaweed and mussels–you name it). Suddenly the original qualification of ramen’s basics — broth and noodles — is starting to make sense, isn’t it?
So if ramen varies widely by region in Japan, why should it be any different outside of Japan?
Having tried a bowl of ramen in almost every city I’ve traveled to over the past few years, it was time for a ramen repeat in New York City. Only this time, I wanted try a different ramen shop to see how it compared (or likely, contrasted) to the first bowl of ramen I had in NYC.
After riding bikes in Central Park, my friends and I walked to Totto Ramen, rumored to be one of the best ramen restaurants in New York City (and the country). There was a 45 minute wait at 3 in the afternoon, which was no surprise after peeking inside the teeny-tiny restaurant. It’s small even for Manhattan standards, with bar seating and only a couple of tables. There isn’t a waiting area, so people hover on the entryway stairs and on the surrounding street.
Once we were seated, service was quick and efficient. We were greeted instantly, had drinks in a flash and our bowls of ramen arrived in minutes. (It’s like the server could tell I was hangry!) The main ramen at Totto is Paitan ramen, a chicken-based broth named after the Chinese word for its opaque, white broth. The rest of the menu consists of variations of the Paitan ramen, including a spicy spin-off, one with miso and one with a mound of meat called Mega.
The rich, creamy broth is heavy on the chicken flavor, that to me has a tendency to take me back to my mom’s homemade chicken soup. (Ironic considering my dad is Japanese-American, but childhood memories are what they are…) However, it was still savory in a satisfactory way and the chili pepper oil added a spicy kick that kept me from wandering memory lane for too long, especially when I got bites of green onions and the incredibly fatty pork belly (drool).
Another fun twist: Totto browns their pork with a blow torch. How can you not be a fan when there’s a fire hazard involved?
So back to answering the my original question: does ramen vary outside of Japan just like it does within it? Absolutely. While Totto ramen focuses on chicken-based broth, my previous NYC ramen experience was based around a pork broth. There were other variations too, like the hard boiled egg. I tend to favor pork broth over chicken, but I thoroughly enjoyed my ramen at Totto. It was my second time tasting chicken-based ramen (after my bowl in Paris) and it blew Paris’s ramen out of the water!
Go to Totto Ramen for :: a comforting, delicious bowl of ramen. Notes :: Be prepared: the restaurant is cash only and is tiny, so be ready for a wait. There are two locations relatively close to each other and neither accept reservations or allow take out. Hours and locations are here.