What’s more Japanese than ramen (ラーメン)? It’s the ultimate essential in the Japanese culture and the most basic of all the Japanese cuisine. Having a bowl of piping hot ramen when you’re in Japan — regardless if it’s for a holiday or living here — is a rite of passage to your Japan experience.
Ramen shops are on every street in every corner; you can never have too many ramen shops in a neighbourhood. Even though they may look similar on the outside, the ramen they serve in each ramen shop is completely different from the next. Every one of them is unique to their own ramen cuisine.
As soon as you walk into one, you’ll realise that you’re faced with one of the two ways to order ramen — the convenient ramen vending machine or (sometimes a menu-less) ordering directly to the chef. Either way, you’ll be stuck and stumbling for at least a minute or two.
Don’t fret — we got you covered. Below is all you ever need to know about ordering ramen. Read on for your ultimate guide to float through the ordering process like a local!
The Ramen Culture in Japan
The ramen culture in Japan is ginormous. What can they say — the Japanese love their ramen! For them, it can be an any-meal kind of food. The different parts of a ramen bowl are just as important as the coherence of them with each other. Ramen chefs are so dedicated to their craft that they can spend years perfecting each ramen bowl section.
Generally, a ramen bowl consists of these things: the broth, noodles, meat and other toppings. Expert ramen chefs have their own in-store recipe for the various parts that can even be considered top-secret — it is their edge over the rest, after all. Preparation for a ramen bowl can begin from even the night before; that’s top dedication.
Some say that the noodles and broth are the parts that bring the ramen to exquisite taste but don’t underestimate the power of additional toppings. The main topping ingredient is the char siu (チャーシュ) , which is roasted pork. It can also be referred to as yaki buta (焼き豚). While it’s called roasted pork, some ramen shops use boiled pork instead. Menma (めんま) is also a topping that is essential in a ramen bowl. They are fermented bamboo shoots and are often seen on soy sauce-based ramen, but not limited to.
Now that you got the fundamentals of ramen down, let’s take a look at the ways to mastering the ordering of ramen!
Ramen Ordering Machine
The method you will see more often than the other is the ramen ordering machine. This is a food ticket system that has been taking over the ramen shops in recent years. The ramen ordering machine takes the form of a vending machine — what can be more Japanese than this? — and is usually at the entrance of the ramen shop.
These vending machines will have the names of the various ramen bowls offered at the ramen shop. Don’t expect photos — most of the time, there aren’t any of them on the machine. Only the more touristy ones will. It’s best to check the signboard or menu first if they have one. There is only one machine in each ramen shop, so it’s best to only go to the machine after you’ve made a decision. If not, you’ll find a long queue behind you very quickly.
The ordering machines can be rather old-fashioned in some local, miniature shops. They have either buttons or touch panels; the former is more common. The latter is more common in larger fast-food chains and they even offer the ordering service in other languages.
Let’s go through step-by-step instructions on how to order at these kinds of ramen shops.
1. Insert money
First and foremost, look for the coins and bills slots. The location of these can be different depending on the machines, but you’re definitely going to be able to spot them. Insert your money first and the machine will recognise how much you have put in and the dishes that are available to purchase will light up.
2. Choose your ramen
After that, pick the ramen of your choosing. As mentioned before, not all of them will have photos on the machine itself; it’s even less likely to have an English menu on it. If you can’t recognise anything, the best thing to do is to go for the top-left option. That’s because a lot of shops take advantage of the “Z-pattern” — this is the habit of people looking at the corners of something. Therefore, the main menu option is always the top left.
Another alternative to making your decision when you don’t know what the machine says is to ask the staff “osusume wa nandesuka?” (オススメはなんですか？), which translates to “what is your recommended dish?” If you’re lucky, there will even be stickers or writings that say “osusume” (オススメ) so you can just click that.
These ordering machines also offer quite a few choices of toppings on top of a normal ramen topping portion. You can get everything from boiled eggs to even side gyoza (御座) dumplings; maybe even a pint of beer to wash down the ramen?
3. Take your ticket and change
Once you’ve pressed your ramen choice button, a food ticket(s) will fall into a small tray. Similar to the money slots, this tray’s position will vary depending on the machine. Some machines will give your change automatically, but others might require you to pull down a lever or press a button to get your change back.
4. Pass ticket to the chef
Your final step is simple: pass the food ticket to the chef or staff. Grab a seat and wait patiently for your delicious bowl of ramen!
In some ramen shops, you won’t get your ticket back, but depending on where you go, there might be another kind of receipt system. It’s hard to say as ramen shops can operate drastically different from each other.
Order Directly To The Chef
The next way of ordering is to basically order directly to the chef. This is usually for smaller ramen shops or niche ones. It gets the customers talking to the staff — just like a counter at the bar. If there’s a menu, take a look at them first before making your order. You can also ask for their osusume ramen!
Payment is usually made after you’ve completed your meal. If you want any additional side dishes or toppings, you order them straight to the chef as well. Simple, right? Well, it might require some Japanese words — which I’ll introduce the basic ones in the next section!
Basic Words To Ordering Ramen
It’s less likely that you’ll need to use Japanese with the first ordering method — even though there are times where you would still need to communicate your preference — but you definitely have to with the second method.
Ramen shops are mostly all about crafting each bowl to suit each personal preference. There’s a high chance you’ll be asked about at least one of the following: type of soup, type of noodles, oiliness and serving size. Let’s take a look at the options you have for each.
Types of soup
In Japanese ramen, you’ll be surprised at the various types of broth used. The flavourings can come in a few choices — the main ones include shoyu (醤油, soy sauce), miso (みそ, fermented soy beans), shio (塩, salt) and tonkotsu (豚骨, Hakata pork bone).
That’s not all; there are also the various thicknesses of the soup, known as the aji no kosa (味の濃さ). You can have it futsuu (普通, normal), asssari (あっさり, light) or kotteri (こってり, thick). Some ramen shops offer the various thicknesses but if you don’t specify, the chef might automatically assume you’re going for the normal thickness.
Types of noodles
Noodles are also extremely important in a bowl of ramen. You will most definitely be asked about your preference of noodles when ordering your ramen — both with the ramen ordering machine and direct order methods. There are two parts of noodle types: hardness and thickness.
The most common question you’ll be asked is about the thickness of the noodles. Choose between two — hosomen (細麺, thin) or futomen (太麺, thick).
If you’re picky with the abura no ryou (脂の量, oiliness) of your ramen, there’s also the option of requesting for more or less according to your preference! Request futsuu (普通) for a normal amount, oome (多め) for more oil and sukuname (少なめ) for less oil.
The best part about ramen shops is that you can even choose your portion size. I personally love this as I don’t eat a big portion — and ramen can come in gigantic portions! If you’re the opposite of me and want a bigger portion, request oomori (大盛り) for a large one or tokudai (特大) for an extra large one. A normal portion is nami mori (並盛り).
A lot of the time, these upsizes are free of charge — so you wouldn’t have to pay extra for a bigger portion.
And there you have it — all the fundamentals you’ll ever need to have to order ramen like a local! With the basic words to get you a headstart at customising your bowl of ramen, you’re going to be able to find your perfect levels of each aspect in no time. Now go out and use your ramen terminologies during your next ramen meal!