Building a better ramen

Ramen is inescapable in restaurants these days. And for those who crave deliciousness, that’s a very good thing. But finding chef-inspired ramen at retail hasn’t been nearly as easy — until now, thanks to some simple, but surefire, umami and kokumi solutions.

Ramen — the homey noodle soup that’s a Japanese national treasure — has blossomed into a veritable culinary phenomenon in the West.

If the long lines and satisfied slurps emanating from your local ramen shop aren’t proof enough, perhaps the data will be: According to menu-tracking research from Datassential, ramen now enjoys 3% penetration across U.S. foodservice menus, representing a 29% growth rate over the last four years.

That’s great news for diners with access to a ramen-ya — or “ramen shop.”

But for others, the plastic-wrapped nests of instant noodles and salty seasonings on supermarket shelves may be the closest they come to the genuine article. Is that fair?

It’s not — especially given that all the umami-inducing ingredients needed to design a retail ramen as craveworthy as its restaurant cousins are available. As ramen product developers are finding out, these ingredients are the secret to building a better ramen.

From humble roots to fast food

According to lore, Chinese merchants brought the wheat-noodle soup — in Chinese, “ra” means “pulled” and “men” means “noodles” — to nineteenth-century Japan.

Over time, a unique identity and tradition grew up around this import, informing its preparation today and explaining why it’s become Japan’s signature spin on fast food.

As Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition’s Executive Chef Dennis Gavagan put it, “ramen is simple to produce, efficient and affordable — which equals profitable — and it offers guests an increasingly complex, even premium dining experience.”

No wonder Tokyo has more than 6,000 ramen-ya, while Japan as a whole claims at least 10,000.

Coming to America

America’s ramen-shop tally may not reach such heights, but it’s aiming high.

“My theory is that U.S. interest in and familiarity with Japanese culture needed to clear a certain threshold before Japanese-style ramen restaurants could become economically viable in the U.S.,” Hirotoki Takemasa, Associate Manager of Marketing Analysis, Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition, said.

With that threshold now cleared, everyone from celebrity chefs to ambitious amateurs is reveling in ramen.

Some credit goes to the recent Tokyo Games for focusing attention on Japan’s food scene, Takemasa argued. “And the rise of internet culture also had a hand, which accompanied the rise of Japanese media and pop culture.” 

Ever adaptable

Even more enticing is ramen’s adaptability as a creative platform.

“As with any culinary introduction, ramen in the U.S. is still a bit of a blank canvas,” Chef Gavagan said. “So just as Japanese chefs adapted it from the Chinese original to fit Japanese tastes, domestic chefs should flex their creativity in incorporating their own twists.”

Consider vegan ramen. “Veganism is still an emerging movement in Japan,” Chef Gavagan pointed out, “so you won’t see many vegan options there. But you do often see vegan ramen side-by-side with nonvegan versions here in the States.”

Other potential adaptations abound. Plant-based, high-protein, cross-cultural: “There’s no aspect of ramen that’s not open for interpretation by a creative chef or product developer,” Chef Gavagan said. “And this plays right into the American spirit, where we take what’s traditional and give it our creative, but respectful, spin. Ramen is the perfect vehicle for this.”

Ramen 101

Yet, while culinarians may prize the “wiggle room” that ramen grants, “there are guardrails,” Chef Gavagan maintained.

One is the nature of the noodles, which Chef Gavagan described as different from Italian pasta in being made from softer flour and being pulled, rather than stamped — both of which “create the unique smooth and chewy texture of a proper ramen noodle.”

Beyond that, ramen’s three basic components — broth, dashi and tare — “should consistently deliver a very evident umami taste,” Chef Gavagan continued. “Umami is essential to almost all Japanese dishes, but few dishes match ramen’s umami intensity. It’s a very umami-forward soup.”

To create the broth, for example, chefs simmer meat, bones, fat and collagen for hours, extracting their umami-rich proteins and amino acids. Long simmering also develops the broth’s kokumi character, which not only amplifies umami and salty tastes but also contributes a sensation of savory richness, body and complexity that lends the broth a quality of “mouthfulness.”

Then there’s the dashi — a stock made of dried ingredients such as kombu seaweed, shiitake mushrooms, bonito fish flakes and anchovies. Their smoky richness complements the accompanying broth’s umami. 

The tare is a flavoring sauce — often based on soy sauce or miso — that reinforces the broth and dashi’s umami while lending “grace notes” of its own. Added at the chef’s discretion to a mixture of roughly 90% broth to 10% tare, the tare combines forces with the other fundamentals “to create the umami and kokumi explosion you experience in a superior ramen,” Chef Gavagan said.

From restaurants to retail

Getting that explosion is painstaking even in professional kitchens.

That being the case, it’s no surprise that delivering the same explosion in a retail product is even harder.

That’s why most ramen available at U.S. supermarkets is the good old-fashioned instant ramen we all know. “While it has its place in our cuisine,” Takemasa said, “it’s burdened with a utilitarian, economical and scrappy image. We’ll always have a soft spot for instant ramen, but we shouldn’t be satisfied with that single iteration of this dish.”

Neither should shoppers. “Today’s adventurous and discerning consumers want an experience more in-line with high-end ramen shops,” Chef Gavagan observed.

Ramen done right

Fortunately, the past decade has witnessed a steady upgrade in retail ramen products as brands have gained a better understanding of what “ramen done right” is.

“Authenticity in the soup — the combination of broth and tare — is crucial,” Chef Gavagan said. “And what the consumer will ultimately remember is the similarity to the restaurant experience: the noodles’ texture, the complexity and mouthfeel, the intensity of umami and kokumi.”

Dr. Joe Formanek, Head of Innovation at Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition agrees. “Umami and kokumi are hallmarks of traditional ramen, and that makes them so important when developing ramen products for retail,” Formanek emphasized. “This is where Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition’s line of flavor- and taste-enhancing tools help the ramen developer. Instead of simmering bones, meat and poultry for hours, formulators can deliver umami using ingredients like yeasts or yeast extracts, depending on the product goals and needs. And our Savorboost™ line of yeasts and yeast extracts creates an exceptionally rich kokumi character that moves the broth’s flavor and mouthfeel closer to authenticity.”

While those ingredients brighten and deepen the soup’s umami and kokumi character, the broth concentrates in Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition’s More Than Gourmet line create an authentic ramen “backbone,” Chef Gavagan added. Available in profiles such as pork tonkotsu, spicy vegetable Thai sriracha, Meyer lemon chicken, Vietnamese beef pho and tori paitan — a creamy ginger chicken — the concentrates “lend a traditional, genuine flavor that’s versatile enough for developers to ‘customize’ with ingredient adds of their own,” Chef Gavagan said.

The concentrates’ shelf stability and operational ease win over product developers, and their clean formulations translate into labels that consumers can stomach. “These concentrates were created in the tradition of the ramen shop,” Chef Gavagan explained: “bones boiled over time to achieve rich soup stocks. The base ingredients are natural and recognizable, and that’s what today’s consumers want in their packaged ramen products.”

They also want better nutritionals — namely, less sodium and fat — and here again, Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition ingredients help square the circle. “With our More Than Gourmet line, glutamate products, yeast and yeast extracts and other Asian specialty ingredients, formulators can enhance savory umami taste while boosting mouthfeel with kokumi,” Chef Gavagan noted. “When they do that, they can lean away from adding more salt and fat.”

That leaves more room to lean into creativity. “Ramen is so ripe with product-development possibilities,” Chef Gavagan said. “Ramen kits come to mind — fresh or shelf-stable — along with refrigerated options, seasonal LTOs, even extensions into other cuisines, like Vietnamese, Thai or Malaysian. It’s a great time to be creating.”

And Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition is a great creative partner. “Being a Japanese company,” Formanek said, “we definitely count ramen in our wheelhouse. And umami and kokumi have driven R&D throughout our 110-year history. At the same time, as a global company with a large presence in North America, we’re experts at variation and experimentation. Put it all together, and there’s no better way to build a bowl of ramen.

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