Ramen noodles: Why this Japanese dish is the best food (for travellers) on Earth

It's not pasta. It pains me to say that and in many ways I don't even know who I am anymore, but still, pasta is not the best food in the world.

It's not pizza, either, as transcendentally good as wood-fired dough with tomato and cheese really is. It's not sushi. It's not dumplings. It's not French pastry. It's not Hainanese chicken rice. It's not even pho.

Stick with me here, and come on a ride, because I'm here to tell you that the best food on Earth – and in particular, the best food for hungry travellers – is ramen.

Ramen noodles. Japanese soup. A national obsession among a people already singularly bananas about cuisine. A dish adapted from a Chinese staple and made – in my humble and possibly controversial opinion – much, much better. A cultural phenomenon that has taken so painfully long to spread around the rest of the world.

Ramen is the best. I know already that you probably disagree with me, just as everyone outside of Japan probably disagrees with me. That's fine. There's comparatively little love out there in the wider world for ramen. Even pitching this topic to my editor, I was thinking, there's no way he's going to let me write about ramen (thanks Craig!).

But here we are, in a food-nerd discussion about bests and finests, one that's taking place due largely to the fact I haven't been able to go anywhere overseas for pretty much a year now and I've had way too much time to ponder the travel minutiae. Whose coffee is the best, whose train system is the best, whose beaches are the best, whose historical monuments are the best…

Eventually you turn your attention to food and you have to decide the greatest. And as a grounded world traveller who loves nothing more than to eat, I have decided that it's ramen.

Here's the deal. Ramen is incredibly diverse. This isn't really one dish so much as a hundred dishes, all based around the idea of soup with wheat-based noodles (essentially pasta, which fills that need), and various toppings. Every prefecture in Japan has its own style of ramen; many cities within those prefectures have distinct versions.

There are the thick, hearty pork-bone broths of Kyushu, the umami-rich miso soups of Hokkaido, the powerfully spicy ramens of Nagoya, the fish-based soups of Sakata, the subtle, soy sauce- and chicken-based broths of Tokyo, the pork-and-soy soups of Wakayama.


The broth used for ramen is sometimes made using pork, sometimes chicken, sometimes dried fish, sometimes vegetables, and sometimes a combination of one or two or all of those things. The noodles might be thick or thin, straight or curly. They might be served in the soup or next to the soup ("tsukumen"). The toppings could be char sui-style pork, seared or sous vide, slices of marinated chicken, pickled bamboo, sliced leeks, spring onions, corn, soft-boiled eggs marinated in soy and sake and mirin. Again – one, or all, or some.

And you can guarantee that every single element of every single bowl of ramen you eat in Japan will be a work of art. So much effort and consideration goes into every dish there. The chefs who create ramen dedicate their entire lives to the pursuit, learning from established masters and then toiling for decades to create their own signature styles.

There's some truly awful pasta being served in Italy (in amongst all the good stuff). There's no shortage of bad burgers in the US. But ramen in Japan will always be delicious. You can taste the time and the effort and the passion and the quality of the ingredients on every occasion.

The other great thing about ramen? This is the food of the people, a cuisine without fanfare or pretence. As a visitor you will never be locked out of high-end ramen, in the way you're definitely locked out of, say, high-end sushi, and in the way you would need months – if not years – of planning to score a reservation at the best restaurants of whichever country you happen to be visiting.

But if you want the best ramen, you just go and get the best ramen. That day. You go to the shop, you get in line and you sit down when there's space. That's how pretty much every ramen-ya, or dedicated ramen restaurant, works in Japan, from the cheapest and most basic to the fanciest and most famous.

Ordering is usually done from a ticket machine at the front of the store, where you feed in your yen and then press the button that corresponds with your order (often there will be no English on these buttons; pictures will help occasionally, or you just hit the button at the top left corner of the machine, which will usually be the restaurant's "ichiban", its signature ramen). Maybe you'll get a beer to go with this bowl of insane deliciousness, maybe you won't.

You'll then take your seat at a bar next to a businessman or some kid playing games on his phone and wait for the chef to place a steaming bowl of noodle soup in front of you.

The cost for this experience will vary, but you're unlikely to have to pay more than about $15. For the absolute best. Some bowls of ramen go for as little as $7 or $8, and the quality is still mind-blowingly high.

And trust me, you'll sit their slurping your piping hot noodles at an acceptably outrageous volume, sampling tender slices of char-grilled pork, marinated egg with custardy yolk, scoops of broth so richly flavoured and deeply complex, and you'll think: yes, this is the best food in the world. Maybe I'll have it for dinner, too.

What do you think is the best food in the world for travellers? What are you hanging out to eat when we're allowed overseas again? What's a dish you think deserves far more recognition than it currently gets?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

See also: The perfect meal doesn't exist, but this is as close as it gets

See also: Hit the brakes: The best places to eat on Aussie road trips

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