Ramen Toppings 101: The Ultimate List
Ramen is a Japanese soup consisting of broth, long and thin wheat noodles and an array of toppings. The flavors can be savory, mild, sweet, salty, and everything in between.
Interesting fact: Ramen originated in China. It’s not clear when it made its way to Japan, but the word ramen is actually Japanese for Chinese noodles.
In South Korea, ramen is made with instant ramen noodles and American cheese. Why? American occupation in South Korea led to a lot of American influence on food, and this is one of those dishes. Cantonese soups usually include dumplings that are filled with different proteins and veggies.
All variations are delicious and unique and we totally support a full day of trying them all! So, we’re here to talk about what really varies ramen aside from the broth — toppings.
What Are the Most Popular Ramen Toppings?
Ramen topping options are vast. There are a number of different combinations and so many flavor combinations you can produce depending on these toppings.
Pork belly is one of the most popular toppings in ramen. The soft textures and heartiness of the meat complement the pork flavors of the broth well. The crispy top of the meat is a textural contrast that will delight your taste buds.
Something to note: Many menus might not explicitly say pork belly, so if there is a topping listed as chashu, this is pork belly — go for it!
If you prefer beef, go for something that is slow-cooked in the same manner as pork belly. It will provide similar fattiness for the soup and the same velvety consistency.
Soft-boiled eggs are another popular option. When we say soft, we mean soft. The yolk is meant to run to provide some fatty, rich notes to the soup. It changes the texture in a brilliant and pleasing way for your taste buds. Even better than this, the white part of the egg soaks up flavors from the broth, too.
Scallions, or green onions, are a type of onion that are long and thin. They are generally sliced thin and used as a fresh topping. In broths, they’ll provide a mild sweet onion flavor that will brighten up the flavors of the hearty soup.
Especially for vegetarian ramen varieties, mushrooms are an ideal topping. In vegetarian soups, you don’t have those components of meat that add rich and savory flavors. Thankfully, mushrooms do the trick. When cooked or steeped in the broth, they provide a heartiness that works well to replace meat. Plus, mushrooms add a textural difference to the noodles and soup that’s great for the palate.
Bamboo shoots, sometimes referred to as menma on menus (which are the fermented variety), are not only delicious, but extremely good for you. They can support your cardiovascular system, improve digestion, and aid in weight loss.
If that wasn’t enough, they’re just plain delicious. The flavors of fermented bamboo shoots are earthy and sweet, and work well at balancing out the savory qualities of ramen. Bamboo shoots will also stay a little crunchy (similar to how celery is crunchy) after cooking so they’ll provide a textural contrast to keep your interest.
If you want to try a variation that provides a unique flavor, try menma. These fermented bamboo shoots will provide a subtly sour and pungent flavor similar to yogurt. Menma goes through this same lacto-fermentation process. Expect those tart notes also found in items like sourdough bread.
Fish cakes, or kamaboko, are one of the most recognized ramen toppings due to their distinct look. They are a white round shape with a pink swirl design generally in the middle. They provide aesthetic and texture to the dish.
Bean sprouts are a very popular vegetable in Asian cuisine, and provide a lot from texture to freshness. They have a dense flavor, so bean sprouts will amplify the savory and hearty qualities of ramen. They’re also usually served on top but can be mixed into the noodles, so you’ll get a nice crunch out of them. It complements the softer textures of the ramen well.
Cabbage is also referred to as kyabetsu on Japanese menus. It has a crunchy texture and very mild flavor. This isn’t a traditional topping — Japanese noodle shops have added this due to a heavy influence of American culture. Regardless of where it comes from, cabbage provides texture and a leafy green that soaks up flavors well.
Bok choy is a Chinese cabbage that has a dark soft leaf with a white crisp base. The flavors are mild and sweet, and most of their flavor will come from the food they are cooked with. If you wanted to equate the flavor to anything, it could be considered kind of like a celery/lettuce hybrid. It offers a subtle sweet note with just a hint of bitterness to brighten up the flavors around it.
Dried seaweed is referred to as nori or wakame on many Japanese menus. It is a dried seaweed that comes in strips that look like square pieces of paper, but it can also be shredded into thin strips or even served fresh. Nori gets its flavors from the sea, so you can expect saltiness to be at the forefront. There will also be earthy qualities as a backbone.
These are the perfect flavors to add to any ramen, especially those of vegetarian or spicy varieties. The earthy and salty qualities will enhance the mild flavors in miso ramen and will provide a nice balance for the spiciness in some types of ramen.
Corn is a very popular topping in spicy ramen. It provides a sweetly nutty flavor that balances well with the heat from the broth. It will also provide a little texture to the noodles and looks aesthetically pleasing with the bright yellow color.
Much like American cheese and cabbage, butter is another topping influenced by American culture. Traditional, fresh ramen will have a creamy and velvety texture. The broth is bold and flavorful. Some of these aspects can be missing from instant ramens that are sold in many grocery stores. Adding butter to these noodles can help create that creamy texture and depth of flavor that’s often lacking.
Tofu is another choice that can replace the meat factor for vegetarian ramen. It is first sauteed to give it some color and caramelization on the outside, then added to the broth. Immediately, the tofu will soak up all the flavors of the broth and toppings, and be perfect little pockets bursting with umami. If that wasn’t enough, the texture will surprise you. Tofu is creamy and velvety smooth when cooked and satisfies all the senses.
Sriracha is a chili garlic sauce that adds a bit of tang and heat to ramen. Shoyu ramen is spicy on its own, but can be too much for some. When ordering tonkatsu, which is a traditional pork ramen that is not spicy, you allow yourself to be a master of the heat. Some use sriracha as a dipping sauce on the side just for toppings, but adding a tablespoon or less to the broth will be just a little kick. Enough to wake up your senses without overloading them.
Garlic adds a sweet spicy flavor to ramen. It’s not necessarily spicy in the sense of intense heat, but will warm the taste buds. Garlic gives off so much aromatics that it will invigorate your nose and the broth together. You have to satisfy all your senses to get that umami flavor out of your food. Garlic works to get you to that place.
Sesame seeds provide a subtle nutty backbone to any food they’re added to. For ramen, these nutty notes cut through the savory rich flavors of the broth. This will give you just a bite of contrast that enhances the natural sweetness in the broth beautifully.
PSA to all wanting to add peppers: you’re bringing the heat, get ready! Peppers are a wonderful way to spice up your broth. Even if you don’t eat the full peppers, steeping them in the hot broth will impart flavor. You’ll get a little zing in the sauce without being obligated to eat them.
We don’t want to play favorites, but bonus points if you add a Thai chili pepper — it is a unique experience that is worth a go if you’re looking for a more adventurous soup experience that blends multiple cuisines. Maybe have some milk on standby just in case.
The Bottom Line
There are a ton of right ways to eat ramen. But we will argue that there aren’t any wrong ways to do it. Whatever you find that you like and think will enhance your experience, go for it.
We are confident you’ll find the right combination of flavors in this list, so don’t be afraid to try something new!