In the world of delicious craft ramen noodles, tonkotsu and miso ramen are two of the most beloved flavors of all time.
Ramen is probably one of the most debated foods of all time, and everyone has their opinions about which is the best flavor, which is the best noodle, and of course, which toppings are the best.
To better understand what makes these ramen styles so special and which one truly reigns supreme, we decided to do a deep dive into both styles. Here's what we've found!
Tonkotsu ramen may be one of the most identifiable types of ramen ever created. Made from a rich pork bone broth and packed with insane levels of roasted umami flavor from all the protein involved, the broth is almost a meal unto itself.
Once you spice it up with some tare, bonito flake, and drop in a pile of hot pile of noodles, you are well on your way to a level of flavor Valhalla that's hard to match.
Why it's famous
Originating in the islands of Kyushu off the coast of Japan, tonkotsu ramen is a specialty of the area that has been imported to locales around the world.
Known as Hakata ramen in Kyushu, “tonkotsu” literally means “pork bones” in Japanese and is so named because they are the base ingredient for the ramen broth used to create this delicious dish.
Tonkotsu ramen is not actually a flavor of ramen but a broth style, and you can find miso tonkotsu ramen or shoyu tonkotsu ramen in addition to the classic tonkotsu style in ramen shops around the world.
As you may well know, ramen broths can vary wildly, from thinner, more reserved flavors to brothless styles like tsukemen dipping ramen. The incredibly rich and hearty broths like the Tonkotsu style are a direct result of its ingredients and preparation.
Tonkotsu ramen has a few base ingredients and toppings that are almost always present and include:
- pork bones
- roasted pork belly as a topping
While these ingredients are crucial to the hearty flavor of the tonkotsu broth, several additional ingredients can be added to increase the flavor and make the broth more unique like:
- bonito flake
- sesame paste
- pig trotter oil
Many ramen broths are transparent or slightly opaque, but this is not the case with Tonkotsu ramen.
The broth is prepared by roasting and simmering pork bones for upwards of 18 hours, resulting in a very dark and cloudy soup. Because the proteins and fats break down over the cooking process and melt into the broth itself, the soup is often topped with a thin layer of roasted pork fat that gives this ramen style an even richer flavor and texture.
Besides the soup's cloudier broth and rich pork essence, you can quickly identify tonkotsu ramen by the thick slices of roasted chashu pork belly that almost always sit atop the noodles and broth.
While ramen may be a Chinese import to Japan, miso is one of the most quintessential Japanese ingredients. So, it only makes sense that combining these two things would create one of the most flavorful ramen styles ever.
The unique combination of rich, hearty noodles, salty, delicious ramen broth, and rich, sweet umami-laden miso creates a level of flavor that's hard to explain to the uninitiated. Like a famous snack, once you pop the top on your first bowl of miso ramen, it's hard to stop!
Why it's famous
Miso is to the Japanese what cheese is to many Europeans. There are thousands of varieties, variations, and combinations to choose from.
Outside of Japan, we may not be as familiar with the plethora of miso varieties and only really encounter the traditional fermented soybean paste that most know as miso. Still, there is a world of styles to choose from when it comes to miso.
While tonkotsu ramen is a style of broth, miso is absolutely a flavor of ramen, and as such, you'll most likely see a lot of variations.
One of the most significant changes you'll see in different miso broths is the base ingredient of the miso itself.
While all miso is made from fermented soybeans and a special type of rice called koji that is inoculated with the same bacteria used to make sake, you can also use any starch you like in its production.
From the classic soybean miso to varieties like barley, brown rice, or mung bean, there are even misos made from popcorn, peanuts, and sorghum.
Miso broth will vary depending on the style of miso used, but almost all miso adds a touch of salt, sweetness, and a ton of umami from the fermentation process that all miso undergoes.
This umami adds a richness and mouthwatering aspect to your ramen, leaving you going back bite after bite, slurp after slurp until your bowl is empty.
Not to overstate the case, but the variations you'll see in miso ramen are almost endless, thanks to the nearly endless supply of different miso styles and flavors. That being said, there are a few things you can come to expect in nearly every bowl of miso ramen.
- Ramen broth
- Miso or fermented Japanese soy paste
From these three base ingredients comes a world of possibilities. While tonkotsu is a style of ramen, miso is a flavor, and it can be applied to all the other styles. You can find tons of varieties, like chicken miso ramen or tsukumen dipping miso ramen, or even tonkotsu miso ramen if you're trying to put yourself in a flavor coma.
Again, this is specific to the type of ramen you're enjoying in terms of toppings. You'll see toppings for miso ramen ranging from things like chashu pork belly to nitamago eggs, roasted corn, bok choy, or scallions.
In terms of appearance, miso has a very consistent effect on soup or broths, making them cloudy. In general, miso is added to broths at the last possible second before serving to preserve the volatile flavor of fresh soybean paste.
By adding miso to the broth right before service, you create a cloudy, almost nebula-like broth that swirls with the small pieces of fermented soybean and starch.
What about Shoyu Ramen?
Tonkotsu and miso ramen are all-stars of the ramen world, but so is shoyu ramen.
Like miso ramen, shoyu ramen is a flavor and not a style. As such, you'll see all sorts of combinations, like shoyu tonkotsu ramen, shoyu miso ramen, or even shoyu miso tonkotsu ramen if you're feeling crazy.
Ramen is a world of combination, and there really are no hard and fast rules, so it makes sense you'd see tons of different blends, flavors, and variations.
Shoyu is the Japanese word for soy sauce, and shoyu ramen is classic soy sauce flavored ramen, just like Miso ramen is miso flavored ramen.
Soy sauce and miso are actually cousins, and the production of miso creates a gluten-free soy sauce called tamari, which is the liquid that pools on top of fermenting miso crocks.
As with miso, there is a world of soy sauce out there to choose from. From classic "light" soy sauce, which is not the same as low sodium soy sauce, to sweeter and thicker "dark" soy sauce, to varieties like Thai, Chinese, Japanese, or even Vietnamese blends. Beyond that, there are gluten-free styles like tamari, or "white" soy sauce, which is much lighter than light soy sauce and has an almost fruity, sake-like flavor.
Which one reigns supreme, Tonkotsu or Miso Ramen?
So, which ramen is genuinely the champion here? Honestly, that's a tricky question to answer, and it depends on your personal preferences.
Tonkotsu ramen is less a flavor and more of a true style of ramen, which means it can be flavored further. There are many examples of shoyu tonkotsu ramen or miso tonkotsu ramen out there, but this also means that your ramen will be pork-based and super-rich.
On the other hand, miso ramen is an actual flavor which means you can choose to flavor any of your ramen styles with a touch of delicious fermented soybean paste. With a sweet, salty umami flavor, miso can step the flavor level of your noodle soup into the stratosphere, but it's also a very distinct flavor, so you have to love miso if you're going to use it in your ramen broth.
At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong answer here. Both of these ramen styles offer tons of delicious ramen goodness; it really just depends on what you're in the mood for.
Luckily for you, Mike's Mighty Good Craft Ramen makes both an absolutely amazing spicy pork tonkotsu style ramen and crazy flavorful savory miso ramen, so no matter which flavor you're in the mood for, we've got you covered.