Ramen 101 w/ Professor Salt
I consider the dish a soup with noodles, as opposed to noodles with soup. I make this distinction because the soup is my focus. Any ramen guy can buy noodles and boil them al dente. Does he* know how to build a broth, and make it great day after day?
* Props to the lady ramen guys. The other 99.8% of ramen guys are guys.
Distinguishing ramen as a soup dish serves a second purpose, of defining its regional style. The most common style originated in Tokyo, defined by a clear broth flavored with soy sauce (shoyu). A miso flavored soup comes from the northern island of Hokkaido. The murky, fat-slicked pork broth from Kyushu is also known as tonkotsu (pork bone) soup. The fourth major style of soup simply flavored with salt is called shio ramen. I'm a tonkotsu soup guy, but some places make a damn fine clear soup, too.
Broth is the foundation for the soup. Shops post signs proudly proclaiming how many hours it takes to make their broth. Technique is critical, and secretive. Pork leg bones might be cracked with a hammer to expose the marrow or not, depending on the desired result. To make a clear broth, bones are simmered gently to draw out flavors, but not the fats and proteins that would cloud it. Tonkotsu broth is boiled vigorously to render the fatty marrow that colors it a pallid, off white. Either way, some of the broth might be set aside to start the next day's batch.
The cook adds another layer of obsessively flavored seasonings to this foundation. The slice of pork served with your bowl was braised in a soy sauce based liquid. Like Chinese "red cooked" pork, some of this liquid is saved to cook the next day's pork, and the rest flavors the soup broth. Like Shrek, a ramen soup has many layers.Vegetarians be advised: if yer vegetable ramen don't say it's truly vegetarian, it ain't.
Noodles vary in style, but not as much as the soup. Ramen noodles are fresh wheat and egg noodles. Some will be fat as spaghettini, others thin as capellini. Some will be frizzy, some straight. Ask for "kata-men" to get it cooked firmer than normal. The noodles will continue to cook and soften in your hot soup. Places that hand-stretch their own are rare even in Japan, but worth seeking out to witness the zenith of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Want to know more? Worldramen.net will tell you everything you'd possibly want to know about ramen: the variations, photographic examples of the best in Japan, and where to get ramen around the globe.
Then go rent Tampopo. It's the classic food movie about ramen. And movies.