Tonkotsu ramen is rich, filling, and easy to make at home with a luscious slow-cooked pork and chicken broth, fresh noodles, soft yolks, and tender pork belly.
In America, mainstream Asian food used to mean mysterious take out in sweet and spicy sauces and toxic instant ramen packets for broke college kids.
Oh, and sushi. Mostly California rolls.
Thankfully, thanks to the internet and the recent millennial food boom, more authentic Asian cuisine is mainstream now. Pho shops are all over the the East and West coasts, ramen-ya are booming, dumpling shops are showing up in every neighborhood, omakase are sold out 6 months in advance. I’m loving it.
But seriously, my husband and I go to this amazing ramen shop in Hollywood all the time, and their tonkotsu ramen is living and thriving! It’s rich, creamy, full of umami flavor, and full of fresh ramen noodles, cha shu pork belly, runny soft boiled eggs, scallions and nori, and even fried chicken! Absolute gluttonous heaven.
Tonkotsu ramen, or ramen in general, is a rich, belly-busting, comfort food. Probably even richer than anything I’ve ever eaten. And I’m saying that as a Southern girl. It’s definitely not instant in the slightest, with some of the most wholesome ingredients I’ve ever used. That saying, this is a once in a while recipe, though it does make about 10 servings worth of tonkotsu broth to get your family through your ramen cravings.
Now, why am I fussing so much about a soup? Well, it’s not just a soup, it’s an art form, honey. There have been ramen-ya that have perfected their ramen recipes over generations, so I’m not saying my recipe is some ancient family secret.
But I am saying that I studied my butt off and bought enough pig feet to feed a Georgia state fair, and made enough ramen to feed the entire ensemble of the anime Naruto. I even got authentic bowls from the Asian market in Sunrise, but you can find classic ramen-ya bowls here.
I’m sharing my recipe for tonkotsu ramen, which I learned from the chef local ramen-ya that we go to, since we made friends with the owner’s son, Jake. So while it is an authentic recipe, I will not call this authentic.
I did not grow up in ramen-yas, I’m not Japanese, but this ramen recipe is not some gentrified version giving you a super-Western (gotta have it fast, gotta be convenient, gotta have it now!) faux version of ramen. I want to give as much respect to the authenticity and background of the cuisine as possible, even though most Asian folk consider ramen as a junk food.
Anyway, onto the ramen!
Ramen is comprised of five separate elements: the dashi, the noodles, the broth, the tare, and the toppings. Each element is crucial to making ramen, well, ramen. Which is why I’m bringing up the part of the ramen that everyone is leaving out but is so crucial to what makes ramen authentically ramen:
The base of this soup…well, of course it’s the pork broth but it’s not just the pork. It’s the dashi, which is an umami-packed broth which is the basis of soups in Japanese cuisine.
As my chef in culinary school said, umami is the fifth flavor; it’s savoriness, a deep, rich, earthy, even ‘meaty’ flavor. Without your dashi, your soup will be seriously missing that element and you will taste it.
So what exactly is dashi?
It’s a simple stock that uses ingredients that give off umami flavors, often using katsuobushi (dried fermented bonito (fish) flakes), kombu (a specific kelp), shitake mushrooms, or niboshi (anchovies or sardines). These each add something different to your dashi and taste differently.
It’s the main component that differentiates ramen from Chinese or Vietnamese noodle soups.
This is why I always give the side eye to any ‘ramen’ recipe I find on the internet that doesn’t have a dashi. It’s not legit! Just call it soup and go on with life, honey.
The majority of the time, I’ve found that dashi is made with both kombu and katsuobushi, and is this dashi is used in many different dishes like miso soup and nikujaga (a meat and potatoes dish).
To make the dashi in this recipe I steeped kombu and gently simmered it for about 30 minutes. You never want to boil a dashi because the kombu will cause the broth to become bitter, slimy, and inedible. I didn’t add katsuobushi but I do have it as an option in the recipe. Just add it to the kombu when you are starting to simmer it. Remember, this is not the broth you want to boil!
Please run to your local Asian market, if you have one somewhere near you even a few towns over for this recipe. You will probably find an aisle dedicated to noodles and only noodles, and what you buy will be based completely on your preferences and even on the broth you’re making! Some like udon noodles, thin noodles, wavy noodles, whatever your preference, get them. I like fresh ramen noodles (found in the refrigerated section), but the dried ones are much easier to find.
But whatever you do, don’t buy those instant noodles in the packets. Not only are they absolutely terrible for you, but you won’t get an authentic ramen experience by using par-fried, hormone disrupting instant noodles.
Trust me, go to your local Asian market or order the noodles on Amazon. They’re just as affordable as the instant stuff and not as sheisty.
The Ramen Broth
Here is the generic ramen broth formula: Dashi + Pork and/or Chicken broth = Ramen Broth
Unlike most Western soups, where we usually only have one broth in a dish, ramen uses at least two, sometimes 3 or more. The more creative ramen shops will play with ingredients like shrimp, lobster, duck, and more.
Tonkastu Ramen Broth
Now, onto the star: the tonkotsu ramen broth itself. Like I said, it’s rich and creamy, without a drop of dairy. How?
The heart of this broth is in the pig and chicken bones and meat. We’re using fresh pig trotters which are the feet and the hocks, fresh fatback, chopped up pork belly, chicken feet, chicken carcasses, pork neck bones, those butcher cuts that aren’t in your usual all-American weeknight dinners. They are chock full of everything we want: a ton of fat, a ton of skin, a ton of tendons and cartilage, and, of course, a ton of bones and marrow.
Tonkotsu ramen broth is boiled for a long time, I’m talking at least twelve to eighteen hours. I’ve even seen places that boil it down for 60 hours, though they are making a commercial amount for restaurants so I get it. It’s at a low rolling boil for such a long time so the fat, skin, and marrow are fully leached out of the ingredients and emulsified into the broth itself, creating that creamy mouth feel and intensely meaty flavor.
And that jell-o jiggle we get from a good, cold chicken or beef stock? Not happening here.
This stuff is packed with so much gelatin and collagen that when it’s cooled in the fridge, this stuff is solid. There is no jiggle in this jell-o. Even when it warms up to room temperature, it’ll still be a solid gel. Exactly what you want, because it gives that sticky-lipped, rich, mouth coating goodness you want in your ramen broth.
The 100% traditional way to make tonkatsu broth is to blanche the bones, then pour out the water and bones into your (very clean!) sink, then scrub and pick at the bones with chopsticks to clean any ‘impurities’ out, and leave the bones completely white. This is a time consuming process, and I don’t do it anymore. But if you’re a purist, I have the instructions for scrubbing and picking the bones.
I just skim the flotsam off the top of the water. I’ve watched many restaurateurs skip the picking step as well, some even use roasted pig bones or dry aged bones and don’t want to lose that flavor, so they have someone skim the top while the broth boils. I find this easier for me personally, and I have directions for picking and cleaning the bones if you want to. I honestly don’t find a difference in flavor whether I pick or don’t pick, the only difference is that the broth turns into a rich brown color, like in a roasted chicken stock. When the bones have been picked, the stock has a milkier light brown/off white color.
And what’s left is this amazing creamy broth that is rich and indulgent with this impossibly velvety mouth feel.
By the way, I’m going to warn you that you might not want to drink the whole bowl when you’re eating, even though you will really, really want to. At least dilute by 1/2-2/3 with water first: it’s extremely rich and very filling. Eat everything else first.
It’s seasoning! This sort of ‘defines’ the type of ramen you’re eating. If you’ve eaten at a ramen-ya, you’ve seen the three categories: Shoyu (soy sauce), Shio (Salt), and Miso (fermented soy beans).
If you’re looking for the pure flavor of the tonkotsu broth, go for shio, if you
Here, I made a shoyu tare, where it’s soy sauce, mirin, sake, and other ingredients that have been simmered together. It adds a depth of umami flavor that is the exact flavor I experienced at our favorite ramen place here.
The toppings are vast, but traditionally, they’re enoki mushrooms, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, nori (seaweed), aji tamago (marinated soft boiled eggs), garlic oil, naruto (that weird white thing with the pink swirl), and chashu, the braised pork belly with shoyu sauce.
The most popular are the egg and the chashu, which I added here along with sliced scallions. Chili oil is also pretty popular, and I only use it for myself because everyone else in my house can’t stand spicy food. Go figure.
Is tonkotsu ramen easy? Yes, absolutely! A lot of the cooking is hands-off, the ingredients are wholesome and simple. But it requires a lot of ingredients and some knowledge, and definitely no instant noodle packets.
And it is so worth it.
Looking for more comforting soup recipes?
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- 5 (7 inch pieces) kombu kelp
- 8 cups water
- ½ cup low-sodium chicken broth
- ¼ cup mirin
- ½ cup soy sauce
- 2 Tbsp sake
- 1 tsp brown sugar
- 1 tsp rice wine vinegar
- 1 inch piece ginger, peeled and sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed
- 1 scallion, chopped
Tonkotsu Ramen Broth
- 4 lb pig trotters, ask the butcher to cut into horizontal slices
- 2 lb chicken backs, cut into small pieces
- 1 lb chicken feet
- 1 lb pork belly scraps, chopped up
- 1 large onion, peeled and slit around
- 1 whole garlic
- 2 inches ginger, sliced
- 1 leek, cleaned and roughly chopped
- 15 green onions, white parts only, cut them in half across
- 1 cup mushrooms
- 1/4 lb (4-5 oz) pork fatback
- 1 cup water
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 inch ginger, peeled and sliced
- 2 green onions, roughly chopped
- ½ cup of soy sauce
- ½ cup of mirin
- ¼ cup fish sauce
- ½ cup of plain white sugar
- 1 (1 1/2 lb) slab of pork belly
Serving (all toppings optional)
- Fresh ramen noodles
- Soft boiled eggs (one per serving)
- Nori (sushi seaweed)
- Enoki mushrooms
- Naruto slices
- Thinly sliced scallions
- Chili oil
- Sesame oil
In a large pot, soak kombu in the water for at least 30 minutes, up to 3 hours. Then bring to a lively simmer over medium low heat. This will take about 20-30 minutes.
Before the dashi begins boiling, take the kombu out (boiled kombu will cause your dashi to become bitter and slimy) and strain dashi into a large bowl lined with cheesecloth.
Bring all the ingredients to simmer in a saucepan.
Simmer the tare until it reduces to ½ cup, about 25 minutes.
Strain the solids and let the tare cool. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Tonkotsu Ramen Broth
Place the chicken backs and pork bones in a heavy bottomed stock pot. Add enough water to fully cover them. Cover with a lid. Over high heat, bring the water to a boil. Once boiled, drain the bones and wash any dark marrow or coagulated blood off from the pork with cold water and a chopstick or fork. The bones should have no dark color left in them to obtain a light, milky color.
Rinse the pot, put the bones back in along with the rest of the ingredients for the broth except the fatback. Add water to just cover the ingredients. Over high heat, bring the water to a rolling boil, then turn down temperature to a low boil/very lively simmer. Let boil for 12-18 hours, adding water to keep the ingredients submerged.
The last 30 minutes to 1 hour before it’s done, place the fatback on a sieve or strainer, shallowly put it into the broth, cover the pot and let the fat cook. Remove and finely mince the fat. Keep in an airtight container in the fridge until ready to serve.
Pour the broth through a fine mesh sieve into a large bowl (or multiple containers) to remove solids. Let chill in the fridge until solid, then spoon the fat off the top.
Chashu Pork Belly
Lay pork belly on cutting board and roll up lengthwise, with skin facing out.
Using butcher’s twine, tightly secure pork belly at 3/4-inch intervals.
Preheat oven to 275°F. Heat water, garlic, ginger, sliced green onions, soy sauce, mirin, fish sauce, white sugar in a medium saucepan, big enough to hold the pork belly, over high heat until boiling. Add pork belly, it won't be submerged. Cover with a lid left slightly ajar. Transfer to oven and cook, turning pork occasionally, until pork is fully tender and a cake tester or thin knife inserted into its center meets little resistance, 3 to 4 hours. Transfer contents to a sealed container and refrigerate until completely cool.
Reheat pork belly slices in soup broth with noodles and other garnishes.
In a large pot, bring the tonkotsu broth to a simmer. Add 5-6 cups of dashi. Finely chop the fatback and add the fatback to the broth, simmering until it’s barely visible in the broth. Ladle the broth into deep, wide bowls, adding about 2-3 tablespoons of tare, leaving room for the noodles and toppings. (Freeze any leftover broth to use later.) Cook the noodles according to the package instructions and divide among bowls. Top each with 2 slices of pork belly, one soft boiled egg sliced in half, 3 slices of naruto, 1 sheet of nori, the enoki mushrooms, oils, and scallions.
Nutrition Information:Yield: 10 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 1392 Total Fat: 82g Saturated Fat: 26g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 49g Cholesterol: 481mg Sodium: 3291mg Carbohydrates: 59g Fiber: 4g Sugar: 21g Protein: 96g
Eden Westbrook is the recipe developer, writer, and photographer behind Sweet Tea and Thyme. A classically trained chef, Eden has inspired home cooks into the kitchen with cultural comfort foods, easy family-friendly eats and sweets, and glorious spreads for date night and entertaining since 2015.