Now that we know all about soup, let’s take a quick march through the rest of ramen’s core elements. Today, we’ll talk about tare.
When you go to a ramen ya (that’s the Japanese term for ramen restaurant), you’ll often see ramen categorized by the type of tare used in a particular bowl. We’ve all seen shio (salt), shoyu (soy), and miso ramens. This is not to say that ramen is always named according to its tare. When you see tonkotsu ramen, for example, the reference is to the soup, not the tare. And when you hear tonkotsu shoyu, the reference is to both. But the point remains that if you’ve eaten much ramen, you’re already familiar with tare, even if you didn’t appreciate the details until now.
The most basic function of tare is to bring saltiness to the ramen. But tare can do a lot more than just deliver salt. It can be a vehicle for additional umami, sweetness, sourness, or spiciness. For example, shoyu and miso are both salty, but both are also sources of umami, and each brings its own unique flavor profile to the ramen.
Importantly, just calling a ramen “shoyu” or “miso” doesn’t tell you anything about what else is in its tare. In those examples, soy sauce or miso paste might be the main ingredient, but it’s not at all uncommon to have 5-10 other ingredients, as well. A good ramen shop isn’t just dumping a load of soy sauce or miso into the ramen simply to have done with it. Other common ingredients include mirin (explained below), dashi, vinegar, sake, spices, garlic, ginger and oils. The reality is that you can add a lot of different things, and everything can be adjusted to taste. There aren't hard and fast rules here.
The key thing with tare is to use the right amount. Typically, tare is combined with soup in an approximate 1:10 ratio. Miso, however, is something of an exception. It's common to use more than 10% miso, because miso is contains less salt per unit weight than soy sauce. To achieve the same level of saltiness in a miso ramen, the amount of miso must be relatively larger. The point is that no number is absolute, and in practice everything is optimized to taste.
When it comes to ramen, the soup is the most important and fundamental ingredient. The tare should be viewed as an additive that is there to support and enhance the soup. It's not something that should become too overwhelming in its own right.
A note about mirin. According to Wikipedia, mirin is an "essential condiment used in Japanese cuisine." It is a type of rice wine that is low in alcohol content and high in sugars, and is commonly used to add sweetness to ramen. After seeing a lot of Japanese foods being cooked at our house, I've come to realize how important mirin is as a basic culinary ingredient.