Sunday, April 25, 2010

Oh Ramen!

I wrote an article about Pastrami (below). It's time to do my other side some justice, (I'm half Jewish, half Japanese). Ramen is just one of those quintessentially Japanese dishes that represents so much about not only Japanese food, but its culture. Like so many foods that originated elsewhere, (Ramen was originally known as Shina Soba, or Chinese noodles), the Japanese have turned it into their own tradition, their own gestalt. If you're looking for information, the Wikipedia article is actually very good:, but for more details, watch Tampopo – a great movie with much to teach. But because there's so much already written and said about Ramen, my contribution is going to be limited in scope.

Great Ramen is eaten in Ramen shops, made by incredible experts. At home, there are always going to be limitations – even if all the ingredients are available, and one can make hand-pulled noodles and scratch broth from chicken and pork bones, there is the simple fact that one does not turn out bowl after bowl, day after day – that no one at home has the kind of “chops” one gets from day to day restaurant work. Nevertheless, what can one do at home to approximate the noodle shop Ramen? That's what I'm going to talk about here.

The most popular home Ramen is the fried/dried brick noodles and powder envelope that comes in a plastic wrapper. This includes Nissin, Maruchan – all the 25¢ (ok, more like 50¢, these days) packages that most of us have eaten at one time or another. Anyone that's had real Ramen in a noodle shop is immediately disappointed. Nevertheless, it's popularity speaks for itself – it is the prime food group of college kids, out of work actors and other folks that have to make the food dollar last. There are entire web sites devoted to improving that cheap meal – add a can of Campbell's cream of mushrooom, tuna, tomatoes, chocolate frosting... Ok., I just made that last one up. But this article isn't about that kind of “improvement”. It's about getting the final product to resemble, better, the stuff you get in the noodle shops.

How close you come to that noodle shop product is going to be a matter of using better ingredients. But the method of cooking turns out to be extremely important, and it can apply regardless of how basic your ingredients are – even the Nissin Ramen right out of the package, can be brought a lot closer with the addition of a few basic items, and cooking it properly – and guess what, the right way to cook it isn't what the directions tell you to do.

The Noodles

You can map the grade of ingredients pretty easily. Whether you can actually get the top of the line stuff or not, whether you always want to go through the effort to make every part from scratch – those decisions are up to you. But it's good to know what the differences are. The two main ingredients are obviously, the noodles and the soup. The noodles, in sequence of worst to best (arguably) are:

  • Deep-fried, dried chuka noodles (as found in the Nissin/Maruchan packages)
  • Not fried, but still dried brick chuka noodles (as found in many other brands of prepared Ramen products, or by themselves)
  • Dried, non-chuka style thin wheat noodles, no kansui, possibly with egg or shrimp flavor
  • Fresh, straight thin wheat noodles with or without kansui
  • Dried, soft, non-chuka style thin wheat noodles, no egg, with kansui
  • Fresh, packaged chuka noodles
  • Fresh, hand-pulled chuka noodles

(Note: chuka noodles, or the medium-thick, squiggly ones, are assumed to have kansui)

To some degree, this is about preference. Some folks are going to insist that they like the dried thin wheat noodles with shrimp flavor more than anything else. I'd say, fine, go with what you like – but I'd also say that you shouldn't make up your mind as to what's best until you have a chance to try them all, including the hand-pulled, which is the ultimate, the gold standard. The elasticity that develops from hand pulling creates a really superior bite – it's hard to get that in a straight, non-chuka style noodle. Nevertheless, to each their own.

Here is a picture of some popular choices. Starting from the upper left going clockwise, we have: the standard Maruchan brick package with fried noodles; a (very good) non-fried brick package with thin noodles; non-fried, dried noodles with no kansui; a refrigerated yaki-soba pack, with fresh kansui noodles which I use for ramen – just toss the flavor packs; and a fairly new shelf-stable product that has soft, semi-dried noodles with kansui – let's call this semi-fresh.

The Soup

The soup can be of almost unlimited varieties, but they simplify into three categories, from worst to best:

  • Flavor packs
  • Boullion or paste or store bought stock combinations
  • Scratch (from bones and meat)

I often make chicken stock by using a whole fowl (old hen) plus chicken feet – both available at my neighborhood SouthEast Asian grocery store. (I don't normally use cooked chicken for stock, as I prefer a light stock instead of a dark one, and one that has more of the actual chicken flavor without the flavors of roasting.)  I also make Dashi (Japanese fish stock) from a combination of Niboshi (small dried anchovy-like fish), Katsuobushi (shavings of dried bonita tuna), and some Kombu (kelp). When making Ramen soup from scratch, I will make sure I have a good supply of both, then make a pork stock from various pork bones I've kept in the freezer. I'll combine the three to make a tasty soup.  This is, by far, the best soup for my ramen.

But it's often the case that I don't have all these items readily available, and yet, I want ramen. I've found a combination of prepared soup bases that works well for me.

I use a mix of Minor's Chicken base, Better Than Boullion Clam base, and Hondashi instant dashi.

Of course, what you use is up to you. There has to be a fish element and a chicken element, The pork element is important too, but I've gotten used to not having it. BTB does make a pork base, but it isn't readily available everywhere. The addition of the clam base gives it enough of a kick on top of the chicken, that it suits my tastes quite well. The umami from the hondashi is a big contributor. My “instant” soup is not nearly as good as scratch – no doubt about it. I do think it's miles ahead of most of the instant powder packs, even those with the separate oil packs. But to each their own.

The Process

Truly, whatever your selection of noodles and soup, the process of putting it all together will make or break the final product, at least as far as trying to achieve the noodle shop experience. The important things are the ingredients, and the actual steps involved.

The ingredients can be varied. I like to include some shiitake mushrooms, some moyashi (bean sprouts), some kamaboko (fish cake) and some yakibuta (roast pork). I'll also use carrots and daikon to help sweeten the soup. Another important item is Menma (sweetened shoyu marinated bamboo slices) which is fairly easy to make at home.

This is my home made yakibuta, which I make in my smoker, and a store-bought kamaboko – ready to slice.

The process is simple, but it takes time and needs the right equipment and setup – mainly two pots. One pot is for the water to cook the noodles, and the other is for the soup., which is simmering throughout the process. The noodle water needs to be boiling hard when you are ready to put the noodles in – which will be towards the end of the process. As with pasta, the noodle water should be heavily salted.

I use dried shiitake because the liquid that comes out of rehydrating them can be used in the soup – but carefully – as it can be overwhelming. That's usually the first step – rehydrate the shiitake (takes 30-45 minutes). Then I'll de-stem them, cut them up (as necessary), and put them in the soup to cook for 3-5 minutes. I'll add some of the liquid at this time. I use the small basket to pull them out and drain them. They're put on the side until later.

Basically, I follow the same steps for julienned carrots and daikons, moyashi and scallions. For the scallions, I'll cut up the greens into 1 1/2” lengths and the whites into the thinnest possible slices. The slices will be added to the top of the ramen at the end. The lengths are slit on one side up to 1/4”. Boiled quickly, they are then dipped into an ice bath, where they will open up like a flower – nice visuals.

The kamaboko and yakibuta are placed in the simmering soup at the end and removed quickly.

Final assembly is quick. When the noodles are done, put a serving in each bowl. If you use the basket, you can make one serving at a time. With the fresh or semi-fresh noodles, the cooking is very quick – about 2-3 minutes per serving. The same is true of the fried chuka noodles. Otherwise, it can take longer. In any case, cooking beyond al dente will ruin the dish.

Then put the vegetables in their own groups on top of the noodles around the bowl. Finally, place a few slices of the kamaboko and the yakibuta on top.

Ladle the soup onto everything until it is just over the main vegetables and the pork slices are swimming in it. Top with some menma, the thin slices of the green onions, and a piece of yaki-nori, preferably the ajitsuke, or seasoned type.

I'll write another blog entry detailing the yakibuta process soon. The menma is pretty simple and straightforward, but I'll write that up as well. I wish I had a bigger bowl where I currently live!

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