Ramen is a ubiquitous noodle dish in Japan and other parts of Asia. We know it in the US as those little cellophane wrapped blocks of dry noodles with a foil pack of “flavoring” that is mostly salt. It’s the staple of poor college students. One of my students once told me that she ate them straight out of the pack, no cooking or seasoning – no clean-up either when you’re living in a dorm room. They’re cheap, filling and not very challenging as food goes.
In Japan, however, it’s a different game. Yes, you can find cheap cello-packs of almost instant noodles but, look around and you can find ramen of a whole different order. Making first class ramen is almost a religion to some and finding and eating that ramen is like the quest for the Holy Grail. If you want to know more about the world of ramen in Japan, there’s a fellow named Nate (American I think) living in Tokyo whose passion is ramen. His goal is to eat his way through Tokyo’s ramen world and write about it in his blog Ramenate!
About a year ago I got David Chang’s cookbook, Momofuku. In it he has a recipe for Ramen Broth that I have looked at from time-to-time but never attempted because it’s pretty elaborate. But, the other day, I had the time and the necessary ingredients (sort of) to give it a try. Now, Mr. Chang, along with other ramen aficionados claims that the true mark of a good bowl of ramen is in the broth. The rest, noodles, meat and garnishes, while important, are more or less dressing. If the broth isn’t good the ramen isn’t good. That’s why instant ramen in a cello-pack isn’t really worthy of being called ramen. The broth is so important that at least two movies have been made about ramen cooks’ quest for the perfect broth.
The first, Tampopo (Dandelion) was released in 1985 and is a cult classic for foodies. It’s about a pair of Japanese truck drivers (one looks a bit like Richard Widmark) who befriend a woman, Tampopo, who runs a decrepit roadside fast food noodle shop and whose business isn’t going well. They set out to help her turn her business around to become a paragon of the “art of noodle soup making”.
The other, Ramen Girl, from 2008 is about an American girl who goes to Japan to be with her boyfriend who jilts her after she arrives. She doesn’t speak Japanese but finds comfort in a bowl of ramen from a gruff ramen cook and his wife, who don’t speak English but undertake the task of teaching her how to make ramen. This is an American film with Brittany Murphy, who’s cute, but not so convincing in the role.
But back to David Chang. His recipe calls for konbu (dried kelp), 2 cups of dried shiitake mushrooms, 4# of chicken, 5# of meaty pork bones and 1# of smoky bacon among other more prosaic ingredients. It takes over 8 hours to make if you follow his recipe strictly. And at the end you strain the broth and discard everything but the broth.
I improvised. I used a chicken back (salvaged form another chicken recipe) and the bones from 2 pork chops. I actually have konbu in the pantry and we keep slab bacon (from Nueske’s) to use as a seasoning. I cooked the chicken for an hour, roasted the bones (as in the original recipe) but simmered the final broth for only about an hour rather than the 6 – 7 hours in the original. It came out pretty good. I’m sure it’s not as good as David Chang’s, or Tampopo’s or even Britanny Murphy’s but infinitely better than the flavored salt from the foil pack that comes with packaged ramen.
I did not make my own noodles. I used packaged ones but, of course, discarded the flavoring packet. The toppings are semi-standard. A few slices of roast pork, 1/2 of a hard boiled egg, a seasonal vegetable (baby bok choi in this case), some carrot shreds, a dollop of kimchi and a sprinkling of scallions. It was pretty tasty.
As this blog is supposed to be about food and art, I thought I’d start including a bit about the bowls and serving dishes you see under the food. As a potter, I try to use dishes that are craftsman-made and honest, although we do use a variety of commercial china too. This bowl is porcelain and was made by one of my students. The glaze is a shino-type. Shino glazes are sometimes referred to as “carbon trap” glazes because in the kiln they supposedly “trap” carbon in the molten glaze which creates smokey or cloudy gray/black inclusions which are interesting but not exactly controllable. In this bowl the stripes have been created by brushing wax over the raw glaze which disrupts the way the glaze dries and causes some of the chemicals in the glaze to migrate, in this case creating the halo effect around the stripes. The mottled background is the natural “carbon trapping” of the glaze.