For some (delicious) reason, the US has been in a ramen craze for over 10 years. David Chang’s famous Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York may have started this slurp-able trend, but hundreds of restaurants across the country have helped turn what in Japan is a regular, working man’s lunch into hip, popular food. Sun Noodle, a gourmet ramen noodle factory in California that supplies restaurants nation-wide, has helped proliferate the ramen-ya (Japanese for ramen-shop) and make it a must-eat destination. Again, in Japan, ramen began as the workingman’s meal. Each region has many local varieties, from Tokyo’s salty shio ramen to the heavy, porky tonkotsu of the South to the nuttier, miso base of the North. Along the way renegade ramen-ya owners changed up the formula–one Tokyo restaurateur invented tsukemen, where room temperature noodles are served separately from boiling broth, allowing the slurper to dip as he/she pleases. There truly are thousands of varieties, pointing to the ubiquity of ramen while at the same time its commonality.
In Philly alone there are several ramen shops all worth exploring. Right in University City is Ramen Bar, with its 12 variations of ramen, including tsukemen, and CoZara, offering more provocative styles such as Spicy Chick, Fat Pig, and Seafood. Perhaps the regional varieties of Japan are alive. In center city there is, among others, Terakawa Ramen, Yamitsuki, and, perhaps the most popular, Cheu Noodle Bar, now with a new location in Fishtown. In celebration of ramen in general (why not!?) and as a precursor to a possible review and interview at Cheu Fishtown (get excited!) I’d like to share how I operated a personal ramen-ya for one night.
I decided, perhaps due to the ramen-dredged environment where I lived, to serve homemade ramen at an upcoming dinner party my family was hosting. After extensive research, I pulled from several recipe sources, most notably Momofuku’s David Chang’s very own Lucky Peach magazine (now sadly out of print) and Serious Eats. Detailed below is the process:
For any legitimate Japanese broth, steeped konbu water is the key first step. Konbu(or kombu) is a variety of dried kelp that imparts a lovely ocean flavor as well as umami, the fifth taste that is key to the slurpability of ramen.
Once the konbu had finished simmering, I simmered 14 pounds of chicken necks, backs, and thighs for six hours, imparting all the chicken-y flavor to what would become the broth base.
What may appear to be a disgusting concoction is simply the addition of powdered, dried shiitakes to the simmering broth–again, a key ingredient to achieve maximum umami.
The second component to ramen, after the broth base, is the tare, an intensely concentrated and flavorful seasoning liquid, a few teaspoons of which are added to to each bowl of ramen to provide it with its strongest flavorings. As I was making a shoyu (soy) style ramen, the tare involved reducing soy sauce, rice vinegar, and mirin with roasted chicken backs and smoky bacon to meld all the flavors into a porky, meaty, soy flavored concentrate.
Noodle time! If you’ve ever had ramen, then you’ll notice that two key differences exist between ramen noodles and a classic Italian style spaghetti. The first is taste, in which ramen has an alkaline, slightly soapy flavor, and the second is texture. Because ramen is supposed to be served in boiling broth, the noodles have to be extra chewy in order to withstand the heat. Classic pasta would simply keep on cooking and turn to mush–not a very slurpable or appetizing thought. In Japan and at factories like Sun Noodle, they achieve this flavor and consistency from kansui, a Japanese product made of potassium and sodium carbonate. Unfortunately, kansui is not readily available to the home cook in the US. A David Chang recipe suggested baked baking soda as a substitute. Baking the bicarbonate soda turns it into sodium carbonate, and that is all that’s necessary for the texture and flavor. The rest of the noodle making process is much the same as for Italian pasta, except no eggs are used. Pictured here is the baked baking soda, water, and flour mixture.
After mixing, kneading, rolling, and spaghettifying my dough, here are six little servings all laid out, ready to be plunked into a pot of boiling water to cook.
Not pictured are the steps for my mise-en-place, French for “everything in its place.” This involved first soft-boiling eggs, peeling them, and marinating them in a soy mixture, before slicing them in half with floss. Scallions, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots all had to be sliced and prepped. The all important pork belly absorbed salt and sugar as it sat coated in those seasonings overnight in the fridge, before being roasted and thinly sliced. Pictured here is the sum of all those processes. 7 (of 14) bowls of ramen complete with broth, tare, toppings, egg, and pork belly, ready to be served.
Look out for that Cheu Fishtown article, and remember, ramen is a great cure for a hangover.
By Xander Gottfried (chef, writer, and photographer)
Finished ramen photos by Julian Gottfried