Ramen: Japanese comfort food



Japan is obsessed with ramen noodle soup. Fixated. Crazy. There are 80,000 ramen shops in Japan, with about 4,000 in Tokyo. Entire city blocks are devoted to ramen shops, packed side by side. New shops open every day. Blogs and websites debate which ramen is best, which chef rules. There's even a new manga comic book, the hero of which is a cat who runs a ramen shop.

Jack Parrish, my son, has lived there for years. His immersion in ramen culture is typical. "Like everything, there's an app for ramen, too, so you can track a shop down in any neighborhood in Tokyo with your iPhone," he says. And he does. His ramen craving usually crops up after midnight after a few drinks with business associates, he says. "I usually go for a simple shoyu ramen, the soy sauce type, fried gyoza dumplings on the side, and washed down with a cold draft beer."

My epiphany in Asian ramen culture came many years ago. My Far East visits always include ramen pit stops. Need a quick lunch? Ramen. Feeling peckish in late afternoon? Ramen. Late night? Same thing. And my every trip ended with an emotion-laden last noodle bowl at an airport concession at Hong Kong International, Singapore's Changi or Tokyo's Narita. Sayonara family, sayonara noodles.

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But shops whose sole purpose is making a serious bowl of ramen are just about unheard of in the United States. There are ramen outposts in Los Angeles, San Francisco and in Japanese communities such as in Honolulu. A few places are popping up in Chicago, as well as in New York City, where the ramen at Ippudo and Momofuku Noodle Bar is much sought after. Elsewhere? Not so much.

Exactly what is ramen?

Ramen -- say RAH-men -- is thought to have originated in China. It was sighted in Japanese street stalls in the late 1800s, but it was popularized by World War II when Japanese soldiers longed for it upon their return from Mainland China. At the same time, it became easy to buy cheap imported flour from the West after the war. That's all it took to fuel the passion.

Ramen is a dish composed of broth, noodles and toppings. "It's that simple and it's that complex," says David Chang, chef/owner of the Momofuku restaurant group and co-author of the "Momofuku" cookbook. True, that's the formula for a bowl of ramen, but the variations, subtleties and possibilities are endless.

No, fresh ramen is not the same as a plastic-wrapped package of instant supermarket noodles. The two are a universe apart.

There are four basic styles of ramen. Shoyu, another name for soy sauce, is the classic Tokyo ramen: it's the way ramen was originally prepared in Japan, and it is served with traditional toppings. Miso ramen is a winter standard in Japan and is a relative newcomer to the noodle scene, becoming popular only since the 1960s. Shio, another cold weather ramen, originated in Sapporo in Northern Japan. Shio, the Japanese word for salt, broth has a clean sea salt flavor. In recent years, a fourth style, tonkotsu, or "pork bone," ramen has become popular.

Then there is a sub-category, a sauce called the tare, that is used to season the mother broths. The tare is said to be the very soul of a bowl of ramen. Usually soy-sauce based, it might feature the cooking juices from pork, as well as sake, sugar, mirin and dashi, plus ginger, garlic, onion and other critical Japanese hokus pokus.

Bottom line: Really great ramen is about a balance between the broth, the tare, the noodles and the toppings. Simple, it is not.

Ramen takes on the character of the people and ingredients around it. Where pork is abundant, more pork is used; up in Sapporo, butter and corn are typical. Whatever grows in a region makes its way into Japanese ramen, truly a fusion dish within one country.

Many expatriates from Japan complain that any ramen noodle found in the United States lacks depth of flavor due to the absence of kansui, a highly alkaline mineral water found in Asia. Some chefs use baking soda in their noodles to approximate the flavor, but the results are mixed, at best.

Should you be a scratch cook (i.e. crazy person) with time on your hands, plan on investing a whole day making a mother broth, adding and subtracting ingredients from a huge stock pot: Water, roasted meaty pork bones (preferably thigh), a stewing chicken, dried shiitake mushrooms, piece of kombu (Japanese kelp), Napa cabbage, carrots, onions and scallions. After six or seven hours, strain the contents, then fiddle with seasonings. The broth should take no less than seven or eight hours, and when finished should have a layered, nuanced and unique flavor.

On another burner, poach a hunk of pork belly. On a third burner, make the secondary seasoning broth, the tare, from chicken backs, mirin, soy sauce and sake. While the stove top is doing its thing, turn on the oven and braise a pork shoulder that was marinated for 24 hours.

That's why people go to restaurants for ramen.


Ramen in Pittsburgh

Lately, ramen has been making cameo appearances at several restaurants.

Salt of the Earth serves a Ramen Brunch the third Sunday of every month. A few months ago, the sous chef duo of Kevin Rubis and Chad Townsend hatched the plan and now are the executors of the soup. It's the real deal, too.

At first it was just an idea. "When I had a bowl of ramen at Momofuku in Manhattan, I deconstructed it," says Mr. Townsend. "We can make that, I knew. It has to be easy since it's all about the components."

"Then one night after service, Chad and I started talking about ramen," chimed in Mr. Rubis. "We thought it would be a fun project. We ran the idea past our chef, Kevin Sousa, who gave it a thumbs-up."

Like all good chefs, chefs Rubis and Townsend riff on the classic procedure. "Broth is started with pork neck bones and chickens, garlic and onions," Mr. Townsend says. "We aggressively cook pork belly and deglaze the pans with sake. Instead of making a separate tare, we add soy sauce and mirin to the broth." Those lucky guys can raid the pantry of sister restaurant Union Pig and Chicken for bones, chicken and smoky pork bits and trimmings, to add depth of flavor.

Pull up a stool at Salt of the Earth and hover over the bowl. There's a generous serving of fragrant broth, a pile of noodles, sliced pork belly, slices of fish cake with a pink pinwheel design, a big pile of shredded pork shoulder (tender and juicy after a 16-hour roast), radish and scallion for crunch, julienne of nori and a freshly poached egg. Wash that down with cold sake or frosty beer. Oh my.

Depending on your habits, one of two things might then happen. You will get rid of your hangover, or you will be unable to do any work for the rest of the day. Maybe both.

If pork ramen is masculine, vegetarian ramen is feminine. The veggie version is light, with mushroom-flavored dashi broth flavored with kombu and mirin plus tofu and vegetables.

What about the marketplace? Will Pittsburghers buy it?

"As far as advertising, we only use social media," says Mr. Rubis. "We put out the word on our website, Facebook and Twitter. We get great response from re-Tweets and word of mouth. And we see lots of CMU students and families, too. Kids love ramen. To them it's just noodle soup."

Ramen has been on the Pan-Asian menu at Soba Lounge in Shadyside for at least a year. "There are so many things to consider. Ramen is intense," says Danielle Cain, executive chef. "We started making it in winter as comfort food." Soba's broth is a basic Japanese dashi made with kombu, bonita and shiitake mushrooms, along with seasonings of miso, sugar and soy. This version uses chicken: the thighs and drumsticks are salted overnight, then confitted. Half a grilled chicken breast sits atop fresh ramen noodles along with sauteed shiitake mushrooms, scallions, grated fresh ginger and a sunny-side-up fried egg. A trio of red pepper sauces are offered to customize the dish: sriracha, sambal oelek and a chunky sake-flavored chile pepper sauce.

"Word of mouth has been good," says Ms. Cain. "We sell more and more as people get familiar with it. Our chicken ramen will stay on the entree menu."

Want a simpler preview? Head on over to Lulu's Noodle Shop on South Craig Street, where a bowl of ramen will sate your craving and curiosity. It's not fancy, but Lulu's offers prime comfort food for oodles of university students.

Ramen at home

Find refrigerated-fresh, frozen or dried ramen noodles in any Japanese grocery. We've found the best selection at Tokyo on Ellsworth Avenue and Lotus Foods in the Strip District. Both stores also have pork, pork belly, fish cake, mushrooms, scallions, nori and other toppings and seasonings.

As for the broth, use homemade or canned broth and ramp it up with Japanese seasonings. Also find "dashi packs." They look like big tea bags, are shelf stable and make a good quick broth.

To cook, use lots of unsalted water. When noodles are cooked, scoop them out with a strainer instead of dumping out the water. Timing is important. Boil fresh ramen noodles about 45 seconds, then test. Boil semi-dry ramen noodles for 1 minute. Boil dry ramen noodles for two to three minutes, then test for doneness.

The Japanese prefer noodles with substance, the way Italians enjoy their pasta al dente. Properly cooked noodles should be tender with no hard core, the outer surface slippery but not overly soft.

Choose deep (about 2 inches), wide (about 7 inches) bowls for ramen. Always warm them with hot water (just like a teapot) before adding noodles, toppings and pouring broth.

Unlike pasta that's turned around on a fork, Japanese noodles are sucked into the mouth with chopsticks and slurped down, which cools the noodles as they are sucked into the mouth. Proper etiquette requires that you slurp your noodles, which is thought to demonstrate appreciation. The noisier you slurp, the better.

Eat your heart out, Miss Manners.



Shoyu Ramen

This is "back to basics" classic ramen. Plan to make all the stocks and seasoning broths on a working day in the kitchen when they can simmer away, ignored for the most part; then freeze them. With them at the ready, you have the makings of nearly instant ramen.

  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 4 cups pork belly braising liquid (see recipe at post-gazette.com/food)
  • 8 cups Ramen Chicken Stock (see recipe)
  • 1 1/2 cups Shoyu Base (see recipe)
  • 2 packed cups spinach
  • 4 7-ounce pieces frozen ramen noodles
  • 4 ounces (about 8 slices) Braised Pork Belly (see recipe at post-gazette.com/food)
  • 8 thin slices fish cake
  • 1/2 cup marinated bamboo shoots
  • 1 scallion, both white and green parts, thinly sliced on an angle
  • 1 large sheet nori, cut into quarters, or 4 small sheets

Place the eggs in a small pot with the salt. Add enough cold water to cover the eggs, then set the pot over high heat and bring the water to a boil. Once it reaches the boil, cover the pot and turn off the heat. Let sit for 12 minutes. Drain the eggs and rinse under cold water until cool enough to handle. Remove the shells from the eggs and discard.

Place the peeled eggs in a small pot and cover with the pork belly braising liquid. Bring the liquid just to a boil, then turn off the heat and let the eggs sit in the hot liquid until ready to use. If possible, let the eggs sit in the braising liquid overnight.

Combine the chicken stock and Shoyu Base in a pot over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cover to keep warm.

Blanch the spinach: Prepare an ice bath, and place a large pot of water over high heat. When the water comes to a boil, add the spinach to the boiling water and cook for 1 minute. Remove the spinach from the water (but keep the pot of water) and submerge it in the ice bath. Once cool, drain the spinach by squeezing to remove excess moisture. Set aside.

Return the water to a boil and add the ramen noodles. Cook, following package instructions, then drain well.

Compose the dish: Remove the eggs from the pork belly braising liquid and cut each in half. Divide the noodles among 4 bowls. Top each with 21/4 cups broth, then arrange in a circle over the noodles, one-fourth each of the spinach, egg, pork belly, fish cake and bamboo shoots with the scallions in the center. Garnish each bowl with a sheet of nori.

Makes 4 servings.

-- "Takashi's Noodles" by Takashi Yagihashi with Harris Salat (Ten Speed, 2009)



Ramen Chicken Stock

PG tested

  • 4 quarts water
  • 4 pounds chicken bones
  • 1 3/4 cups peeled and chopped carrots
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped celery
  • 1 cup chopped leek, white part only
  • 1/4 Napa cabbage
  • 1/2 head garlic, halved horizontally
  • 1-inch piece ginger, smashed
  • 1 piece kombu, wiped with a damp cloth
  • 1/2 cup sake

Combine the water and chicken bones in a large 10-quart stockpot. Set it over high heat and bring the water to a boil. Skim the surface well.

Add the carrots, celery, leek, cabbage, garlic, ginger, kombu and sake. Decrease the heat to low and simmer for 2 hours. Add more water as needed to keep the liquid at the same level.

Strain the stock well, divide into containers, cool and refrigerate or freeze.

Makes 4 quarts.

-- "Takashi's Noodles" by Takashi Yagihashi with Harris Salat (Ten Speed, 2009)



Shoyu Base Concentrate

This is the concentrated base for Shoyu Ramen. As a general rule, combine 2 cups Ramen Chicken Stock with 3 ounces (1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) Shoyu Base. "White" soy sauce is amber in color, clearer and thinner than traditional dark soy sauce.

  • 1 piece kombu, wiped with a damp cloth
  • 1 1/2 cup shirojoyu (white soy sauce) or other soy sauce
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
  • 1 cup Japanese soy sauce, such as Kikkoman
  • 1 1/2 cups dried bonito flakes

Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan. Place over high heat and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh sieve. The base is not used alone, but added to broth. Divide and store in the freezer. Makes 4 1/2 cups.

-- "Takashi's Noodles" by Takashi Yagihashi with Harris Salat (Ten Speed, 2009)



Braised Pork Belly

Sliced pork belly is a classic topping for ramen noodles, and the braising liquid has many uses. You flavor ramen broth with it, simmer bamboo shoots in it, and even cook hard-boiled eggs in the liquid, which are then sliced in half and used as a ramen topping. The recipe takes time, but it's simple to make.

Leftover pork belly? Lucky you. Freeze for future ramen bowls or add to fried rice. Make a good appetizer but steaming slices and tucking them into soft buns along with iceberg lettuce leaves and a bit of hoisin sauce. Have mustard on the side.

For the pork belly
  • 1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 9 ounces pork belly
  • 4 cups cold water
  • 1/2 cup sake
  • 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and smashed
For the braising liquid
  • 1 1/2 cups cold water
  • 1 cup Japanese soy sauce such as Kikkoman
  • 3/4 cups sugar
  • 1 piece star anise
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and smashed

To prepare the pork belly: place an 11-inch saute pan over high heat. Add the vegetable oil and heat until the oil just begins to smoke. Using tongs, carefully place the fatty side of the pork belly in the pan and cook until it turns golden brown, about 2 minutes Turn the pork belly over and repeat on the other sides until nicely browned all over. Decrease the heat if the oil begins to smoke again.

In a 4-quart saucepan, combine the seared pork belly, the cold water, sake and smashed ginger and place over high heat. Bring the liquid to a boil, then decrease the heat; simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes.

Transfer the pork belly and braising liquid to a container, cool then cover and refrigerate overnight.

When ready to add pork belly to ramen bowls, remove it from the braising liquid, and cut into slices, each about 1/4-inch thick. Measure the braising liquid and transfer into containers. Use right away, or freeze

-- "Takashi's Noodles" by Takashi Yagihashi with Harris Salat (Ten Speed, 2009)

food

Marlene Parrish can be reached at marleneparrish@earthlink.net or 412-481-1620. First Published June 14, 2012 4:00 AM


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