A bit about Ramen
Ramen. Broth and fixings. Simple, but also complex. Contrary to much of what you read in the Internet and elsewhere, ramen is easy only if everything is already prepared. But to get there is a bit more difficult than you think. Is it worth it? A million times – Yes! (get my recipe here).
What’s so difficult? Well, let’s start with that golden liquid – the broth. You can’t use bullion cubes. Better not make it at all in that case or go somewhere where they use real broth. You shouldn’t destroy a thing of beauty. The broth is everything (and not just in Japanese culture). Don’t misunderstand – there’s nothing wrong with bullion cubes, as long as you add it to foods where the broth is not the main star. But for ramen – it must be long-simmered broth. And that is what makes this simple food so complex.
Ok – everything is clear about the broth, but there’s more bad news. That is only the beginning – basic, but only the beginning. Ramen also means noodles. Today in Japan, there are dozens of types of noodles, and each place that makes them thinks theirs are the best. The fact remains that they should be of high quality and appropriate to the dish, for they range from thin to fat. Just like violin and cello strings. Each has its meaning, its importance, its role to play in the orchestra we call flavour.
What is the secret to the fame of ramen? Why are people going crazy over it? Why have millions of dollars been invested in Japan to open a ramen museum? And that’s not all. What makes Japan open 35,000 ramen places – and all are full? It’s the same as with pasta and many other dishes that back in the old days were considered peasant or worker food. It was a good, fast, healthy, and filling way to eat – once the broth was ready and the other parts of the dish were ready.
And what other secrets are there about ramen? Umami. Umami. Umami. It’s all about umami, because most of the ingredients in the soup are full of umami: soya sauce, miso paste, dashi, kombu, meat, and more. Combine all that with warmth, the silkiness of the noodles, and the freshness of the veggies, and that is what makes a good bowl of ramen.
Up until the mid-20th century, or shortly after when quick noodles appeared, ramen was a dish one made with home-made noodles that took a lot of time, but it was something everyone did at home. Until then, ramen was special, but then the Americans invented soup-in-a-cup. Oh well…
- Soup – these origins can be found at the turn of the 20th c. when shina soba, a Chinese style soup appeared, which the Japanese called ramen (that supposedly means “hand-made noodles”, but we’re not 100% sure).
- Shoyu sauce, which is prepared from fermented soya beans, came to be in the 16th c. Adding wheat gives it a darker colour, which is known as koikuchi, but the lighter version is usukuchi.
- Early 20th c. – Ramen was first a workers’ dish prepared at home, and the first street food ramen places appeared in Tokyo.
- Mid-20th c. – After the war, Japan received a lot of wheat from the US from which they begin to prepare noodles.
- Miso ramen – the first ramen soup variation. Light broth. More intense versions came around the 1960s.
- 1954 – a turning point in the development of ramen when Kazuo Yamagashi opened his restaurant and started the ramen craze.
- Dashi – broth prepared from seaweed (kombu) and dried fish (katsuobushi): the foundation of ramen and the Japanese kitchen.
- Ramen = broth + noodles + meat + extras
- Broth – it can be light, with meat and butter, oily with garlic, or light miso with soya sauce. Ideally and classically, it’s made by boiling a whole chicken or bones with some meat still on, or even better – both together. Shiitake mushrooms and kombu are added during the process.
- Noodles – packaged or homemade, rye flour (like Ivan Ramen in New York), or any other version. Noodles and ramen houses are made fresh, because that’s what makes their place special. The classic is lo mein noodles from water and flour, boiled in quite salty water.
- Meat – classically, pork belly that melts in your mouth like ice cream. Cheap, but flavour-wise – the best. Today we can use any cut of meat.
- Extras – eggs, vegetables, bok choy, lettuce, chilli, bamboo shoots, nori, sprouts, tofu.
And don’t be afraid of what I have written. It is actually easier than it seems, if you know that the broth is the base and you’re not afraid of broth and if you have the desire to experience and enjoy. There is no time in life for excuses – at least not in my life and in my cooking.
More about ramen:
The Mind of a Chef series with David Chang
David Chang’s book Momofuku
A Cook’s Tour 2003 series with Anthony Bourdain
Get my shiitake ramen recipe here
Recipe and pictures: Signe Meirane
Camera: Sony Alpha 7s