Musings on the zen of ramen-making

A tasty bowl of ramen

It took me some planning to set project ramen into play. For my sanity, I figured I needed at least 3 days to make this happen. I’m not talking about the instant noodle variety here. If you “google” how to make ramen, you will sadly get some hits on Youtube of how to make ramen in a microwave oven.

Nope, we’re past college days here, folks. We’re talking about the revered art of ramen-making where the broth is a significant if not the ultimate component. It is the broth that animates your noodles and everything else you put into your bowl.

I was serious in my quest for the perfect ramen. I even watched “Tampopo” in preparation and the movie reiterated how the Japanese culture takes this noodle soup seriously. I was immediately taken with how a ramen grand master guides his apprentice on how to appreciate a humble bowl of ramen before tucking into it. For hard-core ramen makers, the position of your toppings also matter, but there is very little else written about that.

Hubby reminded me to be careful about what I was feeling when I made the broth. From another movie, “Ramen Girl”, one should pour your emotions into its creation, it doesn’t matter if you are happy or sad, otherwise your broth, despite following careful instructions to simmer 6-7 hours, is going to end up bland and lacking the nuance of spirit.

I remember a giant cauldron of stock beside the main cooking stations in our restaurant. Whole chickens and pork bones would go into the pot in the morning and simmer for an entire day and dishes from stir fries and soups would draw their liquid from it. There are times when the noodle soup (chicken mami) would taste fantastic and there are times when the soup would taste anemic like dish water (not that I know what dish water tastes like). I think it depends how inspired the cook was that day, huh?

That is why I broke up my ramen-making schedule into 3 days because I didn’t want to feel rushed, impatient or annoyed at my broth. So I don’t want to feel rushed, impatient or annoyed after eating my ramen.

Three days to ramen

Because the recipe is almost 4 pages long, I’ll preface the recipe with my cooking notes. Most of the recipes I used, except the noodles ,are from David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook. I experimented with ramen noodles earlier this year and the recipe could be found here.

I’m also sold on Benton bacon, the smokiness it imparts to the broth is unparalleled. I think Alan Benton’s bacon is in high demand right now because his website states a waiting period of 4 weeks so if you are planning to use his product, you better take note of its availability. I ordered mine in January and had to wait 3 weeks before it arrived.

Components of the broth

Other sources for Richmond folks:

Neck Bones – can be obtained from Whole Foods, they arrive every Tuesday.
Chicken Backs – also at Whole foods, I believe they’re frequently available.
Pork Belly – I like to get mine from Tan-A or Far East Grocery located on Horsepen and Broad. I find that Asian pork belly are meatier and more suitable for Asian cooking. Don’t forget to have them take the skin off.
* You can skip the pork belly and use Char Siu also known as Chinese roast pork. Full Kee sells this on the weekend and they make them well.
Usukuchi, Sake and Mirin – are available at most Asian markets. But I buy most of my Japanese ingredients from Tokyo Market in Carytown.

I don’t think I’m going to poach my eggs this way again, too much work for home cooking. But if you want to, the more water in the pot, the easier it is to keep a steady temperature.

Poaching eggs in 140F temperature

However, it was amazing to see a seemingly uncooked egg fall out of its shell – quivering whites and an intact yolk.

poached egg

The process of preparing a ramen bowl isn’t complicated as it’s a list of easy tasks, some as simple as simmering ingredients together. However, it can be confusing. So after trying to arrange the steps chronologically in my head, I finally put things on a little worksheet so I don’t forget anything.

The most time-consuming part of course is the broth. I cooked mine for six hours. In case you are wondering why you can’t just throw everything in the pot together and simmer, some ingredients like the konbu has a temperature where it releases maximum flavor and any extended steeping might introduce a bitter taste. The bacon, for example, is taken out after 45 minutes, maybe so it doesn’t become the dominant flavor or aroma. Spent shiitake mushrooms can be pickled afterwards.

I decided to give my chicken a salt rub so there will be less scum in the broth.

roasted neck bones

The pork neckbones spent the longest time in the broth. I always thought 6 hours was excessive, but I could tell subtle differences in the depth of flavor as it cooked longer and it was not from concentrating the liquid either because I was constantly replenishing with water. Like any stock, do not allow the liquid to boil and be diligent in removing impurities.

So, was making my own broth worth it? Definitely. I even dare say that mine tasted better than what I’ve had a Momofuku’s. There was so much joy and satisfaction getting in that first bite and slurping in that last drop from a noodle bowl made carefully from one’s own hand . I think I did pour the right emotion and spirit into the making of my ramen. :)

related posts:

Ramen noodle recipe

Pork Belly Buns

Toppings: enoki mushrooms (which I skipped), chopped scallions, pickled shiitake, egg, naruto (steamed fish) and braised bamboo shoots

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