By Daisuke Utagawa
Making decent ramen is not an easy task. But making good ramen is a task that can drive even well trained cooks crazy. Good ramen must be – first and foremost – well balanced. There are four major elements that make up a bowl of ramen. Balancing those elements is the most difficult part of making that really satisfying, “crave to have it again 3 days later” ramen. Here is a brief explanation of those 4 elements.
Soup stock – In Japan, there are largely two types of stocks made for ramen, Chintan stock (clear soup), and Paitan stock (emulsified turbid stock).
Chintan stock is typically made with chicken, pork bone, seaweed, dried fish, vegetables, and other house secret ingredients. It needs about 8 hours cooking time on top of overnight soaking time.
Paitan stock is mainly made with pork bones, pork fat and pork feet, (some make it with chicken bones) that are boiled for a long time to the point that stock is emulsified and turns milky color. This also takes long time to make.
Noodles – Different style of ramen calls for different type of noodles.
Sapporo ramen are typically made with thick curly noodles that are aged.
Tokyo style ramen are made with curly, medium thick, aged noodles. The noodles are curly so that they will carry the soup when it’s slurped.
Tonkotsu (paitan stock) are commonly made with thin strait non-aged noodles to go with the rich thick soup.
The type of flour, kansui (alkaline salt which gives noodles that particular springiness), and precise mixture of other ingredients as well as kneading time, pressure etc. are also house secret.
Tare – Tare determines the main flavor of the soup. Shio (salt based), Shoyu (Soy sauce based) and Miso are the top three popular flavors in Japan. Each Tare is made according to house recipe; most tare are aged to allow for each ingredient to blend well.
Spices, toppings, and flavored oil – Typical ramen toppings are Chashu (roast pork), Memma (simmered bamboo), Ajitamago (marinated boiled egg), Nori, fresh wok fried beansprouts.
Commonly used spices are ginger, garlic, ground white pepper, some even use a touch of dried citrus skin as kakushiaji (hidden flavor).
For flavor oil, scallions, ginger and garlic are slow cooked in oil to extract the flavors.
So, as one can see, it takes time and a lot of effort to make the above four elements, but that’s not even half of the story. The key lies in making the four elements come together seamlessly in a bowl so the complete ramen becomes “one”, and the finished product must be more than the sum of its parts. Just imagine how many variances there can be just for the stock, change one little thing in the makeup of four elements and it can throw the whole thing off balance!
Also ramen must be made to order, which means the stock, the tare, the boiled to order noodles and toppings and spices must come together right before serving. This juxtaposition of fresh and aged is what makes ramen so addictive.
Ramen is quick order, quick eating food. Let it sit in front of you while talking to your dinning companion? NO! The noodles will get soggy and loose that particular combination of springiness and elasticity as well as flavor it took so long for the cooks to perfect.
How to eat Ramen? As quickly as possible! Here are some tips on getting the best out of your ramen.
1) When the ramen arrives, start eating it straightaway, do not wait for your companion’s ramen to arrive, ramen never waits for people, people wait for ramen.
2) First, take a small sip of the broth directly from the edge of the bowl by lifting the bowl with both hands to your lips. This is by far the preferable option but you can use the spoon if you like. You want to do this to taste the broth before it’s mixed with other ingredients.
3) Then take the roast pork and push it down in to the soup to let it warm up so the fatty part becomes tender.
4) Go directly to noodles, pull out few strands of noodles, put them down as to fold them in half, pick up the folded noodles, – this way the noodles are shorter and much easier to handle- look down towards the bowl (very important) and slurp up the noodles. Be sure to let the air in together with the noodles when you slurp. This aerating helps you to enjoy full flavor of the broth, similar to tasting wines. Do not be embarrassed by the slurping sound. This is the proper way to eat ramen.
5) Repeat step 3 with occasional bites of toppings in between, until all the noodles are gone.
6) Now you can relax and enjoy the rest of the soup at your own pace.
7) Done correctly, it should not take more than 10 minutes to finish a bowl of ramen.
8) Enjoy that glorious afterglow of having had a good bowl of ramen.