With regard to food and drink, there are some things I’d just rather make myself, while plenty of others I’ll happily leave to experts. For instance, I like my coffee just so, which means I’m picky about my beans, water and equipment. Conversely, no matter how much I may want to try, in the absence of the right equipment and years of apprenticeship I’m never going to manage perfectly crusty French bread in my own kitchen. Ramen sits in a grey area somewhere between the two.
In Japan, ramen shops are a regular fixture of the urban fabric, dotting neighborhoods in cities and suburbs around the country. You can usually see several clustered near train stations. The national comfort food is so easy to find and inexpensive that few people would see much utility in investing a day’s worth of labor to produce it in a home kitchen. This cuisine itself is also deceptively simple, belying the labor and craft that go into each shop’s offerings. It is possible, though difficult to achieve the same result at home.
Being outside of Japan changed the equation for me. In New York City there are only a handful of truly good shops on par with those in the homeland. Most shops charge significantly more than the going rate in Japan, as well. Now that we’re in Beijing, a ramen wasteland, the need for noodles has taken on yet another dimension. Trying to make ramen at home (here, here and here) has been a way for me to stay connected to Japanese culture and feed friends at the same time. While I won’t be giving any of the professionals a run for their money, going through the process makes me appreciate what they do even more.
While I have learned, though trial and error, the general idea for many aspects of ramen making, on a recent trip to the Kansai area I took advantage of an opportunity to receive professional guidance. Brian MacDuckston, the author of Ramen Adventures and authoritative English voice on all things ramen, coordinates a one-day cooking crash course at Toranoana (虎の穴) [English/日本語], in Higashiosaka City, Osaka Prefecture. The price is the same for one or two students, so I convinced my wife Min that an entire day knee deep in animal parts and flour was actually a good way to spend our vacation time.
Our teacher, Miyajima Rikisai (宮島力彩) came about this particular position not as a chef, but as a restaurant management consultant. Along with a partner, Miyajima-sensei advises ramen shops on things like site selection, decor, menu, etc. The cooking courses are an outgrowth of this business, and classes are offered for needs ranging from casual (enthusiasts like us) to multi-day and multi-week courses for professionally trained chefs that would like to enter the ramen industry.
Miyajima-sensei and our translator Akane took us through each area of ramen making, starting the day with chashu (simmered pork) and hanjuku tamago (half cooked eggs).
In a busy shop, strainers like these would be used to quickly cook and dish out individual portions of noodles.
Since our own soup stock would be the main undertaking of the afternoon, for lunch Sensei made everyone a quick soup by boiling several pounds of ground meat and straining off the water. We also had chashu he had made previously, which he pan fried and served Korean barbeque-style with sliced garlic, chili sauce and shiso (an herb used in Japan), wrapped in lettuce.
This is it! The secret to making ramen soup! Tare, the concentrated flavor base added to unseasoned stock, is sort of like the Colonel’s Secret Recipe or the formula for Coca-Cola, a tightly guarded trade secret that chefs take great measures to conceal. In the vacuum of published information, I had made the assumption that some kind of sorcery was required, possibly a combination of caramelization, fermentation and incantation. Turns out that, at its root, it is just a simple salt solution (for shio) or a salt solution combined with shoyu (soy sauce). The uniqueness of each shop’s tare comes from additions and modifications. Instead of using pure water, you might start by steeping kombu (type of seaweed) and katsuobushi (dried, fermeted, smoked skipjack tuna) to make dashi, the foundational flavor of many Japanese cuisines. The ingredients give dashi large amounts of naturally occurring monosodium glutamate, called umami. Anything you can introduce to the tare that adds umami, or anything that offers a complimentary flavor, can become part of your special sauce.
Next up was noodle making. I don’t think this machine would fit in our apartment, but it was fun to watch it work.
Interchangeable cutters allow multiple types of noodle production. This one has wide blades for making tsukemen (dipping noodles).
Time to smash some pig leg bones.
Stock can be made in a regular stock pot or a pressure cooker. We used the latter to shorten the cooking time to several hours. At the bottom of the cooker is a special device that I had never seen before. Sensei explained that this is a special nozzle/manifold that emulsifies the suspended fats with the water as the finished soup stock is forced through by pressure when the valve is opened on the outside. It’s considered highly advanced indigenous technology and exports are heavily restricted for fear of intellectual property theft. You can, of course, make soup without this, but the device removes the need for extensive boiling and manual agitation.
In go some chicken feet.
Next we added chicken necks, pig bones and water.
Close the hatch and wait.
The smell from the pot and the big bag of katsuobushi we had set aside was too much for the neighbor’s cat to pass by.
The cat voiced its dissatisfaction once it became apparent that a meaty or fishy offering was not forthcoming.
The chashu that started in the morning is ready.
From the back of the kitchen we heard a commotion off in the distance that got louder and louder. The neighborhood just happened to be celebrating its local matsuri that day and the mikoshi was making its way past the shop.
Back to class. We’re getting closer to putting all of the pieces together, so this diagram explained how to balance the three fundamental parts of the final soup. Unlike many western soups, a bowl of ramen doesn’t come together until moments before it’s served. The unseasoned stock, tare and fat/oil must each be made to specific parameters and combined in precise amounts, just before adding the noodles, toppings and then serving.
Time to release the finished tonkotsu (cloudy, dense soup) stock.
Chashu is ready to go.
Warm the bowls and ladle some of the stock into a small pot to bring it back up to temperature.
Add the oil, in this case chicken fat
Prepare the noodles
Add the hot stock to the bowl and mix to melt the fat, then add noodles and toppings.
But wait, there’s more. We had reserved some of the tonkotsu stock, returned it to the cooker without the emulsifier, added a large heap of katsuobushi and boiled/stirred it without the cover until it had reduced a fair amount. When ready, we reattached the pressure cooker top and forced out the very thick stock for a second course of tsukemen.
Tsukemen noodles are thicker, chewy and served cool.
I wish we could have taken the tsukemen soup with us. It turned out so well even our humble sensei was a little bit proud of himself.
As official graduates of the Toranoana one-day intensive ramen course we’re probably not yet qualified to be serving food to anyone who doesn’t have an adventurous stomach and a good sense of humor. (Though with the dearth of ramen in Beijing, perhaps even this is not beyond the realm of possibilities.) While I don’t know that I’ll ever find myself behind the counter of a ramen shop, this was a very valuable experience that I can draw on in several ways. The next time I decide to barricade myself in the kitchen for a full day of ramen combat, I’ll have plenty of new ideas to try. Many of the techniques we practiced are easily applied to other types of cooking, as well.
Beyond ramen, talking with Akane and Miyajima-sensei we were able to learn about their interests and stories, and about daily life for them in Japan. Min and I talked about how we chose to leave our suburban American town to shift focus to urbanized/urbanizing parts of East Asia precisely because we valued unique, local and satisfyingly “messy” neighborhoods like the one we passed through between the train station and the shop. The relatively unplanned development and all of the small independent businesses that I observed here and in other parts of Osaka are a central focus of my own work. Strolling through shōtengai on our trip back into the center of Osaka was the perfect way to end the day.