I promised you a post about ramen. This is it.
It all started when I found out about a Food Film Festival at Cinéma du Parc. I immediately bought tickets for a few select films. Among them was Delicatessen, about which I seriously wonder why it was included in this festival: it’s barely about food at all, although I suppose cannibalism is a type of gastronomy (and no, there was nothing about cannibalism in the synopsis, which makes the movie sound like a cutesie rom com - which, I assure you, it is not). We also saw Kings of Pastry, a documentary about pastry chefs taking the Meilleur Ouvrier de France exam. We witnessed some spectacular displays of sugar-pulling and sculpting skills – and some really nerve-racking brushes with catastrophe. It really makes you marvel at what people will put themselves through for their passion. There were also films I’d already seen, such as Chocolat and the exquisite Babette's Feast.
But my favourite discovery was Tampopo. I’d heard of it, and jumped at the chance to see it. It’s mainly about a woman who owns a ramen shop and is on a quest to make the best bowl of noodles ever. She enlists the help of a gruff trucker who really knows his way around a ramen kitchen, and other experts join along the way. But more than a film about ramen, Tampopo is a film about food and people who love food. There are various, seemingly random scenes inserted in the film focusing on anonymous characters and their relationship with food. Many of these scenes are absolute gold. This is one of my personal favourites. It's in Japanese, but basically the women are trying to learn how to eat pasta the "Western" way, without making any slurping noises, and... Well, see for yourself.
Ramen are still a major part of this film, though. The secret ingredients in the broth, the ideal resting time for the noodle dough, the ideal thickness of pork slices: everything is important. Even the way you eat your ramen is important. And here, I can’t resist linking to one of the film’s opening scenes, which addresses just this very question (and this one has subtitles).
I walked out of there with not much more than a vague idea of how to actually make good ramen (except that one must never let the soup boil – which I already knew from making pho), but a very strong desire to tackle this seemingly monumental task. So, I did some research. I came across a lot of recipes about how to make good broth and cook pork, but all of them used either dried noodles, or homemade egg noodles – and from what I understood, ramen noodles are supposed to be egg free (more on that in a minute). I read some good advice on the Chowhound forums, and some great posts on the blog No Recipes. And then, I discovered that David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook includes everything you need to know to make ramen from scratch. I found the book, flipped through it, drooled at nearly all the recipes, and took it home.
I lived in New York from 1988 to 1994, and my parents lived there again from 2003 to 2006. I visited them a lot during the latter period, but even though Momofuku Noodle Bar was already well known at the time, I never went there (I wasn’t nearly as interested in food as I am today). Having read the cookbook, this place is now on my list of musts for my next trip to NYC. The recipes seem full of bold flavours and unusual combinations, without a hint of pretension.
But my first concern was the ramen. The process was even more daunting than I’d expected. The first task was to make taré, which is described as “Japanese barbecue sauce.” Upon reading the ingredients, I realized this was basically what I and most people I know refer to as teriyaki sauce, only more complex: in addition to soy sauce, sugar, and mirin, this reduction had to include fond de volaille, made from roasting chicken bones. Ever since I learned to bone chickens, I’ve been buying whole birds and saving the carcasses to make stock, and I just happened to have one in the freezer. I’d never made fond before, and wasn’t too happy with the small quantity I ended up with. I’m not sure it made much of a difference in my taré.
The broth was next, an elaborate process of simmering chicken, dried and fresh vegetables, bacon, and pork bones for a combined total length of over eight – yes, eight – hours. I wasn’t sure I would be able to find pork bones: I was told most butchers probably wouldn’t have them on hand, because Western cooking usually revolves around stocks made with chicken and beef bones, and fond made from veal bones. Thank heavens for Asian supermarkets! I went to Marché Fu Tai and got some awesome-looking pork bones (leg and neck, from the looks of it), which the butcher sawed into segments for me. After the full eight hours, the stock was truly a thing of beauty: rich and fragrant, and as it cooled it turned into a gelatinous marvel. I seasoned it with the taré, following David Chang’s advice to keep flavouring until it’s “not quite too salty but almost.”
Chang uses two kinds of pork in his ramen, but I decided to skip the shredded shoulder and stuck to classic sliced pork belly. When I asked for pork belly at a butcher shop at Jean-Talon Market, the woman behind the counter apologetically said she only had a big, 4-pound slab, which was vacuum-packed and therefore couldn’t be divided. I lit up and told her that was perfect. The pork was rubbed with salt and sugar, then baked at high, then low temperatures (Chang writes that this method was born out of a mistake, but the result was so good he decided to keep doing it). It was mouth-wateringly tender and flavourful, and the leftovers were used for banh mi sandwiches.
And finally, there were the noodles. That was the part that had me most worried. I’d done research, and had learned that ramen noodles, contrary to what one may think, don’t contain eggs: they get their yellow colour from kansui, or alkaline water. Kansui also speeds up the production of gluten, and makes the noodles firmer. I found a comment on Chowhound that someone had managed to locate some of this hard-to-find liquid near Jean-Talon. I looked around and found some at Thai Hour. (On a side note, I was reminded never to judge a store by appearances: my first instinct was to check Marché Oriental, which is also in that neighbourhood. It’s the larger and better-lit of the two stores, so I thought I had a better chance. But no, I found the kansui across the street, at the much more modest-looking Thai Hour.)
I was tempted to hand-pull the noodles, as I had seen it done in the Oishinbo volume on ramen and gyoza (Oishinbo is an amazing manga about Japanese cuisine, which I have previously mentioned). The process just looks so bad-ass and impressive (this is unflipped manga, so read the panels right-to-left):
But I decided to save that experiment for another time, and just used the pasta roller, which is how Chang does it anyway. Incidentally, he commented on his own recipe by saying that the home cook didn’t really need to go to the trouble of looking for kansui, or even making noodles from scratch. But when people give me leeway in a recipe, I take it as a challenge to refuse said leeway. :-)
Okay, with all that done (it took about two days and a half), all that was left to prepare were the other toppings. Traditionally, ramen is topped with pork belly, half a hard-boiled egg, squares of nori, menma (softened bamboo shoots), scallions, and naruto (sliced fish cake). Naruto is usually storebought, and I knew where to buy some, but I could only get it in a relatively large chunk. Since I would only need a little bit, and have no use for this ingredient outside of ramen, the rest would have gone to waste. Besides, naruto doesn’t taste like much (although it does give ramen their distinctive “look”), so I had no qualms about skipping it. I also skipped the menma, mostly because I was tired of cooking and just wanted to eat the damn soup already.
I had to be reminded of how to boil an egg while avoiding that ugly grey ring around the yolk: put the egg in cold water, bring to a boil, turn off the heat, and let sit for 10 minutes, 8 minutes if you want the yolk to be ever so slightly creamy. (Chang tops his ramen with slow-poached eggs, which I also know how to make, but as I explained, I was kind of in a hurry to eat.)
It’s important for the broth to be hot when you ladle it, and the bowls should ideally be warmed in a low-temperature oven. The water for cooking the noodles should be simmering, not rolling: a full boil can strip away some of the flavour (Mind you, I haven’t tested this theory for myself, but that’s what Oishinbo says… Seriously, there’s a whole chapter about this). The cooking time varies depending on the noodles.
So, was it worth it? Oh hell, yes! It tasted out of this world. No, actually, it tasted like Japan, and took us right back to those narrow little ramen shops in Tokyo. The broth was amazing, the pork melted in our mouths… The noodles could have been more toothsome, but I’d had to improvise on them: the recipe called for alkaline salts, and all I had was alkaline water, so I had to guess the amount, and probably should have added a tiny bit more. But you can bet I’m going to keep tweaking this until I get it right.
So, that was my first foray into homemade ramen. I can’t wait to make more, and try other kinds of broths, especially miso. I faithfully followed the recipe for my first attempt, but now that I have a pretty food idea of the process, I want to come up with my own recipe, my own ideal ramen. Yummy days ahead!