It's a good time for a soup supper and here's everything you need to know to make — or order — a great bowl of authentic Japanese ramen!
By CINDA CHAVICH
Cheap, cheerful, nourishing and restorative — a big bowl of noodle soup can be a real savior at this time of year.
There’s classic chicken noodle, beautiful bone broth or Vietnamese Pho, but Japanese ramen is perhaps the finest example of a big, slurpable meal in a soup bowl.
This everyday staple has gained a kind of cult status, with celebrity chefs around the world weighing in on the perfect way to construct a bowl of ramen, documentary films and shows like Midnight Diner, where the Master’s steamy soup is a panacea to his customers’ daily dilemmas.
You may not be able to visit that Tokyo ramen-ya, but a soul-sustaining bowl of ramen is easy to enjoy wherever you are.
WHAT IS RAMEN?
For a dish that’s apparently so simple, ramen can be a complex topic.
At its most basic, ramen is a bowl of chewy wheat noodles and savoury broth, a fast meal to be enjoyed at a tiny ramen shop or street-side stall. The broth should be rich and salty, shot with umami, and filled with golden noodles, but there are many variations on the theme, from those ubiquitous packets of instant noodles that have kept many a starving student sated, to the beautiful bowls of brothy fresh noodles crafted from scratch by a devoted ramen master.
For Tokyo-born chef Yoshimune Arima, delving into the topic of ramen began as a pandemic project, one that led to his popular pop-up ramen feasts around Victoria, and most recently to his own Kizuna Ramen, a take-out and delivery only ramen business, based in a local commissary kitchen.
Consulting his Japanese mentor chefs and others, Arima’s ramen quest encapsulates both the art and science of the dish. He experimented with many recipes for ramen broth and noodles before settling on two distinct versions for his “house crafted umami ramen” — slow-cooked, creamy pork tonkatsu broth and his own vegan aged miso broth, with noodles carefully designed to balance the flavour and texture of both.
With braised pork belly chashu (or marinated tofu chashu), ajitama egg and other toppings including braised black mushroom, fermented bamboo shoots, koji stir-fried vegetables and secret spicy sauce, Arima’s ramen is his own creation.
It’s this attention to detail — the freshly made soup stock and noodles — that sets the best ramen restaurants apart.
In Japan, where ramen has its roots, there are variations in every corner of the country, based on each region’s broth and tare or kaeshi (seasoning sauce).
But there are some basic styles: Shio Ramen is a clear broth seasoned with salt; Shoyu Ramen is darker clear broth with soy sauce; Tonkotsu is a rich, creamy pork broth (also called Hakata Ramen); while opaque Miso Ramen has fermented miso paste.
Ramen broth is typically a pork or chicken bone broth, but can also be a fish-based soup, a vegetable stock made with dried mushrooms, or a heavier, miso enhanced broth. It may be a light and clear stock, or a creamy broth, a result of the long extraction of marrow from bones and emulsified fats.
Pork broth is the most popular base for ramen. It’s the bones that impart the richness, fat and gelatinous mouth feel of a truly slow-simmered soup, with dashi (a stock infused with seaweed and dried fish) adding another layer of umami to the mix.
Bone broths are simmered for many hours, even days to extract flavours — slow simmering for clear broths and more aggressive boiling or pressure cooking for the creamy tonkotsu (pork) broths and opaque, cloudy paitan (chicken) soups.
At Nikkei Ramen-ya in Courtenay, chef Greg Masuda makes his chicken and silky pork tonkotsu broth using ingredients from local farms. He says pork bones offer the collagen that melts into the broth to give it a milky colour, flavour and mouth feel.
At home, Masuda says you can use pork hocks and a home pressure cooker (he has a high-pressure industrial model) to extract the most pork flavour, or make rich chicken broths with meaty chicken carcasses, even chicken wings or chicken feet. Some paitan recipes recommend reusing the spent chicken carcasses after making clear stock, then crushing them in a blender, and recooking under pressure to create an opaque soup.
A little dashi (a broth of dried seaweed and bonito flakes) is also added for a boost of umami (you can find bonito/kombu dashi “tea bags” to make a fast dashi infusion at home).
As any chef (and grandmother) knows, fat carries flavour so the best ramen broth that has a fair amount of fat (the "eyes" that float on top), and you can even an additional splash of chili oil or melted pork fat to finish the bowl.
Ramen noodles are wheat noodles made simply with flour, water, and salt, plus potassium carbonate and/or sodium carbonate, the alkaline ingredient called kansui. Kansui changes the pH of ramen noodles, giving them a slippery but chewy texture and yellow colour, due to a reaction with components of the flour.
Some ramen noodles also include eggs, some are cut fine and straight, but others (like the ubiquitous instant ramen) are curly.
They come in a variety of thickness, too — chefs choose the appropriate noodle size to match their own broth recipes.
For Nikkei Ramen, and his partners at Ghost Ramen in Victoria, chef Masuda makes his artisan noodles from scratch. But ramen noodles, with their low moisture content, are difficult to make so most ramen restaurants, including Kizuna and Ramen Arashi, have their noodles made by specialists like Yamachan Ramen, a California custom noodle maker with a branch in Vancouver.
Or you can buy Nikkei Ramen’s fresh noodles, broth and frozen ramen kits (with noodles and soup stock) in some supermarkets. It’s the same soup and noodles served at Ghost Ramen. Masuda ships 1,500 to 2,000 deconstructed bowls (noodles and broth) to Ghost Ramen every week, and has also recently expanded his production to supply his Nikkei Ramen kits to Thrifty Foods and other larger grocers through a local distributor.
Dry instant noodles are cheap and ubiquitous, but most are deep fried before drying. Look for steamed and air-dried instant noodles, a healthier choice.
When making ramen, it’s essential not to overcook the noodles or leave them in hot broth before you eat them. That’s why many ramen restaurants package noodles and broth/toppings separately for delivery, or send fresh noodles uncooked, with directions to have customers cook them at home.
The trick? Fluff up the noodles to separate strands. Bring lots of water to a rolling boil and add the noodles, in a submersible colander if you have one. Stir to loosen noodles and cook them according to directions — use a timer to prevent overcooking — then drain well, add to steaming hot broth in bowl, and serve immediately.
Matching noodles and broth is as much science as art. Arima uses a “concentration meter” to test the density of his broth to determine the best noodle style for the right balance, allowing both the noodles and broth to shine.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Beyond beautiful broth and bouncy noodles, a great bowl of ramen comes with typical toppings, from a soft-cooked egg to a slice of pork chashu, so tender it collapses under your soup spoon, plus vegetables such as bok choy and green onions. In Korea, ramen is usually served with spicy kimchi, and you might find slivered nori (seaweed), sweet corn or pink and white coins of Japanese fish cake garnishing your ramen.
Marinate soft boiled eggs in a zippered plastic bag with a splash of soy sauce, mirin, sake or rice wine, and dashi. Chashu is made by slowly braising rolled pork belly or shoulder in soy sauce and mirin with ginger and garlic, but pork tenderloin that’s seasoned with Asian barbecue or hoisin sauce, and roasted Chinese char siu style, makes a fine addition, too.
I also like to blanch some baby bok choy or spinach with the noodles, and simmer some fresh sliced shiitake mushrooms in soy sauce and mirin to garnish. Finish each bowl with silvers of green onion, toasted sesame seeds or Japanese furikake (a combo of sesame seeds and seaweed), and a splash of sesame or chili oil.
With all of the hype around ramen restaurants these days, and some even getting the Michelin nod, it’s easy to forget that ramen is a simple dish, designed for everyday eating.
But as Allan Nichols, owner of Ramen Arashi reminds me, there are literally thousands of iterations of this Japanese “working man’s” meal. Rich pork tonkotsu broth is featured in several combinations on his menu, but Ramen Arashi also offers chicken broth ramen, seafood-based soup flavoured with citrusy yuzu and vegan Tan Tan ramen in a soy milk and nutty sesame base.
“Ramen in Japan is what the chef wants to make,” he says, flipping to the Instagram feed of @ramenguidejapan, and scrolling through hundreds of iterations of the famous dish. “Our ramen is modelled after Yokahama-style ramen, but even there you will find lots of variations. Every ramen chef will create something that’s unique.”
Which is another reason that exploring the world of ramen is always intriguing.
Whether visiting your favourite ramen shop or perfecting your stock-making skills at home, slurping a big bowl of ramen is a wonderful way to celebrate soup season. Meshiagare!
QUICK SHOYU RAMEN
Chef Yoshimune Arima of Kizuna Ramen offers this simplified recipe for a fast shoyu (soy sauce) broth for ramen. It’s a light broth, so serve with the medium Tokyo-style ramen noodles. Reserving the ground meats and mushrooms used to flavour the broth provides a nice topping for the soup, along with vegetables such as bok choy or mizuna and soft boiled eggs. His basic kaeshi, the soy sauce tare used to flavour this ramen, can also be diluted with a little dashi to use as a dipping sauce for noodles.
Makes 1 litre (4 cups) broth, for 2-3 servings (1.5-2 cups broth + 1-2 tablespoons Kaeshi (seasoning sauce) per serving).
6 cups (1.5 litre) water
1 oz. (10 g) dried kombu (Japanese kelp) – about four 2X3-inch pieces
2 dried shiitake mushrooms
2/3 pound (300 g) ground pork
½ pound (250 g) ground chicken
2 green onions
3 slices ginger
6 tablespoons (3 g bonito) flakes or dried anchovy (in tea bag or strainer)
Salt to taste
Reserved ground meats, mushrooms and ginger
2 tablespoons oil
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 tablespoon each: oyster sauce and hoisin sauce
7 tablespoons (105 ml) light Usukuchi soy sauce
7 tablespoons (105 ml) cooking sake/rice wine
3 tablespoons (45 ml) mirin
1 litre ramen broth, divided (350 ml/1.5-2 cups per portion)
3 portions fresh or frozen ramen noodles, cooked to order
Reserved ground meat and mushroom mixture
2-3 baby bok choy, halved
2-3 green onions, sliced
chili oil to finish (optional)
To make the broth base, place water into a large pot and add kombu and shiitake.
Add ground pork, ground chicken, green onion and ginger. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium low and simmer for 10 – 15 minutes. Remove kombu and discard. Continue to simmer for 20 minutes.
Strain and reserve the broth, reserving meats, ginger and mushrooms. Discard green onion. Chop mushrooms and ginger.
Return the broth to the pot and heat to simmer. Remove from heat and add the bonito flakes, in a tea bag or tea ball so you can remove easily. Steep for 5 minutes and remove the bonito flakes. Season broth to taste with a little salt.
To make the kaeshi or tare, combine sake and mirin in a saucepan and bring to a boil just to burn off the alcohol. Add the soy sauce and simmer over medium low heat for 5 minutes to reduce slightly. Set aside.
Meanwhile, brown the reserved ground meats, shiitake and ginger in a few tablespoons of oil with chopped garlic. Season with oyster sauce or hoisin sauce, cooking together until nicely glazed. Reserve to use to top the individual bowls of ramen (or add to fried rice or noodle dishes).
Bring reserved broth to a boil. Cook the noodles in boiling water for a few minutes (as per instructions on the package). If using bok choy, add it to the water with the noodles just before they’re ready to blanch slightly. Drain.
Divide broth between two or three large soup bowls and add 1/3 of the kaeshi to each bowl (or start with 1-2 tablespoons, to taste). Add the cooked noodles and top with bok choy, reserved meat/mushroom mixture and green onions or other toppings. For a spicier dish, drizzle with chili oil to finish. Serves 2-3.
TENDERLOIN WITH HOISIN GLAZE
This is my quicker stand-in for chashu — lean BBQ pork tenderloin glazed with hoisin sauce. It’s great to serve on ramen, or in Asian stir fries and fried rice dishes, too.
1-pound pork whole tenderloin
4-5 tablespoons hoisin sauce
½ teaspoon each: ground ginger and granulated garlic
Line a baking pan with parchment or foil (to aid in clean up).
Brush tenderloin generously on all sides with hoisin sauce.
Set in the prepared pan, tucking the narrow end under the tenderloin to create an even piece. Sprinkle ginger and garlic over the loin. Drizzle any remaining hoisin sauce over the top.
Let sit about 15 minutes to come to room temperature.
Preheat oven to 400 F. Roast the tenderloin for 25-35 minutes, just until an instant read thermometer, inserted in the thickest section of the meat, reads 140 F.
Remove tenderloin from the oven and set aside to rest for 10 minutes. Slice into ¼-inch slices to serve over hot bowls of ramen (leftovers are perfect for stir fries and fried rice dishes).
This story originally appeared in YAM magazine.
©Cinda Chavich 2024