I’m inherently an emotional, nostalgic person. Whether I want to or not, my mind constantly wanders to the past, to things I’ve done, things I’ve enjoyed and things I still long for. The tastes, smells and sounds forever echo in my head like a peanut being shaken inside a soda can.
Of all my travels, there are 2 places that hold a special place in my heart. Firstly, Singapore because of a few special relationships which I cultivated with the food, the culture and some very, very close friends. Only a half step behind on the ladder is Japan. I’ve spent more time in Japan than any other country with the exception of my native Canada, even though my cultural roots are just a hop over the China sea.
The fondest memories of Japan are simple ones: Riding the train, eating conbini onigiri with a bottle of cold tea, drinking with friends at karaoke, sitting at a ramen bar with a bunch of salarymen slurping back slightly chewy noodles in a deep complex broth. David Chang knows these simple pleasures as well as evident in issue #1 of his quarterly magazine, Lucky Peach.
The inaugural issue of Lucky Peach was all about the Japanese salaryman staple. If you’ve spent any time in Japan, ramen is the de facto standard meal no matter what part of the country you are in. Everyone eats it, everyone knows bad ramen from good ramen and everyone loves it. When Chang decided to publish his ramen recipes in issue #1 it became the equivalent of every food nerd’s Penthouse Forum. In fact, demand for copies of issue #1 were so high they were last seen going on eBay for around $200.
After a year of lecherously leering at the pictures in issue #1, I finally decided to give it a go. Just a note, I didn’t follow the Lucky Peach recipes for each of these exactly. Based on what I had on hand, and the flavours I had in my head, I modified each of them a little bit to match.
In my head, Hakata style and Sapparo style always stood out as the best ramens. The thick, milky pork bone (tonkotsu) broth always gave such a rich flavour and ever so delicately coated each of the noodles permeating the flavours throughout the springy starchiness. The miso ramen of the north had such complexity and flavour and felt thick and rich without actually being made from heavy ingredients. I decided to make a hybrid of both to develop an intense flavour profile.
I started by boiling down some pock knuckle bones that had a little meat on them. In fact they were leftover schweinehaxen pieces from a local German restaurant that I was eating at the other day. I popped them into a pot with some onions, garlic and peppercorns and boiled them for 24 hours at rapid simmer, replacing water as needed, to create a thick milky broth. I added powered shiitake mushrooms, sake and mirin in the last hour or two of simmering to fortify the pork flavours. Once strained, it had a beautiful milk liquid sheen to it and was devoid of the pork-y smell that turns some people off.
Next was the bacon dashi. I heated a pot of water to approximately 62 degrees Celsius and steeped pices of konbu in it for about 40 minutes. I then removed the konbu and added half a pack of bacon and steeped that for another 1.5 hours. I removed and set aside the bacon. What remained was a clear, deep amber liquid that had a definite smoky smell and taste but was still light and refreshing. I strained it to get the bits out but I didn’t bother clarifying it as it would have been moot once combined with the tonkotsu broth.
Lastly was the bacon tare. I fried half a pack of bacon until it started to get crispy. I added ¾ cup of sake to de-glaze, then 2/3 cup of mirin and another 1.5 cups of soy. I set the stove to simmer for 1.5 hours in order to infuse the mixture with the bacon. I then strained the bacon out and set it aside with the bacon from the dashi. This leftover bacon mixture is great in omelets, scrambled eggs, or fried rice, so don’t just throw it away.
The bacon tare is a beautiful thing. It has an amazing depth, a salty flavour that isn’t caustic and an aroma that could be made into air fresheners. I didn’t bother skimming or chilling and removing the frozen fat. After all, fat is flavour right?
I then proceeded to combine 4 parts tonkotsu, 3 parts dashi and 1 part tare. I mixed in a tablespoon of red miso to reinforce the thickness of the flavours, brought it up to a slow boil, strained the mixture once again and then returned it to the stove on a low simmer.
Making the noodles was a bit of a chore. As detailed erroneously in Lucky Peach, I had to bake off the baking soda and then mix 4 teaspoons (not 4 tablespoons as in printed in #1) in with the water before combining it with the flour. I used a mixer as I was lazy and I figured it would be easier on my arms than rolling and kneading it by hand. I mixed it with the dough hook for 5-6 minutes, then left it to rest for 20 minutes, mixed it again for another 6 minutes, then left it in the fridge to rest for an hour.
Once I pulled out the dough and portioned it out into 6 pieces I found it to be the texture and consistency of firm clay. I’m not sure if this is what it should be, but it seemed right for springy noodles. Where I went wrong with the noodles was rolling it too thin and not shaking off enough flour before throwing it in for a boil. Mine clumped up quite a bit and the middle wasn’t cooked very well. Hence next time I’m only going down to “6” on the roller and do a better job of laying out the noodles for drying.
I also tried to do some onsen style tamago for the ramen. I set a pot of water at 62-63 degrees Celsius and used the double inverted bowl method to try to soft boil some eggs. Again, I messed up because I didn’t temper the eggs to room temperature before boiling, and the water wasn’t quite up to 62 degrees before I put the eggs in. This combination would have dropped the temperature of the water a few more degrees which would throw off the cooking time. After 70 minutes the whites were just starting to stiffen up and the insides were still uncooked. I should have let the eggs cook for another 30-40 minutes to compensate. As a backup, I just broke all the eggs into bowls and quickly soft poached them.
The outcome was overall positive. The broth did remind me of Japan, although a touch salty. I will need to work on the noodles as I would consider them a failure because of my own shortcomings, not because of anything that was printed in the magazine.
Ramen chefs in Japan train for their whole lifetime to produce a good ramen. Although I have taken the first step down the path in developing an acceptable ramen which echos my memories of Japan, it will take me another few decades to produce a product that would be called amazing. Don’t look for the grand opening of my ramen shop anytime soon.