It’s fair to say that I’m a big lad. I often settle indecisiveness in food ordering situations by asking waiting staff ‘which of these is going to fill me up the most?’ Don’t get me wrong – I really enjoy the creativity of the diminutive micro-platters which could only fatten a restaurateur’s pockets – but I’m probably getting chips on the way home. I like a meal to be a meal, and I struggle with the concept of soup for dinner. Except when it comes to ramen.
There is little in life more satisfying than a steaming bowl of chewy noodles, enveloped in complex broth – delivering a velvet-gloved uppercut of umami. Beyond the basics, a near-infinite range of flavouring, condiment, and garnish combinations reward the experimental cook, whilst classic styles reliably hit the spot.
I regularly crave ramen. I believe it to be one of the most addictive foods known to humankind (with the possible exception of the new mixed M&Ms – chocolate, crunchy, and peanut). Once, after a substantial brunch of scrambled eggs, eaten whilst salivating over ramen in Dave Chang and Peter Meehan’s Momofuku cookbook, I had to run straight down to our local sushi joint for a bowl. Once you’ve got the itch, you have to scratch it.
The only thing is, whilst Queensferry has a very good Chinese takeaway (better than anything we’ve had in Edinburgh), and a whole host of cafes and restaurants, it doesn’t have anywhere to slake an all-consuming ramen thirst. Furthermore, there’s nowhere to buy Asian ingredients – a fact which, although I am very happy on the fringes of the city, still pains me. What we do have, however, is a big ol’ Tesco.
I have spent a lot of time messing about with ramen recipes, and perfecting my own take. I recommend Dave Chang’s books, as well as Ivan Orkin’s book Ivan Ramen, and his excellent episode of Chef’s Table – available on Netflix, if you want to take your noodle soups to the next level. Incidentally, Orkin and Chang come together in my favourite food show ever, Mind of a Chef (also available on Netflix). Episode 11 of the first season sees Chang visit Ivan Ramen in NY, and goes into the glorious detail of Orkin’s signature Shio Ramen – lingering on sensual shots of broths and sauces cascading out of a variety of ladles.
Orkin’s recipe – laid out in full in his book, is incredibly complicated – it is, in fact, eight recipes, which combine to form a kind of noodly souper group (sorry). I have no doubt it is amazing, but unless you have a big date and you want to really impress, it’s worth just mining his approach for tips. It was Orkin who gave me the idea of combining goose fat (Orkin uses the Jewish staple, schmaltz – chicken fat) with pork fat for depth of flavour, and a silky viscosity which coats the noodles.
Unless you have an Asian souper market (sorry, I can’t help myself) nearby, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to get hold of kombu (dried kelp) and katsuo-bushi (dried smoked bonito fish) – the key ingredients in the Japanese ramen stock dashi. Even if you do live near a good Asian shop, these ingredients are often hard to come by, and you might have to make do with Hondashi – an instant dashi powder which uses MSG to achieve the same depth of umami (if you’re scared of MSG, don’t be. It’s just glutamate – which occurs naturally in mushrooms, tomatoes, cheeses etc… but stabilised and powdered. Read this Smithsonian Mag article for more info). In any case, if you have no access to specialist ingredients, but you do have access to a relatively large supermarket, you can still make a proper decent bowl of ramen. I even managed to find togarashi!
Having unpacked our pantry the other day (as a matter of priority, of course), I was moaning to Cat about the lack of Asian shopping options in the area. Much like Mary Poppins and her gullible charges, Cat has the ability to halt my complaining by making the job a game. She suggested a Tesco ramen challenge, where I could only use supermarket ingredients to put together a serious ramen. Off I went with The Boy to explore.
After a rather expensive load of shopping, I set to work. The stand out elements of this dish, are the from-scratch chicken stock, the roast pork belly and an experimental brussels sprout tare (pronounced tar-ay, this is the intense salty base for a ramen). The result was better than I could have hoped. In fact, I would go so far as to say that being forced to really think about how to achieve the flavours meant that this was one of the best bowls I’ve ever made!
This recipe is definitely involved, but stick with it and the rewards will be obvious. You can cheat at various stages and still end up with a delicious meal, but the depth of flavour (and satisfaction) you’ll achieve by putting in the graft is unparalleled by any quick fix.
It’s best to start the day before, but you’ll still get great results if you start early enough on the day.
- chicken legs (bone in and skin on)
- 3 carrots
- 2 onions
- 3 sticks of celery
- 4 sheets of sushi nori (seaweed)
- 7 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 3 sun-dried tomatoes (halved)
- 10 peppercorns
- 1-2 tablespoons sea salt (to taste)
- 2 tablespoons mirin
- 2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
- 1 1/2 tablespoons white miso
- 3 teaspoons goose fat
- 2 teaspoons pork fat (lard)
- handful fresh shiitake mushrooms
Roast pork belly
- 2 Pork belly slices
- 1 tablespoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon caster sugar
Tare (the flavour bomb)
- ginger (pound coin-sized disc)
- 10 brussels sprouts shredded
- 2 spring onions thinly sliced
- 2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon mirin
Roast garlic oil
- One clove of garlic
- two spring onions (green bits only)
- 3 tablespoons groundnut oil (or other neutral oil)
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- Egg noodles
- 1 1/2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
- half teaspoon goose fat
- 1 egg
- 2 spring onions (thinly sliced)
- handful watercress
- black sesame seeds
- nanami togarashi (sesame seed and dried chilli)
- 2 squares of sushi nori
The day before (if possible)
- Add the chicken, carrots, onions, celery, nori, shiitakes, tomatoes, peppercorns and salt to a large pot with around 5 litres of cold water, and bring to the boil. Simmer for 2-3 hours, and then set aside to cool before placing in the fridge overnight.
- Rub pork with the salt and sugar, and place in the fridge overnight (a great tip from the excellent cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid Heat).
On the day
- Preheat oven to 220C.
- Dry pork with paper towel, and lay in a small roasting tray, fat side down. Pop in a whole garlic clove, and roast for 40 minutes, basting the meat with the rendered fat half way through.
- Reduce heat to 130C and roast for a further 20 minutes.
- Remove pork to a plate to rest, and mix the tare ingredients into the remaining fat and garlic in the tray and return to oven at 220C for 25 minutes.
- When the tare is cooked, pluck out the garlic clove and set the rest aside for later.
- For the roast garlic oil, peel the garlic and blitz together with the spring onion, groundnut and sesame oils using a hand blender. Set aside.
- Strain broth into a large pot. Fish out the dried shiitakes, slice and add back into broth. Discard veg and shred chicken from legs for use in other recipes (mine will make chicken sweetcorn for work lunches, a risotto, and a pasta).
- Heat broth over a medium heat, adding miso, soy, mirin, fats and fresh shiitakes, and simmer until serving.
- Drop an egg into cold water in a small pan with a lid on. When the water begins boiling, turn off the heat and leave lid on for 2 minutes. Once time is up remove egg and run under cold water.
- Peel egg, and place in broth for 2 minutes using a slotted spoon before removing and slicing in half length-ways.
- Boil noodles in salted water with bicarbonate of soda (to emulate the chew of a real alkaline ramen noodle).
- Drop half teaspoon of goose fat and a teaspoon or two (to taste) of tare into a large heated bowl, top with noodles lifted straight from their water. Pour over a ladle or three of broth, and adorn the bowl with one half of the egg, the spring onion, watercress sesame seeds, togarashi, nori and garlic oil.
All that remains is to slurp and chew your way to the end, at which point you must upend the bowl to ensure you get every last drop.