Food with an attitude.
April 25, 2012
I have been to ramen heaven, and my world now seems sad and bland in comparison. I miss ramen. I miss everything about it. I had five bowls in my two-week visit to northern Japan, and in retrospect that was short-sighted. I should have insisted on ramen every day, storing up memories for a bleak, ramen-less future.
Pre-Japan, I hated ramen. Post-Japan, I’m obsessed it.
That’s because real ramen has little in common with those microwave cups of curly noodles in a chemical-tasting broth. Real ramen has a deeply flavorful stock that is so complex even I, the queen of recipe cloning, can’t quite decipher it. Real ramen has thin, homemade egg noodles that somehow manage to be both fresh and al dente. Real ramen is topped with slices of Chinese-style barbecued pork, 7-minute eggs, chunks of fresh bamboo shoots, wilted greens, sliced shiitake mushrooms, sheets of nori (crisp seaweed wafers), dribbles of chili oil….imagine it and somewhere in Japan, it comes in a bowl of rich broth with noodles.
Now multiply that by ten and you have Sapporo ramen, considered by many to be the best in Japan. The city on the northern island of Hokkaido is home to two famous Ramen Alleys lined with storefront restaurants that compete to serve the best ramen in the world. My brother-in-law Osam, a Sapporo chef, took Tony and me to the underground Ramen Alley, which he considers superior. It’s a snug warren of looping walkways in an below-ground city of shopping malls, restaurants and movie theaters, built to offer respite from the fierce winters that rage above.
“Welcome! Welcome! Please relax!” shout waiters from the doorways, beckoning customers to seats at counters that snake and twist through each noodle shop, making the most of the cramped space.
Osam led us to Baikoken, in business since 1940 and currently one of the most popular. From our perch at the counter we could see into the steaming kitchen where a crew of cooks shouted energetically to each other as they retrieved skeins of noodles from bubbling vats and ladled up broth.
Businessmen and women, blue-collar workers and mini-skirted teen-agers hunched over the bowls at the counter, audibly slurping up noodles. Each bowl holds at least a quart of soup and no one leaves leftovers. When the noodles are gone, the chopsticks are put down and the broth is gulped directly from the bowl. Slurping is considered necessary, I was told. Taking air in along with the noodles is said to enhance the flavor.
Of the handful of ramen varieties on the menu, I chose miso ramen, a style indigenous to Hokkaido. The broth begins with roasted pork bones and is finished with miso (fermented soybean paste). What is added in between is the mystery. I tasted and made notes. Once home, I looked for clues on the Internet and in cookbooks. None of the recipes I found sounded remotely like the ramen I had enjoyed. I also watched and re-watched a taped episode of Anthony Bourdain’s television program, “No Reservations,” that focuses on Hokkaido. It confirmed that Sapporo-style ramen broth begins with pork bones.
I spent a full day making the broth. I added sake, crushed garlic, a few drops of sesame oil, soy sauce and dashi granules (a Japanese stock base made from shaved bonito flakes). I used fresh-frozen Chinese egg noodles as a substitute for ramen noodles. I topped the soup with pork slices fried in butter, chopped green onion, canned bamboo shoots and a mound of bean sprouts.
“This is probably the best ramen in Ohio,” Tony said after one taste.
But does it taste like the ramen we had in Sapporo?
“No,” he admitted.
I watched the Anthony Bourdain program again. The pork bones are roasted first, I learned. Back to the store I went for another 5 pounds of neck bones. The stock looked richer from the get-go, and tasted wonderful after I simmered it to reduce the volume by half and concentrate the flavor. I threw away the bits of recipes I had cribbed from other sources and went on instinct, adding a lot more miso, a couple of knobs of butter (I saw this in Japan) and a bit of chicken broth, which some noodle shops are said to rely on. Instead of fresh-frozen Chinese egg noodles, I used dried. With trepidation, I ladled out Ramen Noodles Take Two. Tony tasted.
“This is wonderful!” he said. “It’s real ramen!”
But does it taste like the ramen we had in Sapporo?
“Yes,” he enthused, “this is it!”
I don’t think so. There’s an elusive umami note (meaty deliciousness) I haven’t quite captured. I’m still working on it. Meanwhile, this recipe is very close.
Asian ingredients such as miso and instant dashi may be found in almost any Asian grocery store. Sake is sold in liquor stores. Tony strongly recommends buying ramen noodles instead of Chinese egg noodles. I couldn’t find the Japanese noodles in the store I visited, but he says they are widely available in Asian stores. Do not substitute the noodles that come in instant ramen cups.
The recipe for the broth may be doubled and frozen.
SAPPORO-STYLE MISO RAMEN
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
- 1 medium onion, quartered
- 6 cups boiled ramen noodles or other thin egg noodles
- 4 quarter-inch-thick slices cooked pork (I used rotisserie pork from the deli)
- 1 cup drained canned bamboo shoots
For the broth: Spread pork bones in a large, shallow roasting pan. Roast uncovered at 400 degrees for about 50 minutes, or until bones are dark brown. Transfer to a 2-gallon soup pot. Place roasting pan across two burners over medium-high heat. Add 1 quart water and bring to a boil, scraping up browned bits on bottom of pan with a spatula. Pour into soup pot with bones. Add 6 more quarts cold water, the garlic and onion. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 1 hour, skimming off foam that rises to surface.
Add sake, salt, dashi, chicken broth and sugar. Simmer for 2 more hours or until liquid is reduced by half. Remove pork bones with a slotted spoon and discard. Pour broth through a mesh strainer. You should have about 2 quarts. Stir in soy sauce. Ladle out about 2 cups of broth and whisk in miso until dissolved. Stir back into soup. Add sesame oil, chili oil and butter and simmer while noodles cook.
Toppings: Cook noodles in plenty of boiling water until al dente, which should take just two or three minutes.
While noodles cook, melt butter in a medium skillet and sauté pork slices just until they are warmed through and begin to brown.
Drain noodles and divide among three or four large, deep bowls (they should hold at least a quart). Place pork slices on top of noodles and arrange other toppings in mounds around pork. Ladle enough broth into each bowl to cover all ingredients. Makes 3 to 4 servings.
Things I miss about Japan:
- Crazy sidewalk vending machines that dispense beer, heated coffee in a can, and even hot french fries.
- Umi -- Dried, salted apricot-like plums that I like to snack on but that are usually served with rice.
- Bento boxes of food arranged as gorgeously as fine chocolates.
- Candy made from white chocolate and corn.
- Candied potato sticks.
- The fabulous Sapporo fish market, an open-air collection of stalls where vendors display dessert-plate-sized scallops in the shell, giant octopus tentacles, speckled and succulent-looking hairy crabs, live king crabs swimming in tanks, whelks in the shell, salmon caviar still in their membrane sacs, whole salmon, and many other types of fish and shellfish I’d never seen before.
- And finally, heated toilet seats that have a panel of buttons for everything from music to cleansing water sprays. The Japanese are waaay ahead of us in this area.
Columbus ice cream maven Jeni Britton Bauer is among this year’s James Beard Award nominees. Her book, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home, is one of three nominees in cookbook awards’ Baking and Desserts category. The newest from Michael Ruhlman of Cleveland, Ruhlman’s Twenty, earned a nomination in the General Cooking category. I can’t wait to get my hands on both of these books. The complete list of nominees, which serves as a great guide for cookbook buying, is at http://jamesbeard.org/sites/default/files/static/additional/2012-jbf-nominees.pdf ,
While you’re there, scroll down to the journalism awards. Nominated in the category I always zero in on, personal food blogs, are: Gwen Pratesi for www.Bunkycooks.com;
Aran Goyoaga for www.cannellevanille.com; and Elissa Altman for www.poormansfeast.com. Check ‘em out.
It’s time to buy radish seeds, and time to ponder once again the mystery of French Breakfast Radishes. I know you’re curious whether the French actually eat these stubby pink icicles for breakfast, because at least once a year someone asks me. I know they’re eaten with butter and salt, but at breakfast? I wondered, too.
Cookbook author David Lebovitz, an American transplant living the sweet live in Paris, addressed the issue in his blog (www.davidlebovitz.com) last week. He wrote:
“It’s always curious to me, when I see “French breakfast radishes” in the states. I know that’s the name for them, according to seed packets and so forth. Or perhaps it’s just in my particular circles. But I’ve never seen anyone offer – or even eat – French ‘breakfast’ radishes for breakfast in France.”
So no, they’re not eaten for breakfast. Pity. It seemed so exotic.
Something is wrong with the baking time in your brioche recipe. Please revise.
Dear Georgene: Thanks for bringing the error to my attention. In the brioche recipe that ran in my April 4 newsletter, the individual loaves should be baked for 15 minutes, not five.
From Wendy Lewis:
Jane, If you're still on the topic of Kale, this is a way I like to use it:
KALE AND CHEDDAR MASHED POTATOES
- 5 cups stemmed and chopped kale
- 2 1/2 lbs. potatoes in 1-inch cubes with peel on, 2-inch without peel
- 1 cup grated sharp Cheddar
Simmer potatoes in water in a large pot for 15-20 minutes, or until tender; stir in kale. Cook until kale is wilted, 2-3 minutes. Take off heat and drain.
- 1 cup milk, more or less based on type of potato
Add butter, cheese, and milk; crush with a potato masher until combined but still lumpy. Season with salt and pepper (fresh dill? lemon thyme?) to taste.
Dear Wendy: This recipe is like that “0 carbs” theory. The nutrition in the kale cancels out the bad stuff in the butter and cheese, right? As far as I’m concerned, the more kale recipes, the better. Thanks!
My mom brought back the best snack from Japan when she travelled there in the 80s or 90s. It was a tall container, fancifully decorated to look like a child, and the treat it held was delicious. It was dried green peas with a sugar coating, similar to the wasabi peas you see here but it tasted so good! It was a treat I didn't feel bad about giving my children. I have looked in every Asian food store I have been in and have never seen them. If you happen to find a source, I would love to know.
Also, speaking of my mother, she had a cast iron griddle we used for pancakes, grilled cheese sandwiches and burgers. We washed ours in hot soapy water, only actually running the dish sponge over the top surface. Then we dried it immediately, but by blotting it with the dish towel instead of rubbing it. That kept the black off the dishcloth.
I never remember her having to reseason it even once. It was always perfect!
Dear Pennie: I didn’t see candied edamame (green soybeans) when I was in Japan, although I found a recipe on SparkRecipes that you could try (http://recipes.sparkpeople.com/recipe-detail.asp?recipe=1839808). Could you be thinking of green tea candies? Those are everywhere, and they’re one of my mother-in-law’s favorites. They are about the size of gum balls and covered in a powdery sugar coating. They aren’t hard sugar candies – the texture is more like a malted milk ball. I haven’t seen them in stores here, and couldn’t find them on the Internet. Sorry.