"Life without ramen is sad and incomplete" Ramen is Life
Back to food today - and back to Coles Magazine, which, this month had a recipe for the above Cheat's ramen. Ramen has been on my 'to write about sometime' list for some considerable time now, so when this particular version came up the topic moved up my list. And here I go, with, as usual, the conclusion that I really know nothing about what the majority of the world is eating these days. Still it's actually quite an interesting story.
I started out half aware that ramen was a big thing. It cropped up in newsletters and magazines, on a regular basis, though not so much in my recipe books it seems. Tetsuya, for example, does not mention them in his book - which sits way up on my top shelf supremely beautiful but never used. I confess I thought that ramen were just a kind of noodle, which they sort of are, but, it seems, they are so much more than that. 'Life itself' to the Japanese some claim.
But here's the thing - it's not really Japanese. It's a mix of Chinese and, would you believe, American. According to Wikipedia in the late nineteenth century, early 20th, Chinese labourers emigrated to Japan, bringing with them their wheat noodles, served in a broth topped with Chinese roast pork. Yokohama in particular became the centre where the Chinese sold their ramen to their compatriots on wheeled trolleys in the streets. Jump to the American occupation of Japan after WW2 and a rice famine, which the Americans helped to alleviate by importing wheat. But distribution was inefficient, and so a black market sprang up resulting in many street stalls - forbidden during the occupation - selling wheat noodles. The stalls were mostly under the control of the infamous Yakuza - presumably until the Americans allowed street food again in the 1950s. At the same time as this Japanese soldiers were returning from China where they had eaten wheat noodles. Then in 1958 Momofuko Ando invented instant noodles and the rest is history. Well they say it is the 80s which really saw the boom. Today there is even a one Michelin star ramen restaurant in Tokyo.
Here in Australia we seem to be relatively loyal to Pho, - Laksa in the NT - but elsewhere ramen has either already overtaken it, or is creeping up. Neck and neck in Melbourne I believe. The Guardian Australia produced this interesting graph to show the trend over the last decade. Interestingly it almost looks as if the popularity of all of them except Laksa has peaked.
So what is ramen? Well you can do a whole lot worse than checking out the page at Japan-guide.com which will tell you more or less everything. But I'll try to summarise - there are three components to ramen the dish. The first is the broth which most aficionados will tell you is the most important thing - so the Coles version is truly a cheat's version because it uses Coles chicken stock.
"the broth is incredibly important … more important than the actual noodles. You can buy perfectly decent noodles in a shop, but finding a broth that beats one slowly simmered away at home is impossible” Tove Nilsson
Donna Hay gives the Ramen stock a good hot go but if you want to go truly authentic then you should probably try J. Kenji López-Alt's version on the Serious Eats website where the broth is part of his recipe for Miso Ramen With Crispy Pork and Burnt Garlic-Sesame Oil. It takes soemthing like 8 hours to make! Felicity Cloake is not quite as dedicated but almost, as she strives to make the perfect Miso ramen.
The miso is one of the four flavour boosters (tare) used in the making of the broth. There is also shoyu - soy sauce; Shio - salt; and tonkotsu - pork bones, which the majority will say is the ultimate broth. Or you can do like Coles and just buy some stock in a carton. An interesting aside here - for their Cheat's recipe they just suggest using their home-brand chicken stock, when, in fact they also make a home-brand 'Japanese Inspired Chicken Ramen Liquid Stock'. Now why didn't they push that?
The next component is the noodles themselves, which as I said are made of wheat, and are generally thicker and chewier than other Japanese noodles. Again to be truly authentic they should be hand-pulled, rather than extruded through a machine. I'm guessing it takes a bit of skill to do this. And then, of course, there are the instant ramen noodles that you can buy in your local supermarket.
Why not use spaghetti one wonders? Well different flour - a soft flour as opposed to the durum wheat used for spaghetti and an alkaline substance called Kansui is added to increase the springiness of ramen.
Then finally there are the toppings - which it seems to me is a completely open thing. Slices of meat seem to be popular as do hard boiled eggs, but otherwise anything goes.
“There are no boundaries for ramen, no rules. It’s all freestyle.” Toshiyuki Kamimura - Ramen blogger
The final dictum is that they must be eaten hot - very hot - you slurp them to get cooler air into them so that you don't burn your mouth. You'd have to be a fast eater I reckon because virtually all the bowls that I saw on the net were pretty large, so by the time you get to the bottom they surely can no longer be hot.
"those chewy noodles and a litany of toppings and textures make for one helluva fun dish to eat." delicious
Fun if you don't burn yourself that is or slop it all over your clothes. But then I guess slurping is vaguely naughty and therefore fun.
There are masses of recipes out there which cover just about every taste. This one is from Donna Hay - a thoroughly trendy recipe writer - which she calls Miso butter ramen with fried chicken. I was actually quite surprised to see that The Great Australian Cookbook did not have an example and neither did Bill Granger's latest - Australian Food, but obviously it's now mainstream or it wouldn't be in the Coles Magazine and they would not be making home-made ramen broth. They all mostly look pretty, but somehow difficult to eat to me. Well I'm not very good with chopsticks, and how do you get the broth? Or dis that what you slurp from the side of the bowl as you fish out the goodies with your chopsticks?
And, this being the 21st century people mess with it. The most outlandish examples I found were Matt Preston's detox ramen which actually contained no noodles. The there's a whole different genre of ramen called Hiyashi Chuka - which are cold, nay chilled, ramen noodles served with an array of raw vegetables and meat on top and no broth - so not really the same thing at all:
"Enter: Hiyashi Chuka, aka. your summer Japanese noodle fix. Part way between a salad and a noodle dish, it’s pretty much everything you love about ramen, only geared up for the hotter months. Those chewy noodles are still the star of the show, but they’re chilled and topped with a party of cool textures and colours, ready to be mixed in and slurped down … only without the hot broth" delicious
Then there's ice-cream ramen - which is not ramen at all - strands made with some kind of algae, and beer ramen - a 'fun' dish served in a restaurant near here in Box Hill, which presents ramen noodles in a broth in a beer mug with frothy egg whites on top. Ugh - well to me, but I guess they fit into this comment.
"ramen represents a less intimidating, less exotic Japan, one dominated by bright lights, bold flavours and the electric pulse of youth-driven pop culture." Matt Goulding - Rice Noodle Fish
Which is a far cry from the rave comments you get from various highly respected food writers"
"Less a fast food than a national obsession, ramen inspires levels of devotion in its millions of fans that can seem puzzling to anyone who has never had the – considerable – pleasure. Yet one ridiculously rich, intensely savoury and scalding slurp is enough to explain why this simple noodle soup is fast becoming a global cult." Felicity Cloake
It's obviously a national obsession though in Japan, which is strange considering it's relatively modern and of foreign origin. The blogger I quoted above is just one of hundreds. People find enough to say on one dish to write a regular post on the subject. Such is the glory of the internet.
"Ramen, despite its reputation as a cheap fast food, is a complex pillar of modern Japanese society, one loaded with political, cultural and culinary importance that stretches far beyond the circumference of the bowl." Matt Goulding - Rice Noodle Fish