When fresh noodles meet hot broth, some sort of strange alchemy occurs. It’s easy to understand the allure of ramen, and yet mysteries still abound, lurking at the bottom of each steaming bowl, compelling slurp after slurp as if the secret might be hiding in that very last spoonful. How on earth can such simple, humble ingredients meld together into something so sublime? Where exactly do those immense, throat-gripping savory flavors come from? Which came first; the pasta or the soup?
I paid a visit to my friend and accomplished chef Philip Gelb in hopes of answering these questions and gaining some insight on the way of the noodle. The promise of ending up with a taste of fresh, handmade ramen may or may not have been the primary excuse for attending his often sold out class. Either way, I got much more than I signed up for, which is the essential wisdom behind this dish.
It turns out that like most foods, there is no magic going on behind the scenes. Rather, the foundation is built upon quality ingredients that are treated with respect, prepared with the utmost care to coax out their full potential. The richest, most umami-infused broth you’ve ever splashed across your palate contains a minimal number of components, but is slowly simmered for a number of hours, allowing the water to reduce while the latent flavors to naturally emerge and intensify.
Ramen masters jealously guard the formulas to their patented brews, but even the die-hard fanatics rarely make their own noodles. Without means of mass production, the temptation to cut corners by sourcing acceptable starchy options is understandable, and indeed Sun Noodle provides very good ramen noodles for approximately 90% of the trendiest shops around the US. No, that’s not an overstatement, but the honest truth. Few other manufacturers have mastered the art form quite like the Hawaii-based company, eliminating a huge amount of labor for innovative restaurateurs nationwide. No matter how good this high standard may be, still nothing compares to the delicacy of a fresh ramen noodle made by your own two hands- And perhaps a pasta roller if you can afford the luxury.
Chewy, soft, and bouncy in all the right ways, the ramen noodle gets its great acclaim from its inimitable texture. Though traditionally imparted by kansui, a solution of potassium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate that serves to toughen wheat proteins and create the signature mouth-feel for these distinctive strands, a more accessible alternative can be found right inside your kitchen cabinet. Philip smartly induces the same sort of chemical reaction in standard baking soda by burning it in the oven. Aromatic in a less than pleasant way, he recommends doing this step in bulk so that you only need to suffer the fumes once. You may question your sanity as the stench rises in growing waves, but you must persevere through the pain! The rewards on the other side of this acrid wall are great. The difference between alkaline noodles and plain old spaghetti are like night and day.
Toppings are another discussion entirely, but my impression is that pretty much anything goes. Consider it the pizza of noodle soups; strong opinions about what is “right” and what is “wrong” are prevalent among purists, but if it tastes good, there’s no reason not to indulge. For this demonstration, key additions include deeply savory shiitake mushrooms, fried tofu, spicy pickled bean sprouts, and roasted cabbage. Crazy as it may sound, a whole head of cabbage is simply rubbed with olive oil and tossed in a slow oven for two hours, yielding an impossibly buttery and dare I say meaty morsel that very well could steal the show in a lesser bowl of soup.
The beauty of this combination, though, is the perfect balance of ingredients. Each addition is a strong player in its own right, capable of standing up to competing flavors without drowning each other out. While some continue to argue about whether it’s the noodles or the broth that makes the bowl, the real secret is that it’s neither. It’s the bigger picture of the dish altogether that makes ramen so great, and anyone focusing on just one piece of the puzzle is bound to be disappointed. Sure, it’s quite a bit more work than tossing a quick-cooking block of instant ramen on the stove, but every eater owes it to themselves to try the real deal at least once. You will never regret the time spent when you consider the true satisfaction gained by fabricating each and every facet by hand.
*Burnt baking soda is needed to alkalize the dough. Place approximately 1 cup baking soda on a sheet pan and bake at 250 F for 1 hour. Store in an airtight container for a few months. *For spicy sprouts, use hot chili oil instead of plain sesame.
Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 264 Total Fat: 1g Saturated Fat: 0g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 0g Cholesterol: 0mg Sodium: 425mg Carbohydrates: 54g Fiber: 2g Sugar: 0g Protein: 9g
Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 483 Total Fat: 15g Saturated Fat: 3g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 10g Cholesterol: 35mg Sodium: 4521mg Carbohydrates: 65g Fiber: 13g Sugar: 14g Protein: 30g
*Burnt baking soda is needed to alkalize the dough. Place approximately 1 cup baking soda on a sheet pan and bake at 250 F for 1 hour. Store in an airtight container for a few months.
*For spicy sprouts, use hot chili oil instead of plain sesame.