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.
By Chef Philip Gelb
1 Cup Semolina Flour
1 Cup White Flour
1/2 Teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Burnt Baking Soda*
3/4 Cup Water
*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.
Mix both flours, salt and burnt baking soda. Add water and stir well. Knead by hand for 20 minutes or until very smooth and pliable. Wrap tightly and refrigerate overnight. Bring dough to room temperature and knead again for 10 minutes. Wrap tightly and let rest 1 hour. Roll out noodles to desired thickness and cut into thin strands.
When ready to eat, drop noodles in rapidly boiling water for about 1 minute or till desired texture. Serve immediately.
Makes 4 Servings
Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
Place all ingredients in water to cover, add heat, bring to simmer, lower heat, cover, simmer for 2 hours. Drain all solid parts out.
Optionally, roast some or all the vegetables first for a darker, richer flavor.
Experiment by adding other vegetables such as cilantro, pumpkin, sweet potato, celery root, parsnip, lemongrass, and so forth as desired.
Combine all ingredients, bring to simmer and cook 5 minutes to burn off some of the harsh notes of the alcohol. Balance with more shoyu or mirin if needed, to taste.
Makes 7 Servings
1 Whole Head Green Cabbage
Rub cabbage generously with olive oil and wrap tightly with aluminum foil. Roast at 350 for 2 hours. Let cool completely before slicing thinly.
Quick Pickled Sprouts
1 Pound Mung Bean or Soybean Sprouts
2 Quarts Boiling Water with 1/8 Teaspoon Baking Soda Added
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
3 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil (FOR SPICY SPROUTS add hot chili oil instead)
Plunge sprouts into boiling water. Immediately remove and rinse well under cold water. Place blanched sprouts in a bowl and add vinegar, soy sauce, and oil. Toss to coat.
6 – 8 Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
1 Cup Kombu Stock
1 1/2 Tablespoons Granulated Sugar
2 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
Bring water to boil with sugar and soy sauce. Add shiitake and cook over medium-low heat until the liquid evaporates.
Slice each mushroom into several sections. Use one mushroom per bowl of soup.
1 Pound Firm Tofu, Drained
Oil for frying
Cut tofu into 1/4-inch wide strips and pat dry. Deep fry tofu till crisp.