Hello Dear Reader! Normally People Eating Together posts at Late to the Theater discuss that age old tradition of cannibalism, but today we’re going to discuss cooking. RAMEN cooking, to be precise! So grab a snack or a drink and settle in for a long, rambling ramen-ing kind of time as a novice takes on a classic of Japanese cookery. Note: this recipe is an amalgam of methods taught by Adam Liaw and Joshua Weissman. Please watch their videos to learn properly! Also, I’m not being paid by anyone to write this post. All opinions expressed are my own.
The main body of this entry will be my personal experience making my first ramen; should you want to skip that, the recipe appears down at the bottom under INSTRUCTIONS. Keep in mind I am a beginner and am probably giving all kinds of advice that is against the rules. Live and learn.
NOTE: The components of ramen are not in themselves difficult, depending on what kind of ramen you are making, but production requires a LOT of planning, organization, and good time management. You’ll also need a stock pot, a Dutch oven or large cast iron pot with a lid, and another pot for boiling various things like noodles and eggs. AND a big pot to strain the broth into, once it’s done.
Ramblin’ About Ramen
Ramen is a Japanese dish comprised of wheat noodles in broth, usually accompanied by meat or vegetables. It’s a traditional dish that can be prepared many different ways, depending on its Japanese regional origin or ingredients, including vegan. Tonkotsu refers to the pork bones that are boiled for hours (and hours and hours and hours) to make up the broth. Any old bones won’t do – they must be either backbones, hocks, or preferably trotters, also called pig feet.
About ten years ago, I saw the movie The Ramen Girl with Brittany Murphy. It was one of the last films she completed before her death, and so one could be forgiven for giving a pass to a movie about a white woman finding herself in Japan after a failed relationship by becoming a ramen chef. Abby (Murphy) has followed her wishy-washy boyfriend whateverhisnamewas to Japan. He dumps her and she finds herself adrift in an unfamiliar culture, and realizes she doesn’t have much identity outside her relationships. One night she tries a bowl of comforting ramen and falls madly in love with the soup, insisting the chef teach her.
Maezumi the chef is a tired, grouchy man whose only son left Japan to learn Cordon Bleu cooking in France, a point of bitter contention between them. Abby finally wears Maezumi down and he begins teaching her, but the process isn’t swift or easy, and he is short-tempered at the lazy, entitled American. Abby struggles but eventually overcomes, tears are shed, a hot local guy falls for her, she opens her own shop in America, roll credits. The idea of a woman finding herself through hard work against a Japanese backdrop was a refreshing change from the usual rom-com pap. The production was a joint American/Japanese effort and the film felt full of observations from both side of a conversation.
Bored during quarantine, I found the movie on Hulu, enjoyed it, and decided to explore this new culinary world. Of course I’m not some fool who thinks they’ve discovered ramen and needs to tell the world about it – I was just curious if I could do it or not, and documented the process.
Eenie Meenie Miney Moe…
First, I tried a bowl of black tonkotsu ramen from Domu at East End Market. Theirs is AMAZING and if you live in Orlando I recommend you try it. I had it about four times, now. I bought an 8-quart Le Creuset stock pot during the Sur La Table sale. I visited Eastside Asian Market (it was closer than Dong A, which is clear across town). Then, I began cruising the Publix meat department for any sign of pigs’ feet. One magical day last week, it happened. Bless Orlando for having such a large and diverse community that pigs’ feet are usually available at most places, for cheap! And bless the meat department for never batting an eye at any of the weird shit I’ve asked them about.
Adam Liaw recommended soaking the feet overnight in water order to draw out some of the blood and marrow. This, I did, finally getting to break in my new pot.
Before you do anything, BE SURE that you have dish soap that can cut through serious grease. My Mrs. Meyers could barely handle the larded pots at wash time, so I had to break out the heavy duty Dawn that I keep on hand for household tasks. And that still took some serious elbow grease to get them clean and smooth again.
I got up early on a Saturday, made breakfast, and looked over my notes from the videos. Joshua Weissman recommended a twelve-hour boil, but Adam Liaw recommended eight, so I compromised with ten. Next time I’ll do eight.
While the pot boiled, I did laundry and chores, then watched movies and knitted. I watched Ratatouille and The Addams Family. As far as the latter– Now that Taika Waititi’s gotten some Oscar noms and made the big Marvel Movies I’m sure we’d all appreciate if he got busy doing the real work he’s on this planet to do: make an updated live-action Addams Family movie.
*Note: at this point in the process I mostly followed Joshua Weissman’s methods, because they seemed easier and more novice-friendly. I’ll be trying more of Adam Niaw’s recipes and methods when I am feeling more confident.
Chashu is braised pork belly. My friends, it is important. Pork belly is a squarish sheet of pig underside, rolled up and tied. You braise it with some flavoring, then take it out and slice it into rounds that go into the bowl.
Unfortunately the only pork belly on display had already been cut into rounds and since I’d already bothered the meat department for feet, I just bought the cut ones. I tied mine up as best I could, but one string around the chashu didn’t do a damn bit of good keeping it together. This wasn’t so bad, as the chashu came out G R E A T anyway. It held together just enough to get it from the bowl into the mouth, where it thence melted onto the tongue.
Joshua Weissman recommended three to four hours cooking time. I did four, but I think next time I’ll do three.
I started the chashu about four hours before the broth would be done. It could easily finish before then, but you will need some of the braising liquid to make the tare.
Once you start the chashu, your house will start to get that great food smell that suddenly reminds neighbors to come see how you’ve been. The aroma will hit you after you’ve gotten out of the shower or stepped outside to take out the trash, and you’ll congratulate yourself for trying something new. Drool will make an appearance, as will pets and curious family members.
The great thing about ramen is how versatile it is. I have a big bowl of jiggly broth in my fridge that I can freeze, then heat up and have ramen anytime I want. Since I have a lot of stored broth, I can make the chashu and the tare in half the time. Or! I could skip the chashu and tare and add something else to the ramen, like eggs and mushrooms and onions and noodles.
After the chashu is in the oven, begin preparing some of your toppings. Cook your noodles, boil and cool your eggs, and if you want to be SUPER fancy saute some bamboo shoots or green onion to include in the bowl. Be sure to use an oil like vegetable or avocado, one that doesn’t impart a lot of flavor to whatever it’s cooking. Or you could steam some vegetables like broccoli.
I used reconstituted shiitake mushrooms, which I haven’t used in years, and then realized WHY I haven’t used reconstituted shiitake mushrooms in years – they are slimy and have a vaguely creepy texture. I might skip this part in future efforts, although mushroom water is part of the tare. My heart can go on without mushroom water. The next night I sliced the mushrooms and sauteed them in a bit of avocado oil before adding them to my bowl. They were much better that way.
For the eggs’ ice bath I had to use trays to make ice a few hours beforehand, because my cheap rental refrigerator doesn’t have an ice maker.
Tare is a rich brown sauce composed of several different liquid and solid ingredients, and it provides the salty, umami flavor to ramen.
Once you start the tare, you’ll feel like a goddamn warlock. You’ll add the braising liquid and the mushroom water (or not), swirl it, add some salt, and resist the urge to laugh maniacally. There’s no going back now. You’re on your way!
While stirring my pot regularly and let’s be honest, obsessively, I was amazed to find the contents had turned over time into a silky, glistening broth like golden hot milk. Straight up witchcraft. It didn’t have much of a smell, but when tasted, the brain told the arms ‘pick that up and drink it like the gods intended.’ And I knew I had done well.
I was so excited about the broth I forgot that I had nothing big enough to strain it into that could take heat, so I had to break out the ceramic liner from my slow-cooker. There was also barely any counter space by this point, so it’s a miracle I didn’t wind up in the ER Saturday night with hot soup burns. Live and learn, and buy more big pots.
Now it was go time – time to see what almost 24 hours of labor (including soaking the night before) had made. Would my soup baby be a delicious umami angel, or a revolting demon that tasted of sweaty, burnt feet?
I poured out a measure of broth, added noodles, some tare, two egg halves, green onions and chashu pieces.
…and immediately called Achariya to check if her family had suffered a food-related mishap and were in dire need of a good, homemade meal. Because something that good needed to be shared. There have been so many disasters and so much uncertainty this year, it only seemed right to share a victory, however small. And also I had about 6 quarts of broth left.
She agreed to come over the next night. They literally drove through a badass rainstorm (in a bit of weird kismet, their power had gone out just as they were leaving to come to my place) for the visit. Once they ate, the whole family raved. I had an immense proud.
When serving, I left everything out and prepared ahead of time so people could assemble their bowls how they liked. None of them were novices and all have particular tastes. If I make ramen for my family I might do the same, with a bit of guidance. Or maybe combine the broth, tare, noodles and egg and leave the other things out for them to add as they like.
Today I had more leftovers, and added sriracha and red chili flakes. REVELATION. I’ll have leftovers one more night (then the chashu will all be gone) and then freeze the rest of the broth.
So that was my Tonkotsu Ramen experiment! I thoroughly enjoyed making it and look forward to learning more about this cooking tradition, and of course trying many new things in years to come. Thank you for reading. If you live locally, maybe we can all get together in the post-Rona world and have a tasty ramen night!
As promised, here are the instructions with notes and advice.
If you do try this recipe, please let me know how it turned out!
|3lbs bony pig pieces (trotters, neckbones)
1 bunch green onions, cut into 2-inch segments
2 shallots, peeled and quartered
|1 yellow onion, quartered
4 cloves garlic, peeled
2 3-inch pieces peeled ginger, sliced
The beautiful thing about the broth is how well it freezes. It solidifies into a big beige jiggle ball, and then melts beautifully back into a silky broth when heated and stirred over medium-low. Then all you have to do is make the chashu and tare, or put together some other toppings.
The downside is that you can’t just throw everything in a stock pot and leave it for hours. Or maybe you can. I wouldn’t risk it. I kind of enjoyed checking in on it every half hour or so.
|2 lb fresh pork belly, skin on
1 bunch green onions cut into 2-inch lengths
Ginger bulb, 2-3 inches, peeled and sliced
5 cloves garlic
|1 cup sake
¾ cup mirin
½ cup +2 TB tamari
¾ cup water
*NOTE: When you take the chashu out, reserve 1/3 cup of the braising liquid. You’ll use this in your tare. Do not refrigerate though, or the pork fat in the liquid will solidify.
|Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
Bowl for ice bath to hold 3 eggs
|3 2-inch pieces of dashi kombu
¾ cup water
Bonito flakes (bag)
¾ cup Soy sauce
¼ cup + 2 TB Mirin
|¼ cup Chashu braising liquid
¼ Mushroom water (from reconstituted shiitake mushrooms)
|Cooked ramen noodles
Chashu, sliced into rounds
Soft boiled eggs, peeled and sliced in halves
|Sliced green onions
Reconstituted shiitake mushrooms