Reading Ramen

Patrick, Lakewood Library

Like a lot of people, my love affair with Ramen began when I started living in a dorm. Hot pots were the appliance of choice, the work horses of our shared kitchen and a guarantee of something salty and caloric within minutes. My gateway noodle was pretty standard: Maruchan ramen, chicken flavor. But soon I was running with some serious instant ramen connoisseurs. I eventually moved on to everything from kim chi ramen to miso ramen to the unknown pleasures of chili oil and freeze-dried beef packets. I consumed a lifetime's worth of sodium in four years, but I was in paradise. 

I became aware of ramen as a rich and complex culinary tradition much later in life, but after my first bowl of chashu ramen with hand-pulled noodles, I was hooked. I've become as obsessed with the methods as I am with the food, and I've been hitting the books trying to create the perfect bowl in my own kitchen. 

There is no shortage of ramen-related cookbooks out there. In the past year or two, the market seems to have become saturated. At one end of the spectrum is David Chang, whose Momofuku is probably in the vanguard of haute cuisine's take on Japanese street food. Chang is a fascinating personality, and a brilliant chef, but for a home cook, I found that a lot of his recipes bordered on absurdity. I felt like the poor woman in the movie Tampopo, getting things wrong over and over again with catastrophic results. I like Chang better in his role on Mind of a Chef. His digressions into different variations and techniques (an entire episode is devoted to the egg) are a source of endless inspiration.

One of Chang's guests on Mind of a Chef was Ivan Orkin, an American chef in Tokyo who uses an aromatic, high-protein flour blend for his noodles and a fatty, chicken-based broth for the soup. His new book Ivan Ramen is written in painstaking detail, but home cooks are very much the intended audience. 

So far, I've actually gotten some of the best results from Tadashi Ono's and Harris Salat's Japanese Soul Cooking. Their recipes are simple, but they are easy to play with once you've got the basics down and they yield big, intense flavors.    

And what about the noodles, the most important part for many Ramen fans? Orkin definitely wins points for providing a clear chemical explanation for his alkaline noodle dough. He came to his recipe empirically and walks through things so that you could probably repeat the recipe without the book the second or third time. Tadashi and Ono just recommend finding good fresh-frozen noodles to build around. My kitchen recently became gluten-free so I'm still trying to crack the code with some different flour blends. I've found some brown rice ramen noodles that make a good vehicle and in a pinch a great soup base can dress up a packet of instant noodles pretty nicely.