Appetizer. Hirata pork buns.
Feast. Shiromaru Hakata classic tonkotsu (pork) soup noodles topped with pork loin chashu, sesame kikurage mushrooms, memma, red pickled ginger and scallions. Added Kakuni (braised pork belly).
Ramen has been around for quite some time, but my first exposure to the full experience of eating fresh, real ramen was in college. Prior to that, it was all about the cup noodles in the Styrofoam cups and bowls (sadly, I didn’t eat that stuff as survival food in college…I was a cereal kind of man). Regardless, my childhood was filled with oh-so-delicious dried ramen, which was probably cancerous, and greatly contributed to my former chunky years.
The ramen “revolution” came on as a rather quiet uptick. The entire experience was not just about the food, but about the people (humble), the struggle behind the noodle (lots), to the way that ramen is consumed (slurped loudly). It’s interesting to see how exactly the whole thing blew up. I want to say it’s not because people actually knew or read about ramen history, but because of the way that ramen culture perpetuates friendships and connection; the nature of the experience (loud slurping, greasy splattering, warm-emulsified broth, chewy noodles, amazing taste, homey-feeling) enhances the positivity in the people that one is currently with.
I’m not a ramen expert, so poking around some notable resources such as America’s Test Kitchen uncovered an interview with Ivan Orkin, creator of the Ivan Ramen restaurants.
“His talk traced ramen from its origins, as a distinctly Chinese soup that arrived in Japan with Chinese tradesmen in the nineteenth century, through the American occupation after the war, to the proliferation of instant ramen in Japan in the seventies; the national frenzy in the eighties and nineties that gave birth to ramen celebrities, ramen museums, and ramen video games; and, finally, America’s embrace of ramen and Japanese culture today, as exhibited by the cult-like craze surrounding the sixteen-dollar bowls of ramen.”
Nice. That was one sentence. And what are ramen video games?
Anyhow, this was my first visit to New York’s Ippudo, where some of the best ramen was apparently to be had. Fast-forward. The second time I dined at Ippudo was with my sister when she briefly visited New York. We literally stumbled (quite literally) into Ippudo right when it opened, and were seated immediately. The third time, I was shooting the shit with Ames (former friend made girlfriend) when we arrived for some ramen. They told us the wait was for two and a half hours (they had only been open for half an hour). We laughed, trekked to another ramen house (Minca), and essentially waited the same amount of time to be seated (all the while going through the five stages of denial, anger, and regret).
What’s so special about ramen anyway? The noodle is slightly yellow, it’s a bit chewy but not soggy, and it seems to always curl without the help of an iron. What’s up with that? As a kid, I thought they added eggs to ramen noodles (I think I got that confused with a Cantonese-style noodle).
According to a short interview at Sun Noodles in New Jersey, the four main ingredients to a ramen noodle are wheat flour, salt, water, and kansui, an alkaline (opposite of acidic) substance (sodium and/or potassium carbonate) that gives the ramen noodles that special texture; it increases their cooking time and water absorption. Alkalinity specifically interferes with the action of enzymes in the flour and inhibit the development of gluten, which allows the dough to be stretched more easily and contributes to a more springy texture. More reading here.
The dry ingredients, in the right proportion of course, are mixed with water; the water is actually sprayed as a mist into the dry mixture. The goal of this is to make sure that every molecule of flour, salt, and kansui has had the opportunity to mate with a water molecule. This provides extremely non-physical homogeneous mixing. After the dough has been formed, one must press it at a precise pressure and rest it so that the gluten protein structure can form and persist, adding that chewy texture.
The process isn’t as simple as you may think it is. To the amateur baker such as myself, the creation of starchy things where “dry” and “wet” ingredients go together are one of my own weaknesses, as I’m much more of a throw n’ go kind of cooker (pinch of something here and there, adjust here and there- practically none of the things I make are classically reproducible). In baking, and perhaps pasta and noodle making, there still is some of that adjustment, it just happens longitudinally. Many successful and failed batches of baked goods, pastas, and noodles will be had until one understands the true method of obtaining that perfect combination. Ideally, after one has tested all this stuff is when one invests in some machinery and starts pumping out noodles like a boss. It doesn’t stop there. The combinations are endless. Even with four ingredients, and several intermediate steps to making ramen, the combinations are endless. For example, all one has to do is switch up the type of flour and everything is thrown back on the drawing table again.