Less a fast food than a national obsession, ramen inspires levels of devotion in its millions of fans that can seem puzzling to anyone who has never had the – considerable – pleasure. Yet one ridiculously rich, intensely savoury and scalding slurp is enough to explain why this simple noodle soup is fast becoming a global cult. Though it is not a dish with a long and distinguished pedigree (it was introduced to Japan by Chinese tradesmen in the 19th century, helped by imports of US wheat during the postwar years and then sent stratospheric by the invention of the instant noodle in the late 1950s), ramen has, it is claimed “come to define Japanese food culture in the 21st century”.
Though there are many different styles, the essential components of ramen remain constant: the broth (generally, though not always, rich and meaty); the tare, or seasoning, which defines that particular variety of ramen; the noodles (bouncy and chewy, rather than soft and yielding) and finally the toppings, a land of infinite and delicious possibility, though more often than not involving slow-cooked pork, spring onion and marinated eggs. Though it would take a lifetime to address all possible variations, this miso ramen, from chilly northern Hokkaido, is my own favourite – a pure umami bomb which takes this reliably satisfying dish to a whole new level of deliciousness.
Tove Nilsson, a Swedish chef, food writer and self-confessed “ramen addict”, writes in her new book Ramen that “the broth is incredibly important … more important than the actual noodles. You can buy perfectly decent noodles in a shop, but finding a broth that beats one slowly simmered away at home is impossible”. Comforting news to someone who has just spent 48 hours of their life boiling up bones in the hope of achieving noodle nirvana.
Serious Eats managing culinary director J Kenji López-Alt also believes there “are no shortcuts to quality”, boiling up pigs’ trotters and chicken bones for nine hours until the broth is “opaque with the texture of light cream”. Ross Shonhan and Tom Moxon’s Bone Daddies recipe book, which promises to reveal the secrets of the London ramen restaurant of the same name, starts with a chicken stock made from roasted wings and thighs cooked for 8-10 hours, until the dog goes half crazy with lust.
Not everyone is convinced: Ivan Orkin, “a middle-aged Jewish guy from Long Island” who achieved the apparently impossible, and ran a successful ramen restaurant in Tokyo for nearly a decade before returning to the US, simmers pork neck bones and mince in chicken broth until rich and thick. MiMi Aye’s book Noodle suggests starting with good-quality chicken stock, as does Mandy Lee of the blog Lady & Pups, who recommends using the homemade variety because “if your stock already has a prominent saltiness to it, you’ll have to reduce the amount of spicy miso paste to accommodate, which will reduce the miso-flavour in your soup”.
Acknowledging the impractical time commitment of spending “24 hours babysitting a pot of stock to milky-death” for a proper bowl of Japanese ramen, Lee offers “a way to fake a bowl of noodle that looks and smells (and perhaps even tastes) like a proper bowl of ramen in a fraction of the time. This way out … is called soy milk.” I cannot recommend this tip highly enough if you are after a decent bowl of ramen but don’t have an entire day to make it. The milk mimics the creamy richness of a slow-simmered stock sufficiently to be satisfying, though it does inevitably lack the depth of flavour of those I have lovingly tended for hours on end.
However, at some point, I think, there has to be a compromise between authenticity and practicality: a recipe that is realistic for when those ramen cravings hit, rather than one that demands an entire day, as well as one’s bank sort code and first-born child. If that is the kind of commitment you are after, then I’d direct you to López-Alt’s rich, nutty pork stock (or indeed to the nearest ramen restaurant). This version will be somewhere between the two; not a super-quick shortcut (if you want one of those, try Lee’s excellent take), but something you could feasibly knock up in an afternoon.
Most ramen, as mentioned, comes topped with fatty pork, which I’m going to cook in the broth itself, along with bony, collagen-rich chicken wings and some good quality chicken stock to help things along in the flavour department. (Though homemade stock would be ideal, there’s enough decent ready-made stuff available in butchers’ and in the meat section of supermarkets to mean a well-stocked freezer is by no means necessary to make this dish.) By the time the pork is tender, the broth should be well reduced and intensely savoury thanks to a few umami-rich shiitake mushrooms and a sheet of kombu (dried seaweed), plus the bottoms of the spring onions traditionally used to garnish the dish, and a little ginger for sweetness.
This is the seasoning, or flavouring, which turns a basic broth into, say, a miso or a tonkotsu ramen and, as Nilsson observes, “it can be varied to infinity”. Unsurprisingly, however, the key ingredient in a miso ramen tare is, in fact, miso, a salty paste made from fermented grains and soy beans. Rice-based miso accounts for 80% of production, but, as Bonnie Chung’s Miso Tasty book explains, here too “there are infinite types, just as there are countless varieties of wine or cheese”.
The two most widely available are, however, white (shiro) and red (aka) miso – both made from rice. The former is fermented for about six months, giving it a milder flavour than the more mature red kind. You can, like López-Alt, use just red miso in your tare if you like, but combining it with its slightly sweeter, younger cousin as in Lee, Aye and Orkin’s recipes will give it a more rounded flavour.
Bone Daddies also add saikyo, a sweet white miso from Kyoto, which Chung likens to “warm, custard-flavoured cookie dough”, and mugi, or barley miso, which is known for its “rounded, sweet, malty, winy flavours”. Our palates aren’t sensitive enough to pick up these subtleties in the finished dish, however, so, in the interests of making it as easy as possible to put together for the home cook, my recipe is going to stick with the two kinds you are most likely to find on shelves in this country, softened, as Aye suggests, with a pinch of sugar (Lee uses honey, which you can substitute if you prefer) and a dash of sweet, slightly tangy mirin.
Lee and Aye also use fish-based dashi stock (“the bouillon cube of Japan” according to one source) to give their broth extra oomph, but this shouldn’t be necessary with a longer-simmered version. I do like Lee’s sesame paste, though, which contributes a certain fatty sweetness without going so far as to dollop in a great load of pork fat, as Orkin suggests – if you can’t find it (and tahini makes a decent, if not perfect, substitute) feel free to leave it out. (Those who think of Japanese cuisine as a model of low-fat virtue may be surprised to learn that, as Orkin explains, “fat is one of the crucial components” here. Indeed, Nilsson claims it is sometimes possible in Japan to select the level of fat in your broth and “if you choose the highest level, you can, as a westerner, get a bit of a shock”.) I reckon the broth itself should be rich and sticky enough not to require any more animal fat, and salty enough that the soy sauce some recipes demand should be surplus to requirements. As ever, however, the truth is in the tasting, so feel free to fine-tune it to your own tastes: a ramen is, as ought to be clear by this stage in proceedings, a dish with high potential for customisation. As Orkin observes, with ramen, “there are no rules: there is no rule book.”
That said, it is customary for restaurants to add the tare to each bowl and then whisk in the broth, but at home, when making just one variety of ramen, I find it easier to combine them in the pan.
The one place where there’s little in the way of disagreement – ramen noodles must be made with an alkaline agent known as kansui, which gives them, as well as a very faint hint of bicarb flavour, their distinctive yellow hue and the characteristic springy texture necessary for surviving prolonged immersion in boiling broth. I have a go at making my own using a recipe by Peter Meehan for Lucky Peach magazine, which swaps the kansui for baked bicarbonate of soda. But I find the dough hard to work with, and the results underwhelming. If you have a yen to work at it, I’m sure it’s a skill that can be learned, but I would recommend leaving this bit to the experts. (Ramen noodles are sometimes sold as “Chinese-style” noodles, and are often available fresh in oriental grocers, or dried online – make sure whatever you buy includes kansui.)
Aye cooks the noodles in the hot stock, but though it saves on a pan (always useful), I find this harder to control than doing them separately in boiling water.
Pork is the order of the day – belly or neck are traditional, though for a quicker fix you will also get delicious results with Lee and Orkin’s stir-fried mince, which delivers the requisite fatty qualities in considerably less time. Aye’s braised belly wins with testers, however: she slow cooks it in apple juice, soy sauce, mirin, sake and sugar, but, as I’ll be making a broth instead, it makes sense to cook the belly in there too, as López-Alt does with his shoulder. (He then shreds and stir fries the meat until crisp, but testers prefer the soft, yielding quality of the meat beforehand.) Belly will also, of course, yield a certain amount of fat to the broth, which will help in the richness department. If you are making it ahead of time, marinade it in sweet soy sauce until ready to use.
Both López-Alt and Orkin top their ramen with black garlic oil (mayu), a pungent, smoky condiment made with burned cloves of garlic which is often served with tonkotsu ramen, the “incredibly porky” and “crazy rich” style that’s particularly popular on Japan’s Kyushu island. Testers find it rather bitter, however, preferring the fruitier chilli oil in the Bone Daddies version. If you are a mayu fan, however, you can find López-Alt’s recipe here.
Everyone but Orkin adds a marinated egg to their ramen. These are universally enjoyed by testers, but I have trouble achieving that perfect soft-boiled result: after just six minutes, López-Alt’s are near impossible to peel, yet much longer and the yolks become fudge-like in texture – six-and-a-half minutes seems a good compromise, and piercing the shells with a pin, as the Bone Daddies book recommends, will help make them easier to peel. I’m also going to borrow their simple soy-and-sugar marinade, although I have reduced the sugar slightly, as sweet eggs prove divisive.
It is common in its Hokkaido homeland for miso ramen to be served with sweetcorn and a knob of butter, as Aye suggests, and we all enjoy the sweetness of this with the savoury broth. However, as I’ll also be topping mine with chilli oil, the accompanying butter seems unnecessary. Spring onion tops are a favourite nationwide, and other popular choices include bean sprouts and pickled bamboo shoots, both of which are pleasingly crunchy. Bone Daddies pop on padrón peppers “for freshness” as the European equivalent of Japanese shishito peppers, and Lee a sheet of nori seaweed, which looks pretty, but proves difficult to eat. But basically, anything goes.
Finally, remember that “to get the most out of your ramen and to really enjoy the flavours, it is important to eat it fast, while it’s very hot” as Bone Daddies have it – “200 degrees or something, it’s insane … [so] if you don’t slurp then you burn” according to Orkin. So don’t stop to take a photo, don’t stop to tuck in your napkin – just eat.
For the broth:
4 chicken wings
500g piece of pork belly, rolled
500ml good-quality chicken stock
5g dried shiitake mushrooms
15g root ginger, thickly sliced but not peeled
4 spring onions, whites only (save the tops to serve)
10g kombu (seaweed)
For the eggs:
4 medium eggs
1.5 tsp caster sugar
100ml Japanese soy sauce
For the chilli sauce:
300ml neutral oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 spring onion, finely sliced
1 tbsp freshly grated ginger
20g chilli flakes
1 tsp sugar (optional)
1 tbsp sesame seeds
For the tare:
150g red miso
150g white miso
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1.5 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp mirin
1 tsp Japanese sesame paste (optional)
1 tbsp oil
4 bunches of ramen noodles
100g tinned sweetcorn
75g tinned bamboo shoots
To make the broth, put the wings and pork belly in a large pot with the remaining ingredients and 1.25 litres of cold water. Bring to the boil, skim, turn down the heat, put on a lid very slightly ajar, and simmer gently for about three hours until the belly is tender, then lift out the meat. (If you are making this in advance, I suggest making another batch of the soy sauce and sugar marinade for the eggs, and submerging the cooked pork belly in it until ready to use, but this isn’t mandatory if not.)
Meanwhile, bring a small pan of water to the boil. Pierce the eggs at the round end with a needle, and then gently lower into the pan. Turn down the heat and simmer gently for six-and-a-half minutes, then drain and run under cold water until cool. Peel. Whisk the sugar into 100ml water until dissolved, stir in the soy sauce, then add the eggs and marinade for at least three hours or overnight, turning occasionally.
To make the chilli sauce, put the oil in a medium pan with the garlic, spring onions and ginger and cook on a medium heat until golden. Add the chilli flakes and turn off the heat. Stir regularly until cool, then mix in the sugar and sesame seeds.
Mix together all the ingredients for the tare except for the oil, then fry in the oil over a medium heat for five minutes.
When you are ready to eat, finely slice the reserved spring onion tops and the pork. Cut the eggs in half.
Heat the broth and whisk the tare into it. Cook the noodles according to packet instructions. When the broth is steaming, divide the noodles between bowls and pour over the broth. Top with the eggs, pork, spring onion tops, sweetcorn and bamboo and a dollop of chilli oil. Eat immediately.