May 9, 2017

Ramen Made at Home

Characters in Korean dramas are often eating instant ramen. Since we are hopelessly addicted to watching K-drama on the internets, we frequently find ourselves craving ramen. There are now numerous local options to get a tasty bowl of ramen in the Cambridge/Somerville area, some of which require a significant wait to get in the door. But I wondered how hard it would be to make ramen at home.

I ordered a few books from the library on ramen.

The Untold History of Ramen, How Political Crisis in Japan Spawned a Global Food Craze, by George Solt is about the history and development of ramen in Japan and was quite interesting to read, though it was originally an academic paper rather than a pop history book so the style is sometimes repetitive and dry.

A semi-cookbook about the ramen of a jewish, white new yorker whose life journey brought him to being a famous and highly acclaimed ramen shop chef in Tokyo was a great read. He shares his recipes and does not try to simplify them. It is refreshing to get a dose of the real deal, but daunting to contemplate the involved process using lots of ingredients over a considerable time frame just to produce the soup.

Becky is an amazing and efficient cook, and felt she could handle the soup part easily without any special measures. Plus I wanted to explore the whole dimension of home made noodle soups and I have an open mind about what can go into that; not strictly what people would call Ramen.

On the noodle side, I decided to start with something easy and see how it turned out. In my mind, a ramen noodle is a small to medium size springy noodle made from wheat flour.

The fact that it is a wheat noodle is central to the explosion in the production and consumption of ramen in post WWII Japan; food aid from the US (which we later made Japan pay in full for) to an impoverished nation with devastated infrastructure and agricultural production systems came in the form of wheat flour. Making this into noodles was about the best way for people at the time to eat it. Not being a bread based society and already having a tradition of noodles prepared and sold by street vendors meant that ramen provided the easiest conduit for wheat flour to get into people's bellies. And just as a practical matter, making noodles is faster and requires less fixed infrastructure than making bread. You don't need the fermentation time or a big oven. Because of widespread corruption in the occupational administration, much of the flour was diverted from official channels and into the black market. One outlet for that diverted flour was into ramen carts. Things really got going a decade or so later when instant ramen was developed.

Despite its roots as essentially fast food (originally derived from chinese pulled noodles, 拉面 - lā miàn), an artisinal branch of ramen eventually took root in Japan and a huge culture grew up around it. I guess it is sort of past its peak now, but it sounds like it was commonplace for people to travel to different parts of the country specifically to experience the ramen from a particular shop. The focus on ingredients, methods, and quality is similar to what you would see in other high end and specialty food niches.

Korea has it's own noodle dishes of course, but Ramen came there mostly starting with exported instant noodles from Japan. Maybe as a result of this history, the high end ultra quality ramen shop has not yet made serious inroads. Anyone have some info to contribute on the high end ramen scene in Korea?

Round 1
My first round of ramen making used the recipe from Lucky Peach. I made up some baked soda for inclusion in the recipe ahead of time and just used all King Arthur unbleached flour. The dough was much harder to knead and roll than typical egg pasta dough. I feel like I'm asking for more broken noodle rollers and kitchen aid mixers!

Becky made up some great chicken stock to be the soup. She prefers a lighter broth, like you would get in a Vietnamese style noodle soup rather than the super flavor loaded, heavy and fatty ramen broth. She is cooking down stock every week or two anyway, so it was easy to divert some to noodle soup.

We picked the last of the leeks for the season and roasted them up with garlic and olive oil.

A leftover pork chop was cut up and combined with some brocolli, kimchi, spicy peppers, and green onions, and tofu to go in the bowls. Getting rather untraditional and busy for ramen, but remember the broadness of the noodle soup umbrella.

This bowl was ok but not great.

The noodles were too soft, too bland, and tasted WAY too stongly of baking soda. Maybe I overcooked them, even though they went into boiling water for less than a minute. Everyone ate some but mostly did not finish.

I dipped one bowl worth of noodles at a time into boiling water using a small, deep strainer I got from amazon. This worked well for cooking, but perhaps I overcooked them. Or maybe I had added too much liquid while making the noodles.

The broth seemed a bit underpowered too, but it could just be the clash of expectations from saying it is Ramen to the experience of eating a lighter soup.

Round 2
About a month later, I wanted to try again. A friend from work, Jim Serdy, was coming over for dinner. I decided to try out the Ivan Ramen recipe for the noodles.

I was suspicious of the baked soda as alkaline agent, so I bought some liquid kansui from the internet. This recipe called for kansui powder, so I estimated the solids content of the liquid kansui at 30% and added three times as much. The recipe called for 5g powder; I put in 15ml (1 TBS) of liquid.

The other deviation was that I used all purpose flour rather than the combination of high gluten and cake flour. If you multiply the 14% protein of high gluten flour by its portion of the flour content and do likewise with the 8% cake flour, you end up at 12%, which is nearly exactly what KAF unbleached AP is at (11.7%).

I rolled these only to notch 3 or 4 (some would not go through the cutter after 3) on the kitchen aid pasta roller before cutting into noodles with the spaghetti cutter. Last time I had gone to 5 or 6. The thicker noodle helped with the overcooking aspect, and made for more bite when chewing.

I think the small portion of toasted rye flour really added a new dimension to the noodles and made them much more interesting in both taste and appearance.

They didn't taste overpoweringly alkaline like last time. However they were not as springy and delicious as I would have liked. Maybe I overcooked them again. Maybe a little more salt? I'd like to experiment with making a poolish with a portion of the flour and all the water, then combining it with the alkaline agent and the remaining flour the next day. Perhaps the additional enzymatic action overnight would add some more flavor.

Becky made a beef broth for this soup, which was stronger than the chicken from the first round of soup. It seemed more suited to the application. Since then I've experimented with dropping some kombu and a couple dried anchovies into Becky's stock while it is in second stage simmering. She already adds veggies, including dried shitake. I think the seaweed and dry fish add something to the taste without being explicitly noticeable.

Another addition was a roll of chashu pork I prepared in the slow cooker for about 6 hours prior to serving. I mainly referenced the recipe from Simply Ramen, the cookbook I felt was overall most useful out of the offerings I sampled from the library.

First I picked up a 2kg piece of pork shoulder from our neighborhood butcher. I cut the skin off and sliced it such that it could be rolled and tied.

These two rolls went into the slow cooker with slices of ginger and garlic, 1/2c soy sauce, 1/2c mirin, 1/2c rice wine, 1/2c water, plus some small potato onions cut in half with skins on. This pork came out extremely well and was a great addition to the bowl.

It being fully winter by this point, there was not a lot to choose from in the garden, so we served the bowl with some watercress from the store and the last scallions from the garden.

We will probably do some more ramen attempts in future, but I can't say we achieved amazing results with little investment of time and energy. I do fear for the life of my mixer and pasta roller too. In the new year we have been eating more noodle soups with rice noodles, which are perfectly tasty in their own right and trivial to prepare (using dry noodles from the asian grocery, but I guess that is true of ramen as well). It is hard to motivate to go to the trouble to make the ramen since it was not a smashing success the first two times. I'm sure success would come with perseverance, and making noodles is a nice way to spend an afternoon in any case.

1 comment:

helenko said...

This post made me so hungry! And now I want to make my own ramen..... Looking forward to your future experiments!