Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Ramen Story - Making it at home

I took on the experiment of making ramen from scratch at home not on a mission to create the perfect bowl but to try to see how difficult it was even to make a half-decent version.

I first got this idea when I picked up the book by Ivan Orkin, the chef behind the legendary Ivan Ramen (first in Tokyo, then New York City). In the past I always thought ramen is nothing more than a bowl of broth made with pork bones, slices of charsiu and noodles, but I was fascinated by the complexity of Chef Ivan's recipe of no less than a dozen different ingredients that went in, each requiring separate set of processes to prepare. This is why I decided to try on a simplified version as an one-off project in my own kitchen. I meant to start during the Chinese New Year break but at the end I didn't start until one week after.

I began with the broth which turned out to be the trickiest bit. There were many recipes available out there but I used the one from serious eats as reference and made adjustments along the way.  The original recipe called for fresh pork trotters and chicken carcasses and done in a dutch oven, then cook with onions, garlic and ginger. I ended up using pre-roasted ham hock which I picked up at the deli counter in my neighborhood supermarket, just because it’s cheaper and more readily available. And I cooked for even longer (more than 72 hours) using my vacuum flask cooker. After the first 2 days of cooking I thought I failed miserably – the stock was still clear with a very light taste, except the strong flavor of the roast meat, but then in the 48th hour when the bones were boiled into the middle bit, it slowly turned into a milky white color (still with the brown hue) and the taste slowly came together. After I am satisfied with the texture and taste, I tossed the bones and added some chunks of slightly charred onions, garlic and white sesame paste and further reduce the broth down until the flavor was intense enough. Not the best broth I have tasted but I thought it was presentable.

The making of char siu was much straight forward. I posted something similar a few years ago so I basically stuck with that original recipe – that is cooking sous vide for 30 hours in 63.5C, after rolling and tying (with the skin removed) and marinated the pork belly overnight with soy sauce, mirin and sugar. Just before serving, I sliced the pork belly into thin slices and finished with the blowtorch.

For eggs, I did go back and forth with a few different methods, but ended up using the most traditional way – put eggs under room temperature in boiling water for slightly less than 6 minutes, then shocked in an ice bath with vinegar, peeled and marinate overnight (using the same marinate as the char siu). The method did give me the right texture with firm egg white and runny egg yolks.

I was also making ramen noodles for the first time. Well these days using my KitchenAid pasta attachment, I make pasta at home quite regularly, but never had my hands on doing ramen noodles. Again, there were quite a number of different recipes online – some specified which flour to use (ranging from all-purpose to strong flour or a mixture of both) while some said it doesn’t matter; some uses kansui, aka alkaline water available in wet market or Asian grocery stores while other suggested baked baking soda mixed with warm water.

I happened to have a packet of fine "00" flour (which I use for my pasta) and found a small bottle of liquid kansui in the neighborhood baking supply store, so that's what I used. I only made a tiny batch this time with 1.5 cup of flour, 0.5 cup of warm water mixed with 1 teaspoon of kansui and dash of salt to taste - that yielded around 3 portions of noodles. I mixed everything together using my KitchenAid - first with the paddle attachment than with the dough hook, and every now and then I pulled the dough out of the bowl and gave it a few rounds of hard kneading by hand. When I was comfortable with the texture, I used the pasta attachment to press the dough (moving from Setting 1 to 5 gradually) then cut into thin threads using the spaghetti cutter. I used them immediately but I think it can keep in the refrigerator for a week when it’s covered with plenty of flour or corn flour to keep the noodles from sticking together.

So this took care of the "basic" set of ingredients, but there were also something more. I quickly chopped some green onions, taking half the green bits and half the white bits, and also charred some frozen corn kernels in a frying pan. White sesame seeds were slightly toasted then grinded in a mortar. I was going to make the bamboo shoot as well but at the end I cheated and bought the ready pack already marinated. I made a simple version of “mayu”, or black garlic oil, by burning finely chopped garlic in vegetable oil then blended with a dash of sesame oil. I put a spoonful on the broth just before serving.

The assembly was perhaps the easiest part. I boiled the ramen for 2 minutes, heat up the broth, then just put the noodles, green onions, halved eggs, corns, bamboo shoots, sesame seeds into the bowl with the boiling broth poured over. Then it was garnished with a couple dried nori sheet. I basically copied the presentation of one of the Tokyo ramen shops I visited.

Well to be honest I think the bowl of noodles looked better than it tasted but I did alright, I guess. The noodles turned out to be not bouncy enough even though the color looked legit - probably because I was too stringent with the kansui. And overall there were way too much work – definitely not worth the effort to do this regularly at home. Next time I will just go and buy at the shop, but at least I had a whole new level of appreciation after knowing first-hand what must be put in to a bowl for a good, proper bowl of ramen. It's truly hard labor of love.

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