Matters of taste: Comfort in ramen

“A good bowl of ramen has no beginning or middle or end. When you eat it everything comes together.”
April 23, 2014

Many years ago, during a Tbilisi winter when there was no heat and the electricity was down to four hours a day, I devised a heartwarming dish that was so accidentally good (I made it out of leftovers) that it has since become my signature.

In a bowl place a scoop of mashed potato and scoop of cooked spinach, pour over chicken broth, add, if the fridge provides, finely minced garlic, spring onions, chopped parsley, a dollop of sour cream and a shimmering lid of olive oil. The broth should be as lip scalding as Jewish grandmother’s chicken soup, as the potato disintegrates into a creamy veloute and the spinach floats bright with vitamins. You can feel the restorative nourishment pouring through you. Salt fat heat. Like beef tea to Victorian invalids, Bovril after a midwinter rugby match, Cup-a-Soup in exam week.

This winter in the snow-bound American northeast, I have been obsessed with the Asian equivalent: ramen. Noodles in a bowl of rich umami broth, topped with whatever you like—traditionally a slice of pork belly, Chinese cabbage, pickled bamboo shoots and a soft-boiled egg. I am hardly alone in my excursion to Japan for the ultimate comfort food. The cheap hit of the instant noodle has been a worldwide trend since Momofuku Ando invented a way to freeze-dry cooked noodles in 1954. Over 90bn packets are now eaten globally each year.

In the mid-1990s the Tokyo ramen scene exploded upscale: chefs making their broth from scratch using premium ingredients and innovating in hundreds of directions, clamouring for attention in ramen magazines and blogs and TV shows. New York has caught the bug now, too: all the foodie blogs list their top 10 ramen joints and at the hip places you can queue for more than an hour for a bowl.

I spent several days eating ramen lunch and dinner. I sat at the counters and watched the ballet in the galley kitchen—shake noodles out of the steaming water, slither into bowl, ladle broth, chopstick toppings into position, serve. The noise was bustle and clang, the clientele Asians and hipsters and Asian hipsters. At Chuko in Brooklyn I ate the popular tonkotsu-style ramen, named for the broth made from pork bones and emulsified with pork fat into a voluptuous white murk. A slice of pork belly, a clump of shredded pork, unctuous as long-cooked barbecue, mustard greens and spring onions—flavour quadrants that I happily muddled with my chopsticks along with globules of red chilli oil.

At Ippudo, crushed among the twenty-somethings on a Monday night, I tried another version of tonkotsu with an oil slick of charred garlic floating on the top—bitter, curious, yummy—and stirred in a rich clump of miso as I slurped. I went to David Chang’s Momofuku noodle shop in the East Village, which started the whole craze a decade ago. Chang is a Korean American who discovered ramen before he knew how to boil water, as an after school snack, crunching raw noodles straight from the pack. Here I had the shio (salt) ramen, a clear brown broth made from a base of simmered kombu (seaweed) augmented with roasted pork neck bones and chicken legs, dried shitake, bacon ends, carrots, onions and boiled for 12 hours.

And then, at Hino Maru over in Queens, I ate the missing link—what Marco Polo might have made when he got home to Italy with a backpack full of Chinese noodles—ramen with sea urchin and nori in a broth made from kombu, parmesan and heavy cream. It was unbelievably good.

“So what is ramen?” I asked Ivan Orkin in his new Slurp Shop noodle bar in a shiny cool food emporium way out west on 11th Avenue. Orkin is an American who found ramen fame in Tokyo and is now reimporting his knowledge to New York.

He thought for a moment. “Well it’s not just soup and noodles,” he said. “Chicken noodle soup is not ramen.” I had just eaten a perfect bowl of shoyo (soy) ramen, with a broth he makes carefully with an Asian sofrito of cooked down fuji apples, onions, garlic and ginger, and a double soup, a clean chicken broth mixed with a dashi (the base to miso soup, made from kombu and dried tuna flakes and other dried fishy shavings).

Orkin, bespectacled, a serious chef, is meticulous in his ramen calculations. He tinkers with the percentages of water and added alkaline in his noodles to provide the best chew and density. It’s all about the right fat content to make the soup adhere to the noodles. His ramen were a little lighter in the tummy than most and this, he told me, was very deliberate.

We talked about all the crazy innovations: the famous green curry ramen at a place in Chinatown, the Korean versions with kimchi and a pizza ramen he said was full of anchovies and molten cheese and “was really really good.” I opened up his cookbook and pointed to a recipe for “four cheese mazemen.” Mazemen is a style of ramen that has no sloshy soup and is often served cold. “So how come that’s not macaroni cheese?” I teased. He was offended. “It’s not at all! It’s really good, it’s fishy and cheesy.”

Ramen has always been maverick, a global food, globally seasoned, everything at once; salty spicy funky marine; meaty vegetal and aromatic; Asian-Euro-Americano fusion confusion.

“A good bowl of ramen has no beginning or middle or end,” Orkin said. “When you eat it everything comes together.”