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Ah, Japanese ramen. The name recalls our college days, when for about forty cents you could buy a (theoretically) complete meal in a Styrofoam cup, a two-minute microwave blast away from feeling full, if not fulfilled. Never mind those suspicious preservatives hidden at the back of the ingredients list. It was cheap, warm, and fast. It was the Cup-a-Noodles dehydrated, instant version of ramen, and it bears little relation to the wondrous, luscious majesty of the real Japanese ramen.
At its most basic, ramen is the Japanese name for a noodle soup, featuring vegetables, meat, and sometimes fish in a broth that is dense with noodles. It is a meal in a bowl, and it has long been a popular, inexpensive street food. But beyond the basic bones of this definition, variations are myriad. Just about every region or city in Japan has their own style of ramen. You can change the contents floating in the broth, the nature of the broth (meat, fish, or soy-based), the level of spiciness—nearly anything goes.
Consistent is the type of noodle, soba, which is made of wheat and has Chinese origins. Because soba noodles are originally Chinese, some scholars think that ramen is, as well, but it is in Japan that the humble bowl of soup flourished into what is nearly a national dish (with apologies to sushi). It is certain that, circa 1900, Chinese restaurants in both China and Japan offered dishes of soba noodles (which were originally sliced, but at the finer establishments these days are hand-pulled), covered in broth (originally made of nothing more than boiled pork bones), and topped with some meat and vegetables. Chinese immigrants in Japan fed hungry locals at portable food booths, sometimes a physical booth that could be pulled by hand like a wheelbarrow, sometimes out of a sort of backpack. Ramen was a popular, easy to serve dish—it could be cooked at home, then spooned out on-site to waiting clients. The Chinese origins of the noodles, if not the dish, were maintained through the Second World War, as ramen was referred to as shina soba (“Chinese wheat noodles”). These street vendors could be identified by blowing a horn that they used to announce their presence, called a charumera. Through the middle of the 20th century, ramen grew in popularity until it was synonymous with Japanese cuisine, as it remains to this day.
After the Second World War, ramen made its way beyond the borders of Japan. After the Second Sino-Japanese War, a diaspora of both Japanese and Chinese led to large-scale immigration, which brought with it Chinese and Japanese foods, and the influx of restaurants in the United States and throughout Europe, featuring their cuisine, which was hitherto little-known outside of east Asia. The fame (or blame, depending on your point of view) for instant ramen-style noodles came in 1958, when they were invented by Momofuku Ando, founder of Nissin Foods. By just adding boiling water, you could re-hydrate meat, vegetables and noodles. This invention, believe it or not, was named as the greatest Japanese contribution to the 20th century, in a poll conducted in Japan in 2000. Ramen is such a cultural icon that a museum, dedicated only to ramen, opened in Yokohama in 1994.
II’ll buy some fresh noodles (available at finer Asian markets, and called Chuka-men), the better part of valor, and prepare the rest myself. There are three main broth options: shio (salt), miso, and Shyoyu (soy sauce), but these are really just ways to perk up a basic broth made of boiling pork bones, and then adding to it one of the three aforementioned components—you needn’t add more than one, because all three provide the same salty/umami flavor. I chose to add miso, because I had some miso paste handy (I’m always up for saving time, as long as it doesn’t impinge upon the final product).
The only time-consuming part is producing the broth. To be fair, you could use bouillon cubes, but it’s best I think to get a hunk of bone-in animal and boil it for as long as you can. I got some pork shoulder and let it rip, a pound of meat in 1.5 liters of water, flanked by sautéed chopped scallions, whole skinned garlic cloves, and sliced ginger. Sake would be another optional addition, but in practice, throw in whatever you like that seems appropriate. A half liter of miso soup was my secret curveball, which plumped up the umami. Once the pork was cooked long enough to flake off the bones, I removed it, strip it, discard the bones, and slice or pull apart the pork meat to add back to the soup. If you want to be fancy (which I did not) you could let the soup cool and strain it, removing gobs of fat and floating oil puddles, so it is more aesthetically pleasing. Never one opposed to gobs of fat or oil puddles, I skipped the straining part. I added soy sauce, salt, and sesame oil in small quantities, just for balance of flavor. A trick I read about was to boil your noodles separately and add them at the last minute, so they do not risk breaking apart or getting soggy in the soup—they go in just before serving. Add your pork and noodles directly to the bowl in which you’ll serve the ramen. I threw in a hard-boiled egg, cut in half, and some green onions, but you could add anything you like at this point. Float these extra goodies atop the noodle soup and serve. Remember, in Japan slurping is recommended, both to enhance flavor and as a compliment to the chef!