Hey, remember back when you were in college, or when you were a latchkey kid, or unemployed, or a grad student, or just otherwise broke, underpaid or lacking motivation? Because of these circumstances, you may have been quite familiar with store bought ramen noodle. Hell, it was even a staple in the midwest back in the 80s! A typical summer lunch when I was in junior high was a couplea packets of ramen tossed in a pot, split with my brother, eaten piping hot whilst playing Mario Brothers. You can still get that shit twelve for a dollar. Like so:
After say, 1990, I lost interest in instant ramen. Little did I know there was a whole other world when it comes to ramen noodle. Bare bones, ramen is a Japanese noodle dish. The broth is usually meat or fish based. Said broth is then flavored with miso, soy sauce, tare or some other kind of salty goodness. Taré in ramen functions as its salt component and is added to the broth base to taste. On top of that, the world is your oyster. Ramen is topped with pretty much anything: roasted pork, scallions, seaweed, poached or pickled eggs, spicy sauces, sprouts, corn, sesame seeds, pickled greens. Pretty much every city and region of Japan has its own style of ramen. Movies have been made about ramen!
Graphic novels (manga!) star ramen slinging cats! And you know how I feel about wacky cats!
But for me, the road to ramen was a long one. I used to have a thing against going out for soup. Meh, it’s just water and vegetables. Can’t we go out for something good, I’d say, annoyingly. Is this because I’m from the Midwest and when you go out to dinner you should put on a nice sweater, eat something gigantic, and get your money’s worth? I’m not sure, friends. Double S was always a tried and true proponent of going out for soup. It would always help your chi, cure your cold, and otherwise make you a better person. How about burritos? I’d inquire nicely. Thai? That’s noodles! She never pushed, cuz she’s awesome like that. But then something happened…I started to like pho. Pho, or Vietnamese noodle soup, is ubiquitous here in the Pacific Northwest, but I spent about 30 years of my life blissfully unaware of its existence. White much? Maybe it was the often hilariously named pho shops of the outskirts of Seattle that got me to change my tune, my personal favorite being Un Pho Gettable out in Greenwood. But as I’m sure you can guess, there are many other pho shops with dirty or otherwise blue connotations. Yep, I’m thinking about Pho King and What the Pho.
After discovering a good pho place in my neck of the woods and gradually coming around on the ritual of the whole thing—the basil, the sprouts, the hot sauces, the noodles slurped while splashing all over your hoodie (Seattle: Hoodies recommended on all days!), I started to want to try different kinds of soups. I had saimin in Kauai. I made kimchi stew with my own kimchi! Note: This shit is awesome! Have you made kimchi? The recipe I posted really knocked it out of the park, if I do say so myself. I had an awesome Korean soup with mandoo/dumplings in Kauai as well. Soups were starting to rock my world.
Then, also whilst I was in Kauai, I finally got around to reading the first issue of Lucky Peach, the new, awesome cooking quarterly by David Chang of Momofuku and his friends, published by McSweeney’s. First, check it out if you haven’t. It’s a lively and interesting discussion of cooking and food culture. And David Chang is the man. He’s the kind of mofo that would also use words like mofo to talk about cooking.
Two, the premiere issue is ALL about ramen. And I mean, ALL ABOUT RAMEN.
Your ass is gonna want to go to Japan and eat every kind of ramen after you read this bad boy. And lucky for me, an insane person who loves to make things that I could otherwise buy, they had a recipe for making the famous ramen of Momofuku, and its noodles. I marked that on my list of things to do when I returned to the mainland, then recommenced sipping mai tais and almost drowning in the Pacific. I’m glad I waited too, because later on the Lucky Peach website, I saw that the recipe for the noodles had a pretty major error that they later corrected. Party foul!
All of the above to say that when I saw that the blogger from Grow It Cook It Can It was starting a year of cooking challenges (Cook It! 2012) with pasta making, I knew I had to try my hand at making ramen noodles. And I did it! The noodles for ramen are actually kind of easy to make. It’s the making of everything else that goes into ramen that will take you an entire weekend. But I still did it, mofos (see what I did there?)! Next time though, I may just buy a ticket to Japan and a Lonely Planet guide for good ramen.
Ramen noodles are alkaline noodles. Alkaline salts are what give ramen noodles that incredibly chewy, springy yet durable thing they’ve got going on, different from regular old noodles. Alkaline salts are sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate, mixed and sold typically sold as kansui at Asian groceries. Ramen noodles need to maintain their shape and consistency in smoldering hot broths. And they do, courtesy of alkaline salts. Chang’s latest recipe for ramen noodles has changed from his original recipe in the Momofuku cookbook to his new recipe in the first issue of Lucky Peach. His newest recipe is much more friendly to the home cook, as hard to find alkaline salts/kansui were replaced with simple baked soda. Yep, baked soda. Baked soda is regular old baking soda baked on a sheet pan in your oven at 250 degrees for one hour.
I bought some new, fresh baking soda from my local bulk bins. I placed it in the oven for an hour at 250, and it came out looking pretty much exactly the same.
After baking the soda, you can set it aside until you want to make your noodles. I did this several days in advance because I had broth, sauce, roasted pork and marinated veggies to make. Why did I do this again?
On noodle making day, the noodles come together pretty easily. First, you dissolve your baked soda into some warm water, then add some cold water when the soda is dissolved.
Then you add the flour all at once. Chang said that this will make a dough that ain’t too pretty. Crumbly and pebbly and ugly. Hey, don’t talk about my dough like that.
After all ingredients are mixed, then you knead the dough for 5 minutes. Chang says this will be the hardest dough you’ve ever worked with. I didn’t really have a problem with it, and I had debated using my Kitchen Aid because I’m a dough noob. You don’t need to!
After 5 minutes of kneading, wrap it in plastic and let it sit on the counter for 20 minutes. Then, knead it for another 5 minutes. Again, not so tough!
After that kneadfest, wrap the dough again and refrigerate for at least an hour. I think mine chilled for a few hours. Why? See above broth, pickle, sauce making!
After the dough chills, I divided it into 6 even portions with my handy dandy dough cutting doohickey. I broke out my pasta maker for the third time in the 5 years I’ve owned it. I make a lot of things and do a lot of experimentation at the homestead, but pasta making has just not been one of those things. So much flour! And I never thought I got the noodles as right as I would have wanted them. But persist I must!
Take each portioned amount of dough and roll it through your machine. Chang recommended putting the dough through each thickness setting one by one. This worked pretty well.
After you roll the dough into nice thin sheets, change attachments on your machine so that you have the noodle cut/size of your liking. My fairly basic model only had two settings. I cut it through what resembled fettucine and what resembled spaghetti. Both were good!
The biggest suggestion I have is to keep these puppies well floured. You will thank me when you are trying to put these in the pot for boiling.
With flour, you can safely refrigerate your extra pre-cut noodles for several days. Worked for me!
After you make the noodles and when your broth and toppings (if you’re making ramen) are completely ready, you want to boil a large pot of salty water. When it comes to a boil, carefully add the noodles and let them cook for just 2-3 minutes. They will be going into piping hot broth, so don’t cook them too long.
So the end results. The noodles turned out fairly aesthetically pleasing. Making the noodles made me more willing to keep making pasta and using my pasta maker. That’s good! A few things though.
One, thickness. I rolled the dough through every setting on my pasta maker and then cut the noodles at settings 8 and 9 as recommended by Chang. If I make these again, I would probably only roll them to a 5 or 6, so I could experience a bit more of that thick, chewy mouthfeel of Asian noodles for soup. These were a bit too insignificant.
Two, general taste. Next time, I would add some salt to the dough to give them a little more oomph. Also, next time I would use some other flours to supplement the AP flour. Like perhaps some whole wheat flour to get a little nuttiness and flavor into the noodles. Or, there’s an article in that Lucky Peach about Ivan Orkin, a Jewish New Yorker who, ironically, started one of what is considered to be Japan’s finest ramen shops. Eh, he puts just a smidge of rye flour in his noodle dough, no big whoop! Experimentation!
Finally, soapiness. These were a big too soapy tasting to me. Last year, I made pretzels using lye as a dip for the pretzels prior to baking, which is the traditional way of making pretzels. I’m German, yos! The baked soda here had a soapy consistency like that cooking lye, which makes sense, because kansui is also referred to as lye water, but is safe for cooking. The original ramen recipe in Momofuku calls for kansui, which is a mixture of sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate which form an alkaline solution when mixed with water. Apparently, Asian groceries are carrying kansui now, so if I were to make these again I would look for kansui at my local Uwajimaya to see if it would cut down on this taste, or I would at least experiment with using less of the baked soda. Maybe 3 teaspoons instead of 4? Unfortunately enough, the Lucky peach issue originally erroneously directed you to use 4 tablespoons. That would have been grotesque. Thankfully I read about the error before I began.
The rest of the ramen? Well, I hate to say it, but it didn’t knock my socks off either. I followed the Ramen 2.0 recipe in the aforementioned Lucky Peach, which is different from Chang’s original recipe for ramen in the Momofuku cookbook, in ways that I liked. They changed their broth to make it friendlier to the environment and to their wallets. Instead of bacon and more pork and lots of meat for their broth, they experimented and decided on using chicken backs and necks (Nose to tail! That was exciting! But wait. Do chickens have tails or noses?), kombu and ground dried shittake mushrooms for that umami taste. I did all of that, and I marinated mushrooms and made hot sauce and pickled eggs in mirin, shoyu, sake and soy for toppings. It was good and everything, but not worth the entire weekend I spent on this. Here are some highlights of what I did.
I would make these again! Good chewy noodles aren’t just for ramen. So although the noodles and the ramen weren’t exactly what I was looking for, mission accomplished in this first cooking challenge! I’m excited to keep experimenting with noodles!