I spent the better part of MLK weekend in Boston with my sister Judy, brother-in-law Lucas, and Max, my almost-three-year-old nephew. Friday night, I rolled up and told them I was game for any activity, as long as it was indoors. (The city of Boston, while lovely, is located on a rare geological feature known as a polar volcano.) Saturday morning, when Max grabbed a cookbook off the shelf and it fell open to a recipe for ramen, I took it as a sign.
Folks all over Asia have been enjoying ramen for a minute now, but thanks to evangelists such as Momofuku’s Dave Chang and others, the soup has grown up in the American imagination from a cheap afterschool snack or dorm staple and into a rarefied culinary experience sought after by food cognoscenti. At its heart, ramen is a warming soup made of four things: a briny broth (usually dashi plus one or more porky, beefy, or seafoody layers), a soy/mirin flavor punch called tare, alkalized noodles, and an array of toppings. Like a classical theme and variations, ramen can be endlessly reimagined by swapping in different combinations of these components.
Since we had all day and a kiddo and ourselves to entertain, we decided to attempt the most elaborate (vegetarian) version possible. We would make everything from scratch, including our own homemade noodles.
The noodle making began early in the day and went a little like this:
Yeah, it was effing hard. Because of the alkalinization of the dough, it was tough to knead and manipulate. (? I guess? I actually really sucked at chemistry in high school–every time Mr. Brooks started to say “Avogadro’s Number” I would jolt alert with panic, fearing he was cold calling me, then immediately revert to my default state of slumped confusion in the second-to-last row.)
From what I gather, we thermally decomposed baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) to produce sodium carbonate (2 NaHCO3 → Na2CO3 + H2O + CO2), which, combined with flour and water, gives the finished ramen noodles their distinctive yellow hue and springy bite. (I also learned that besides being a key ingredient in ramen noodles, sodium carbonate is a compound used in taxidermy to remove flesh from the skull or bones of trophies. As Max would say: “whuuuuuuuuuuuuut.”)
Let’s move on.
In our quest for exciting vegetarian toppings, we went for a marinated soft-boiled egg. Leveraging simple technique (including Cook’s Illustrated fiendishly tested method for the egg boil) and lots of inactive cooking time, these eggies win for ratio of most flavor to least work (kinda the inverse of the noodles).
Unlike regular (unmarinated) eggs, where the whites are something you tolerate to get to the good (yolky) stuff, these were tasty all the way thorough, from sweet and salty outer bites to the custardy insides.
Lucas took the lead on the other accoutrements, lightly sautéing both shiitake mushrooms and leeks. For a meaty component without the meat, he made his famous (to me) chewy and spicy curry pan-fried tofu by browning up crispy half-inch slices of tofu in peanut oil, hitting them with a coating of curry powder, and then shaking everything together with a hiss of soy sauce.
While all this was happening, Max and I played “Trash Day.”
For the dashi, we kept it simple with kombu and bonito flakes. A pro tip, again from Lucas: pack the bonito into some reusable tea bags (or cheesecloth, or whatever you can rig together) and save yourself the trouble of straining out the water-logged fishy flakes!
For tare, we used soy sauce, rice wine, some sugar, sesame oil, and a little liquid smoke.
It had taken us five hours or so from start to finish (with breaks to talk on the phone with our parents, do the Times crossword, build a mouse house out of couch cushions, etc., etc.) Fairly famished and fatigued, we finally sat down with spoons and chopsticks. Verdict? The noodles were delectably slurp-able, the egg oozed richness into the broth, and it was thoroughly satisfying to taste the
marriage domestic partnership of so many parts. And yet, the proportion of broth to noodles was a little off (a common challenge with noodley soups), and getting and keeping everything hot at the same time was tricky. (We ended up microwaving our bowls to the right temperature.)
So was it worth it? I am reminded that making soup, like parenting or being a toddler, is work that requires patience, persistence, and no small measure of failure. Just as Max needs to fall down and get up (and for goodness sake, get your fingers out of the way of the pasta machine!!), we needed to Try in order to Try Again.
The next day for lunch, we bumped up the broth by using mushroom stock in addition to dashi, added red and white miso to the tare, reheated the leftover toppings (including that dope egg and some escaped ‘shrooms), dropped in some dry noodles to boil, and even remembered the nori at the end. Everything came together fast, in under 30 minutes. The result was piping hot and popping with deeper and more intense flavors. I didn’t even miss the fresh noodles: dry ones took <.001% of the time and effort and I couldn’t discern a huge difference.
Try One was a fun family experiment in noodling, and Try Two was an easier and equally comforting bowl of soup. I’m psyched for Try Three through Try (n+1). (Next time: mung bean sprouts! Bamboo shoots!!)
I’ll keep ya posted.
Music listened to: seriously fun dance party to the aptly titled Have A Great Day playlist; Wheels on the Bus long jams.