Admittedly, I am prone to snark – especially about food trends. I am working on it though. One trend about which I have been really curious, and a little snarky, has been ramen. In Chicago, there are a few shops that make passable ramen, but we lack a real ramen shop.This has not stopped trendsters on both sides from making iffy, to bad, ramen or eating and lauding some bad ramen.
Not having a great ramen shop in town has kept me from really understanding the obsession that some folks have regarding ramen. I have read about the obsession via Chang and others, but it was lost on me. After some internet back and forth with ramen-obsessed Justin Carlisle, chef at Umami Moto in Milwaukee, who gave me a good roadmap on how to get started, I dipped my toe in the ramen pool and came out with a full understanding of the obsession. I had made ramen, but wanted to eat it all, then make more and make it better.
There are many varied types of ramen – I opted for Tonkotsu. Tonkotsu is a pork based broth that appears almost milky. It features incredible richness and a deep, round flavor. It seemed to be most in my wheelhouse flavor and texture-wise.
The process started with boiling kombu, then dried mushrooms, then dumping loads of pork neck bones and chicken backs into water. This is different than my low temp overnight stock making method in so many ways because the water boils furiously the entire time and is kept at a level. After hours, vegetables are added for another few hours. Finally, the pot is pulled from the heat and bonito flakes are added steep for quick bit. Finally the stock is strained. That is day one.
Day two consisted of making tare. Tare is the concentrated seasoning for ramen. I used Chang’s method from Momofuku which adds shoyu, mirin, and sake to a heavily roasted chicken carcass with a twist based on advice from Justin. This twist was blending the tare with some of the roasted chicken. I say some of the roasted chicken because upon tasting the stuff, I had to have some for myself. Imagine heavily roasted bones stewed in amazing barbecue sauce. This was a beautifully lacquered carcass.
Once the tare is blended and strained, I added about 3-4 tablespoons per quart of broth, tasted the broth and poured the ramen stock into delis reserving the remaining tare for further seasoning.
With about 6 quarts of stock, I went to work. First making a bowl with wood-ear mushrooms, broccoli stems, suckling pig, chicken thighs, carrot peels, pickled persimmons and an sunny side up egg. I would describe it as beautiful excess, but excessive nonetheless.
Then, to back off a little, I made it simpler with leftover pork, turkey leg, roasted cauliflower and brussels sprouts, pickled persimmons and a poached egg. This seemed to be the right balance of ingredients and broth. The broth was rich, but not salty. Tasted by itself it was well seasoned with tare, but once noodles were added, the richness was more noticeable than the seasoning.
Being that it was my first foray into making ramen broth, I was pleased despite it not being quite there. I have some ideas on where my process could have improved (specifics? more scallions please) and how to solve my rookie mistake. I should have tasted the ramen with noodles instead of without noodles before handing out the quarts without extra tare. The is the thing about making ramen that I did not understand. It is something that I get now. The good news, is that it is easy to try again and damned if the Chicago winter isn’t a great time to be working through gallons of rich, hot soup.