Ramen! I loved ramen before coming to Japan, but I worried that eating it every week might lessen its charms. Fortunately that is not the case, ramen is always delicious, and luckily it is easy to cook and cheap to make. It is generally cheap at restaurants as well, so you might be asking yourself if it is really any better to make at home. My answer is a resounding yes for many reasons! When you go out, you know you will want something to drink, and if you’re anything like me you will be telling yourself you deserve a beer. Well maybe you do, but not for $7! There are so many added temptations when you go out to eat, especially if you are with others. Soon you will want another drink, and then there’s that dessert… So trust me, your budget will always be safer at home!
Also if you’re like me, you may not speak Japanese very well, and therefore end up with whatever picture of ramen you were able to indicate to by stupidly pointing and nodding your head excessively. When you make it at home you can be sure it is just the way you like it. My ideal ramen includes mushrooms and kimchee which is not generally the way it is served in Japan. Likewise, it does not include ham which is my least favorite of the meat family. Your options for ingredients are as various as your cravings can demand. Want beef today? How about shrimp? Vegetarian? Try tofu.
The possibilities go on and on, so I will cover the basics for your ramen foundation, and then we’ll talk about options.
Your basic ingredient needs: instant ramen. That is as simple as it gets, good old Top Ramen. Not Cup o’ Noodles!!! Cup o’ Noodles is the bastard half-sibling to Top Ramen who will try to woo you with its pot-less cooking powers, but do not succumb! I can’t think of anything good for you that can be eaten directly out of styrofoam. Just heat up some water, throw the instant noodles in the pot for a few minutes, remove to a bowl and add the seasoning pack with your preferred amount of broth. Since this is elementary and no one needs Top Ramen instructions, let’s move forward to a slightly more advanced ramen lesson. A friend back home, who is a trained chef, turned me on to using fresh ramen noodles, mushrooms and kimchee. It is absolutely delicious, here’s what you’ll need:
fresh chopped ginger
fresh chopped garlic
kimchi finely chopped – Korean spicy fermented cabbage, luckily sold everywhere in Japan and pretty much in all major stores in the US. If you have an Asian market nearby, pick it up there as it will be way cheaper
noodles – this is up to your preference, you can use udon, fresh ramen, dried ramen, soba fresh or dried, or instant ramen
mushrooms, stems removed and caps thinly sliced – if you are in Japan, shitakes are good. If you don’t have easy access to shitakes any medium sized button-like mushroom will do. Apparently out of all the mushrooms, the button variety are the only ones that don’t supply you with any nutritious benefits, so use these only in the worst case scenario
broth seasoning – this can be those packets from the instant ramen, or the Japanese markets sell individual liquid ramen seasoning. If you have none of the above, use fish sauce, rice vinegar and soy sauce to build flavor
yellow or white onion finely sliced
chilies, chili pepper or chili oil
You’ll notice there are no quantitative amounts next to the ingredients. This is partly due to the fact that I had no measuring instruments when I perfected this recipe, and because it will be totally variable on your appetite and your taste buds. These recommendations are good for one serving, so multiply as needed.
Use a pot or pan that has a good surface for frying but is also deep enough to hold your broth. Heat a little oil in the pot, I use vegetable but anything with a neutral flavor will do. If you want to use mushrooms, add them first (with a little butter if you have it) and let them brown for a few minutes. If you want to use onion add it now and let them cook to your desired softness, at least a couple minutes. Then toss in at least a tablespoon of the ginger and at least one garlic clove, more if the batch is larger
Saute this for about thirty seconds and then add your chopped kimchi. I do about ¼ cup for one serving, more if you like it spicy. Cook for another thirty seconds and then add water. It is always good to have a little extra broth, but you don’t want too much water to dilute your flavors. I generally fill up the bowl I will be using with water, add it to the pot and then add another half bowlful. Bring this to a boil and add your seasoning. Check for taste, and add additional seasonings to taste. For umami and saltiness, add soy sauce. For tang and complexity, add fish sauce and rice vinegar. I do a little of all three and adjust to taste.
If you are using the instant noodles, you can add them straight in to your broth. If you are using fresh or dried, it is recommended that you cook them separately in water and rinse in a colander, so that they will not be overdone. You also may not have enough broth to submerge them, so this method insures that they are completely cooked. If you only own one pot, and are not using instant noodles, cook the noodles first and rinse with cold water after you drain them to halt them from cooking further.
After your broth is hot and seasoned, add any other ingredients you want to use. Thinly sliced meats (prepared for you in Japan) can be added like shabu shabu. Raw shrimp will also cook itself in the boiling broth. Add chili oil or pepper for heat, and cabbage for consistency. If I’m not using meat or seafood, I like to add egg for protein. Whisk an egg and drizzle it into the hot broth for thorough integration. You can do poached, soft-boiled, hard-boiled or even a fried egg, but since these all take additional cooking surfaces, I stick with the egg drop method.
Turn off the heat and ladle noodles into your bowl, top with broth and finish with green onions if desired. Even if you want to stick with the easy instant stuff, you can see how easy it is to make some simple additions that up the flavor-palate and the nutritional value. Some other items you can try are:
veggies: bok choy, zucchini, eggplant, daikon, potato, lotus root, chives, bean sprouts, carrot
protein: tofu (firm), sliced beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, the processed fish cakes they make in Japan (think wafers of Krab with a K), seaweed
So get creative and have fun with your ramen! Itadakimasu