What is it about ramen that so persuasively beckons my teens? During college, I ate it because it was cheap, quick to cook and full of the salt I craved after a late night out.
Do Cup Noodles or Oodles of Noodles bring back memories? Remember how they were sold by the case? They still are, but I am no longer buying them, although my teens certainly wish I were. They beg me to buy packaged ramen noodles for after-school snacks. But because they also love real ramen — the steaming bowls of protein, minerals and collagen, full of depth and deliciousness — I’ve decided to make more of the nourishing Japanese comfort food at home.
Of course, there are ramen restaurants all over the District — our favorite is Daikaya — but it is unrealistic to take my kids to Sixth Street for an after-school snack or a weekday dinner. So I spoke to Daisuke Utagawa, one of the owners of Daikaya, to get his take on making ramen at home.
I learned that there is no way to make true ramen in a rush, because it needs a slow-cooked broth and an integrated flavor sauce. As Utagawa says, “even in Japan, people make it a weekend project.” This is a weekend project that I am hoping will ultimately leave me with numerous nourishing, delicious and easy-to-prepare weeknight dinners. My version will never taste as rich and multidimensional as a restaurant’s, but for a Monday night dinner, it will nourish and satisfy. As Utagawa said: “Will it be as good? No. But will it be bad? No.”
He explained that “there are four components that have to be prepared in advance, that require knowledge, care and time.” These are the stock, the tare (a concentrated flavor sauce), the noodles and the flavored oil. These components are then combined at the absolute last minute to make the perfect ramen. Of course, there are also toppings such as vegetables, meat and a soft-boiled egg, but Utagawa said that unlike the four components, toppings are not essential.
Ramen broth needs to be made with real bones — ideally, chicken legs, wings, necks and heads — combined with pork bones. Utagawa advises that if using pork bones, they should be cleaned of all meat. Simmer the bones with mineral-rich kombu and other aromatics, such as ginger and dried shiitake mushrooms, for four to eight hours for a clear broth — or much longer, even overnight, for a thicker variety. A good stock is full of protein, collagen and minerals that have been shown to reduce inflammation, support bone formation, boost the immune system, heal the gut and calm the mind.
Utagawa says that there is a window when the broth is perfectly flavored before the aromatics fade with time. He suggests freezing it in small batches immediately after making it. It won’t have all the flavors it would if eaten fresh, but frozen broth ensures weeknight homemade ramen is a possibility. Using canned broth is not the same, although I often buy real bone broth from Little Red Fox or Washington’s Green Grocer, which can be simmered with kombu, ginger, shiitake mushrooms and garlic before serving.
There isn’t one correct recipe for the flavoring sauce, but a good tare often includes soy sauce (or tamari for a gluten-free version), mirin, ginger, garlic, a little sugar, chili paste and miso. To ensure the richest flavor, this combination needs to age. Make the tare a week before and let it sit in the fridge. Utagawa suggests keeping some of the original mixture in the refrigerator and adding to it over time. This will provide the most integrated flavor. “If you can pinpoint individual flavors, it is not well integrated,” he explains.
Next, master the noodles. These may seem insignificant compared with the broth, but cooking the noodles properly is critical. Utagawa insists that we must eat the noodles first, as noodles become soggy in the broth: “To some, ramen is a soup; to most of Japan, it is all about the noodles.” He says he can spot true ramen eaters because they attack the noodles first and fast.
You can sometimes find fresh noodles at select Japanese grocers, but the dried varieties are much more common. Just make sure they have been air-dried rather than flash-fried. Wheat noodles are customary, but there are egg and rice (gluten-free) selections, too. Finding a noodle that you like is key. Try a few brands, even the ones from a package; just ditch the flavor packet and oil. Cook the noodles in a separate pot of water, not in the broth, immediately before serving. Also, abstain from salting the cooking water, as any saltiness should come from the soy and miso in the tare, not a saltshaker.
Next, drizzle a garlic, chili or sesame-infused oil on top.
Finally, have fun with the toppings:
- Cooked chicken, pork or steak (shredded leftovers work great).
- Soft-boiled egg.
- Stir-fried vegetables: snap peas, carrots, cabbage, onions, bean sprouts.
- Sprinkled dried nori.
- Sesame seeds.
- Pickled bamboo.
Go ahead: Make ramen your project this weekend. Boil a broth for the freezer, mix up a tare for the fridge, then relish all the weeknights ahead when you and your kids will slurp ramen-in-a-rush, knowing that it isn’t from a fluorescent-colored package.
First published in The Washington Post on April 10, 2018.