Ramen--Or, Ramen Broth
A Story Mixed with A How-to
This food blog could begin: I was in Japan—it was always gunna be ramen. But that would not be true, exactly. I was not traveling. So, let’s try again: I was living in Japan; I found ramen as it found me. Nope. Still not quite right. “In Japan” rings false in my ears, despite lilting like beautiful melody in most Westerners’ ears. But this is not just about Japan either. “In Canada,” say, strikes me as wrong too. “In (country x)” always says too much and not enough. But, in another sense, it is also about the phrase “in Japan” insofar as the further East “we” travel in our minds, the more whole and sparkling these places appear. Where saying “in Canada” might be met with a predictable list—“cold; hockey; kindness”—you might also expect a “where?” Encounter the phrase “in Japan,” however, and you won’t hear a list of predictable nationalisms, let alone a “whereabouts?” You’ll get a very different list—“Wow! Amazing! Lucky!”—usually followed by, “that’s where I want to go.”
“I see your point,” you might say, “but that list for Canada—nationalisms? That’s going too far.” Is it? These are narratives about an imagined community that reach everyone within a border and out beyond said borders. The fact that this list reaches people who never met “a Canadian” shows the list has a life of its own. It is a list all people in Canada know, regardless of their participation or identification with its items. Canadian “kindness” is less a quality than an insistence. Think of this especially in the context of the uncovering (not discovery) of Indigenous children’s bodies under churches. “Kindness” appears less like a quality and more like a way of speaking that attempts to push back this rupture in collective forgetting. “Canadian kindness” is as much a discourse of forgetting as it is anything else. Hockey is played everywhere, sure. It’s “shared.” But why it’s played is different. Also, who plays hockey “for Canada?” The kid on the frozen lake sure doesn’t.
“Wait, what does this have to do with…” Japan? Language is tricky. Words for nations don’t seem so neat and tidy anymore, do they? But it has nothing to do with Japan except to show that when a list of so-called particulars is rife with such issues, what hope is there for a basis of understanding when a place, far from particulars, is referenced only with “Wows?”
Not much hope. Oddly enough, that leads me to ramen. Food is one of the only things in which contemporary societies still accept difference. Think about it: Language? Out. Regional languages are fading everywhere, including in Japan, due to state streamlining. Identity? Almost. But “National Identity?” Out—difference is out by definition, even if, mind you, “difference” is claimed to be that identity. Speaking about my specific experience with ramen in a specific place insists on care and attention. And it must be my experience. All stories are based on certain position of an author—whether acknowledged or not. “Travel food blogs” too often don’t see that. Better to acknowledge one’s conditional perspective and work from there. So, how has ramen influenced my relationship with food? Ramen showed me the potential of food to hold and change identity. It showed me identity is a proud thing when it isn’t taken up in larger-than-life promises.
So, after such a large preamble, let’s begin again: I lived in Shirakawa, a small city in southern Fukushima, Japan from 2011 to 2014. I was working for the JET Programme as an assistant English teacher. As I would gratefully learn, Shirakawa is well known for its particular iteration of ramen. This is especially the case for its noodles—oh goodness, those noodles—which are thicker than most ramen noodles and twisted to form crimps. There’s a nice picture of the ramen, noodles in full display, on this page: https://icotto.jp/presses/13655
Yes, 2011 was the beginning of the nuclear crisis in Eastern Fukushima. This is a topic for another time—in fact, it’s the topic of my upcoming dissertation. Shirakawa was deemed safe. Suffice to say, my presence in the city was baffling to many, including myself. To say I saw the job as an opportunity to help a suffering community would be a lie. In truth, I was following someone else’s dreams—something I did a lot in those days. A friend had expressed interest in being a JET. I felt I could prove to myself my own self worth by accomplishing his goal. I was wrong. Concurrently, I had recently graduated, had grandiose musical aspirations, and felt JET would allow me the free time to compose. I was wrong again. Most of all, in retrospect, I think I was running from a difficulty family problem. Moving far away was the perfect escape. Owning up to these truths has been crucial to my life today.
This was a perfect storm of imperfect motivations. It did not go well at first. Surprise, surprise. In its place, though, I found pleasure in teaching and studying Japanese. One can see why: these were the only two things that allowed me to interact with anybody on a daily basis. But I wasn’t always able to teach. For the entire second year, the English teachers, through no fault of their own for lack of training, had no idea how to think of me as a co-teacher and I was not motivated to convince them otherwise. So, Japanese it was. In the end, my commitment to the language, including taking standardized proficiency tests, would open perhaps the most important door of my life: graduate school. This is not hyperbolic—years later, as a PhD, I met the professor who accepted my application. She told me my dedication to the language showed promise; she said it’s what got me in. Japanese was also a catalyst for an exchange with perhaps the three most important people in my time there: the math teacher, the music teacher, and the late Japanese teacher.
Escaping for lunches with them in their somewhat-less-than busy times (I was always less than busy) exposed me to, you guessed it, ramen. Now, this is the point of the story were most people say something like, “I obsessed over ramen; had to eat it all the time; learned all about it.” Not me. For me, ramen did what ramen does best: enable a quick and enjoyable meal between friends. But don’t get me wrong. I found Shirakawa ramen absolutely delicious. It spoiled all other ramen for me even before I had tried any of it. Its broth is clear and crisp. Its noodles, as I mentioned, are, for me, unmatched. Their crimps sweep up the broth as you slurp. They have a perfect “al dente”—yes, Shirakawians use the Italian term with pride to express their noodle’s desired texture. The toppings are great too, but it’s the broth and noodles that speak the dish. Ramen shops make their own broth. But most of them outsource their noodles from specialists—and for good reason. Thankfully, in Shirakawa, the process has yet to be destroyed. Locally owned ramen and noodle shops run relatively well.
I visited many shops with friends mentioned above and otherwise. There was a two-story shop just outside the school I worked that served a massive bowl stacked with pork belly—chashu. There was a shop that piled on beansprouts, shredded carrot, and minced pork. There was a shop along the city’s humanmade lake that was built from a beautiful old house. Another shop there, also in a traditional style, felt almost like an open café. One shop served a spicy ramen. There were also tiny shops dotted around one of two train stations in the densest part of the city. One shop, the music teacher’s favourite, served as an appetizer a plate with a substantial piece of pork that was used to make their broth. You would peel off some tender meat from the bones and dip it in soy sauce. They all served the Shirakawa noodles. They were also all small and incredibly busy at dining hours.
Ramen affords another kind of meal also, like the second side of the same coin: a meal quick, delicious, and lonesome. I partook in many such meals. I lived by myself in a teacher’s residence at the edge of the city. There was a greasy spoon nearby that served delicious ramen. When I was too tired to cook, I went there. The proprietress was an elderly woman who ran the restaurant out of the side of her house. The place seated perhaps eight patrons. When I was there, I was often the only one. I would walk in. She would be watching the TV. I would sit down. She would ask what I wanted. A heavy smoker, her voice sounded like two pieces of sandpaper rubbing together. She seemed healthy enough, though, and would go about her cooking with quick efficiency. Most of the difficulty of ramen cooking is handled ahead of time anyway. Aside from some laboured exchanges in Japanese when I first arrived, we rarely spoke. Instead, we observed each other with detached curiosity. Did she live with her family? Did she still enjoy cooking? Was she fearful of the increase in radiation? What does she think of me? Maybe something along the lines of, “Who is this foreigner? Why is he here? How is it that he’s both smiley and melancholic?” That’s only my guess.
These are my ramen experiences, such as they are! There’s one other curious thing—and this links back to how ramen influenced my relationship with food. I realized food linked with identity. Whenever I travelled, usually with other JETs, we tended to sample the local ramen. Nothing was the same. It was all about those noodles. Depending on how different the noodles were, my reaction spanned form disappointment to gloom. I realized it then: I had, in some sense, become Shirakawian. The preferences of the city had seeped into my body. That preference is now an indelible mark, something I carry wherever I am, that links me to Shirakawa. It’s something simple yet profound. You can take the person out of the place, but it’s hard to take the place from the person—even when that person makes an unusual fit.
It was not until recently that I decided to do a deep dive and make ramen myself. As I mentioned, I’m writing a dissertation on the triple disaster that began in Japan on March 11, 2011. I’ve been thinking a lot about my time there. I felt that making a bowl of the stuff was a way to reawaken a sense of the place. Again, food carries links. Something reawakens in me with the flavours and textures.
I knew there were three primary kinds differentiated by their broth—miso, soy sauce, and salt. I didn’t know how this differentiation was made, however. (We’ll get there.) I knew I liked miso best at the time. The music teacher explained this was common—miso is entry-level ramen. Soy sauce ramen is in some sense the “standard.” And salt ramen tends to be eaten only by those seasoned ramen diners. He liked salt ramen. I’ve since developed a deeper appreciate for soy sauce ramen. It seems the mind ruminates on flavour as much as the mouth, because I haven’t had as much ramen since leaving Japan. Maybe one day I’ll appreciate that salt ramen.
So, I decided to make soy sauce ramen. Or more precisely, I decided to make the components that go into making a soy sauce broth. As much as I’ve harped on the noodles, I had no idea how to recreate those crimps. So, it was all about nailing the broth. I went for a “basic clear broth” to mimic that Shirakawa style. It was absolutely delicious. And thankfully, it wasn’t lonesome. Quite the contrary. I made it with my partner for her birthday. Having the ramen with her took some of the bitter away from the memories of my time in Shirakawa, allowing more of the sweetness to come through.
So, that’s your project. Make a delicious ramen broth. Fair warning: it takes some work and some kitchen knowhow.
The final broth is a combination of four components:
1) A meat-based stock
2) A fish-based stock
3) Tare—believe it or not, this component is what distinguishes one ramen type from the next. Tare is the salt of the dish. It’s either a miso mixture, a salt mixture, or, our version, an infused soy sauce.
4) Infused oil.
Yes, we’ll be infusing the soy sauce and oil ourselves. You can’t beat the flavour.
The end proportions are as follows:
1.5 cups of the combined stocks
½ Tablespoon of the oil (I also add an extra teaspoon)
2 Tablespoons of the tare
Get a clean, warm bowl. Add the tare and oil. Add the hot broth. Add the hot, drained noodles. Place the toppings. Enjoy. Slurping is encouraged. Necessary, in fact. Trust me. Fast-travelling noodles carry all that delicious broth into your mouth and are cooled on their way. Culture and the material world are built on each other.
1st Component: Meat-based Stock
I used pork neck and backbone; chicken bones with meat on them (ask your butcher to clever some drums sticks, for example); and pork trotters. The trotters impart their gelatinous fat to give the broth body.
- About 4500ml of water
- A pound and a half of the pork bones
- A half pound of chicken bones
- A half a pork trotter : the butcher can cut it vertically across the middle; you want easy access to that gelatin.
- Aromatic veg: an onion, cut in half, skin on (for colour); same with half a head of garlic; a carrot, cut down the middle; a bit of ginger
Fill a stock pot with water. Add the pork, chicken, and trotter. Slowly bring to a boil for 1-2 hours (medium high heat). Skim the scum. Add veg after the 1-2 hrs. And bring to a low simmer on low heat. 2 more hours with the veg. Remove everything with a sieve, pressing down on the ingredients to get as much flavour as you can. That’s the meat stock.
2nd Component: Fish-based Stock
1.5 Hours—more if timing the konbu
This stock is simple but packed with flavour. Our version is just konbu and bonito flakes. Konbu is a flavourful seaweed used frequently in Japanese cooking. It comes dried in packages. Bonito flakes also come in pre-shaven packages. Bonito, or skipjack tuna, is smoked for a month and shaven with a special wood plane to make the flakes.
- About 1500ml of water
- A good piece of konbu, about the length of your forearm
- About a cereal bowl’s worth of bonito flakes (about 20-25 grams)
Keep the konbu in your second pot filled with the water while you prepare everything else—no heat. This will extract as much flavour as possible. You don’t want to boil the konbu because it will get bitter. Once you’re ready, bring the water to steam—but not to the boil—for 1 hour. Take the konbu out and bring the resulting liquid to a boil. Once boiling, add the bonito flakes and boil for two seconds. That’s right—same deal as the konbu: boiling makes it bitter. Turn off the heat. Let flakes sit in the hot water for 30 minutes. Strain. Fish stock done.
Mix the two stocks together!
3rd Component: Tare
Overnight + about 10 minutes
This is the simplest component for us. It’s soy sauce, konbu, and shiitake mushrooms. The finished product is a thick, black liquid.
- 2 cups soy sauce
- 25grams of konbu
- 25 grams of shiitake mushrooms
Put everything in a Tupperware and leave it in the fridge overnight. When you’re ready, take it out, bring it to a boil in a pan, and strain after the boil.
4th Component: Infused Oil
You’re dealing with hot oil here, so be very careful. You’ll need an effective food thermometer for this one. You really need this infused this oil. The two teaspoons change everything. I forgot the oil once and realized in seconds. I went with a vegetable infused oil, but there’s a bonito version also.
- 1.5 cups of Vegetable oil (like canola oil)
- 150grams or 5 stocks of green onion
Put the oil in a small, good frying pan. Chop the onions finely and toss them in the oil. Raise temperature carefully on low heat to 120ºC. Simmer gently at this temperature for 1.5 hours. You’ll have to babysit this one. So, turn on something, a show or some tunes. Check with your thermometer so that you’ve got a consistent temperature. Make sure it’s that consistent 120ºC. Too hot and it’ll burn the onions, then the oil. Way to hot and you’ll start a fire. After the 1.5hours, let the oil cool, then strain out the onions. Done.
There you have it. Each component is simple, but takes time, preparation, and checkups. Since they each require different lengths of time, it can get a little hectic. But make a schedule and all should be well.
Noodles and Toppings
We got our noodles from a local Asian supermarket. They were handmade, well done ramen noodles. They were a delicious substitute for those Shirakawa noodles. Make sure you find some good stuff, though. Don’t use instant noodles. Also, drain the noodles well. Don't go diluting all that hard work.
For toppings, I made ajitama—flavoured eggs—a classic. Soft boil some eggs. We did about a dozen. Peel them and cover them in diluted soy sauce—about equal parts soy sauce and water. Put them in the fridge. 1 day, 2 days, 3 days, and more, their flavour will deepen, and the yolk will become increasingly gelatinous. I also added nori (dried seaweed sheets), blanched spinach, smoked squid, pickled bamboo shoots, and lamb ribs.
It was incredible. This makes a lot of broth, tare, and oil. Enough for 6-8 bowls. Make sure you’ve got room in your fridge for the leftovers. Keep them separate until the moment of truth. Enjoy.
I must cite where I got this information in the first place: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nscTA7QxryM&t=847s&ab_channel=AdamLiaw