Ramen: More than a Cup of Noodles
For as long as most Americans have known, we’ve seen ramen as some kind of cheap noodle soup ideal for poor college students. I know my initial experiences were like that. Simple, fast food for when you are in a crunch.
The reality of ramen goes far beyond what we see in the grocery store. It’s a wonderful culinary tradition of crafting a bowl of noodles into a hearty meal fit to the diner’s taste. Imagine it as a smorgasbord of ingredients you can add to your noodles to make it the meal you desire.
The story behind ramen is one of the usual scenarios of what happens when a land is taken over by a foreign invader. It was the late 1800s, and China was not the massive superpower they are today. Japan in its own naval might managed to take part of Taiwan, all of Korea, and a chunk of the mainland under it’s influence.
Now while these lands were under Japanese rule, the Chinese culture was not easily vanquished. Instead, the Japanese embraced parts of the Chinese culture into their own. Prime examples include the martial arts and making noodles the Chinese way.
In 1910, two Chinese cooks in their Tokyo restaurant introduced a salty soup called Shina Soba, featuring long, yellow, elastic noodles in a salty broth. Now noodles are not new to Japan, but these particular buckwheat noodles were. The dish took of and became a hit with the Japanese people, some believing that consuming Chinese noodles will be how they “consume their enemies”.
After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the dish lost its favor with both Chinese and Japanese diners...mainly because of how it symbolized either Japanese imperialism or the great defeat the Japanese endured. The dish was renamed Chuka Soba to save face, but later the invention of a more “instant” version of Chuka Soba was introduced in the late 1950s as Chikin Ramen.
Now most of us have only seen ramen as the cheap instant noodle soup I mentioned earlier. My interest in the actual dish took off when I came across an article in Bon Appetit Magazine mentioning the culinary tradition. I found that ramen is so much more than just noodles and highly-salted broth. It’s like starting off with a bowl of noodles and crafting a meal from a veritable salad bar of possible ingredients you can toss in. Traditional ingredients include:
- Char siu: a Japanese barbecued pork we will make today
- Nori: dried seaweed, like what they wrap sushi in
- Kamaboko: a cured processed fish product, pressed into small “loaves” colored pink and/or white
- Chopped scallions or green onions
- Kakuni: pork simmered in a mixture of many Japanese ingredients
- Narutomaki: a form of kamaboko made to symbolize the whirlpools in the naruto sea
- Hard boiled egg, usually sliced in halves or smaller pieces
- Menma: bamboo shoots that are first dried and then fermented
- Bean sprouts
So what if you want to try this at home? I honestly think you should, especially if you have a family. Imagine how much fun it would be to hand your kids a bowl of soup and noodles, and then let them top their soup any way they desire.
You don’t even have to stick to the ingredients I mentioned. Do anything you want. Chop up some fresh vegetables or cook some frozen ones. Zuzana and I found sugar snap peas and shredded carrots nice to add. Zuzana also would put broccoli in hers, or even leftover chicken pieces. It’s all up to your imagination.
As for the foundation, unless you have a great source for Chinese noodles, you might just want to take advantage of those 99-cent packets of ramen noodles. Unfortunately, the broth pouches in those packets are loaded with salt. Not a healthy level either. I suggest simply picking up some low-sodium chicken broth and saving those high-sodium broth packets for other uses, like an easy marinade. Seafood broth is ideal if you decide to use ingredients like shrimp or cooked fish.
Now I don’t have an “official” recipe for this soup, because there really isn’t one. Just heat up your broth and boil up the noodles. Place a bowl of broth and noodles out for each person eating with you, and let them assemble their own dish as they see fit with the ingredients available.
I do have one recipe for you though. The Char siu pork I mentioned earlier is probably one of the most popular ingredients for a traditional ramen. The flavor from the marinade definitely says “barbecue”, but with its own unique taste. Pork belly is suggested as the meat to use, but I found that a bit too fatty for my tastes. I tried other cuts of pork and it was delicious, and even tried the same recipe with chicken. You could use this beyond ramen even...like a main course or a treat when you’re barbecuing. Give it a try.
- 2 tbsp of Chinese rice wine
- 2 tbsp of soy sauce
- 2 tbsp of sugar
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1/2 tbsp of hoisin sauce
- 1/2 tsp five-spice powder
- 1 lb of pork
- 6 tbsp honey
- In a sealable container, combine the Chinese rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, garlic, hoisin sauce, and five-spice powder. Mix thoroughly.
- Place the pork into the marinate and coat all sides with it.
- Seal the container and marinate for at least four hours. Overnight is better.
- Preheat your oven to 325°.
- Move your pork into a baking dish. Hold up each piece of pork and let the excess marinate run off before placing it into the dish.
- Drizzle honey on to the pork and brush it all over the visible area with a brush.
- Place the pork into the oven and bake for 23-24 minutes.
- Pull the dish out and flip the pork in the dish. Again, drizzle honey on the pork and spread it all over the visible parts with a brush.
- Put the pork back into the oven for another 23-24 minutes.
- Remove the pork from the oven and let it finish in the pan for another 5-10 minutes.
- Slice the pork into pieces and serve.
The suggesed pork for this recipe is pork belly. if you choose to use it, be sure to remove the skin from the belly first.
If you cannot find Chinese rice wine, use a dry sherry instead. The hoisin sauce and five-spice powder are mandatories though. Look in any local Asian markets for these.
While cooking the pork, you might see a lot of liquid form in the pan. I actually would pour it out before placing the pork back into the oven for the last cooking session.
I really like this flavor combo for an Asian-style barbecue sauce. You could grill the pork or broil it if you desire for a more crispy/charred flavor. I'd even go so far to make kebobs and grill them for a nice Asian barbecue treat.
Healthy It Up
Personally, I think pork belly is just too fatty for my tastes, and prefer a cut of pork with more meat and less cartilage. I tried a second time with country-style pork ribs and they turned out wonderfully. Next time I'll try center-cut pork chops. I also tried the marinate with boneless skinless chicken breasts and they worked great as well.
You can serve this pork straight-up as a main course or slice it up into small pieces to place into a ramen soup.