Tuesday, April 23, 2013


Handmade noodles
Ramen, as I know it, is the kind of thing that varies greatly depending on where one gets it--meaning who is making it and what prefecture/town/side of the road you happen to be standing in/on when you order it. It’s one of those foods that has myriad interpretations, and produces endless arguments about what is real and what is authentic. And, as with all things churning in the gears of food hype, ramen is a food that brings forth the pundits, wanting to decry that as sacrilegious, and exalt this as the gold of authenticity. As it was just recently put to me, “it’s like a sandwich; at the end of the day, it’s (hopefully) good stuff between bread,” but the shit being slung at Subway--while allegedly popular amongst millionaire athletes and bizarrely cast tv semi-stars making a living on being chubby nitwits--might not move people who, say, have eaten a reuben at Muss and Turner’s in Atlanta or stood in massive lines at Gurney's Harbor Bottle Shop up on the top of the Michigan mitten. Or take breakfast--a tough meal to cook in a restaurant due to the necessity of speed (often through the cloud of the hangover), general customer crankiness, and the fact that everyone’s mother made eggs this way and if you don’t recreate that, you suck. Or, the king of this conversation--barbecue. I just had a friend in town, doing one of those eight-meal per day Chicago visits, and as soon as I suggested BBQ down on 75th street, he said “Dude! I’m from North Carolina!” treating my suggestion the way Memphis’ great DJ Stephens treated an opponent's shot back in March.

There are lots of sides to lots of coins, and I feel to experience things, one has to be versatile. Digging ditches all day in the hot sun probably won't lead you to a cellar temperature Belgian Dubbel the same way it'll take you to a tall Busch Light--but show up at the Hop Leaf asking for the latter and you're kind of missing the picture. Laugh at diner food on your way down to Fulton Market, then feel foolish realizing that in your basest, most in-need-of-comfort moments, that's just the sort of thing you're looking to eat.

A couple finished bowls kicking around the house, with a sticky pork broth, braised pork shoulder, Benton's ham, pickled shiitake mushrooms, an egg poached in said broth and homemade noodles, imperfect but delicious
Me, I've made some ramen in my day, and not just the 30 cents-a-pack kind, though I do love dressing that up from time to time with odds and ends I've got in the fridge. At Soup and Bread a couple years back I served a super rich broth with some tasty garnishes despite the mistake of using really-difficult-to-keep-together-and-serve-at-a-thing-like-soup-and-bread frozen noodles (learning moment); at a collaboration dinner with Xmarx way back Crazy Hair and I made the noodles, broth and every last bit in the bowl for a belly-busting ramen course; every now and then around the house I'll make and freeze some broth for a later quick bowl. Here's a savagely long recipe I wrote for Soup and Bread one year, where instead of noodles, I used pork and ginger tortellini. So not technically ramen. But you get the point--who doesn't like a really great broth, with good noodle-type things, and some tasty garnishes thrown in? There isn't a one-size-fits-all blueprint.

Lots of feet for a nice, sticky stock
During my recent trip to Japan, I ate a lot of ramen, but none better than in Kofu, Yamanashi. My brother in law has a secret joint he likes to go to named Hanedaya--complete with a standard ticket vending machine at the entry and a standard crowd huddled around an extremely non-standard spacious work area for the two guys in the kitchen and their floor burners with massive boiling pots, and about 30 people waiting in a line curling around the edge of the room. The big boss is the guy making each and every bowl; the second guy cuts and slices and busses and shifts people around Tetris-style as party size needs dictate; they both scream the usual "irrashaimase!" greeting when anyone enters. When the four of us were up next, a single lone diner slurped with one empty seat to his left and two empty seats to his right as we sat on a bench directly behind him staring into the deepest part of his skull. Talk about pressure--but he was a speedy single dude and finished quickly. We moved into our slot, placed our vending machine tickets on the counter, and when our time came, got down to business. This place has the added luxury of verbally customizing three important components of your ramen:
  • Men, or noodle: how long you want them cooked for. I take mine nice and dense and chewy;
  • Abura, meaning grease, or fat, or oil, depending on which translation you are more comfortable with. I took a good, heavy dollop of pork fat from the top of the broth pot;
  • Kosa, essentially meaning how strong and salty you want your broth.
The tonkotsu broth was obscenely good, and rich even before my request to turn it to 11. This is the type of broth made, basically, by hammering the hell out of pork bones, thereby disobeying everything you ever learned in your western-style culinary upbringing and/or training as you suspend all the great fat, collagen and flavor in the broth itself. Hence the richness and cloudy, whitish color. The noodles, pulled from a great stack of boxes delivered that morning (a la the lesson learned at Flour and Bones after hand rolling hundreds of orders of noodles: just because you make it, just because it is “homemade”, doesn’t mean it’s the best out there--someone does this for a living, and if it's taking a massive amount of time, then perhaps it’s best to focus on making other things great and let the noodle man showcase his craft) were chewy and satisfying, the pork tender and, well, porky. I think I was the only one of my crew to finish everything down to the last drop, except maybe my brother, who is a bit of an animal himself. Here's a link to a site about the shop, though I offer two warnings: 1) it is entirely in Japanese, and 2) in the precious words of said brother, it is a "yelpish site, with typical a-holes commenting..." It does have some photos of the place though.

Back home, Mike Sula over at the Chicago Reader went with a chef by the name of Jeff Pikus way out to Mount Prospect to eat some ramen in a karaoke bar. It's a good read, and has added a destination to my ever-growing list, and seems to end on a note that inspired this post: there are many styles and sub-styles of ramen, and many ways to analyze them all; it might be impossible to approximate a single taste for everyone. Just look at the comments below the article. But let's put it this way: I'd much rather eat a bowl of ramen, or a fried chicken leg or a smoked rack that someone put a lot of care and craft into, even if it isn't exactly done how I'd do it, than the same carbon copy day in and day out because I thought it was perfect or it was all I ever had. Maybe it's because I'm not Italian ("that's not how mamma did it"), or because I'm not from the south ("that's not how momma did it"). But when all is said and done, authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. And we have lots of opportunities to try new things--just follow my Carolinan friend's example and eat eight times a day.