Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Guest Post: Ramen

Today we have a guest post from Tess over at Adventuretess! She lives in Toronto and has a passion for food and traveling. From her travel guide blog, it appears that she does more then just eat when she travels... I didn't even know that was an option.

Without further ado here is her post on Ramen:

I love ramen. Like, really really love it. Growing up, I'd eat instant noodles almost daily (And I’m not dead yet! Amazing!). Of course, not all ramens are created equal. If all you've ever had is instant noodles, you haven't even scratched the surface.

Before delving into the intricacies of ramen, we first need to define ramen.

“Um that's noodles and soup right?” you might be saying right now. Baseline, yes but THERE’S SO MUCH MORE! OK, Japanese ramen is the benchmark. To keep things simple, let’s say a creamy, porky tonkotsu broth with al dente noodles and melt-in-your-mouth chashu (slices of pork) is our baseline ramen benchmark. BUT there's actually numerous different styles of ramen just within Japan. Hell, we've also got Korean ramen which is a totally different thing than Japanese ramen. This is actually part of the problem with ramen - it means a lot of things and each person’s idea of it can be quite different.

Let's start from the bottom - instant noodles. If this is all you've ever had, I feel sorry for you. Unfortunately, you've probably only had really shitty “ramen.” Instant noodles from a non-Asian grocery? Probably total shit. If you have to buy instant noodles, buy the Korean kind, they’re generally the best quality easily-accessible ones. If you can find it, frozen instant noodles are your next step up; I've only ever found these in Asian grocery stores. After buying your instant noodles of choice, you can proceed to your own creations. This is where things start to get good.

You can make Korean ramen from your Korean instant noodles. Get the spicy instant noodles and add in a crapload of other ingredients - maybe some seafood, veggies, an egg - and you’re good to go! If you have frozen instant tonkotsu, you can use it to make cheater baseline ramen at home - make some ramen eggs (, buy some nice already-cooked slices of pork belly, throw in a dollop of lard (yes, you read that correctly), and add in other ingredients as you like (e.g., menma (fermented bamboo shoots), pickled ginger, seaweed, and green onions). Now your quickie at-home soup noodles are good enough to earn the title of “ramen” as opposed to merely being “instant noodles.” At this point, you’re pretty comparable to the average North American restaurant serving tonkotsu ramen.

Ramen culture in North America is pretty weird. Here, ramen places are like any other restaurant but in Japan, ramen is fast food. You're not going to a ramen-ya with five friends and catching up over three lingering hours of slow slurping. Every place I had ramen in Japan was, at best, a couple of communal tables; usually it was just counter seats in front of the kitchen. And one commonality I noticed at the various ramen-ya I visited was that there were always condiments on the table for you to tweak your ramen with - minced/crushed garlic, slivers of pickled ginger, and pepper flakes seemed to be the three basic add-ons. Bowls maybe averaged around $10 (Y1000) and were ginormous. And the flavour...eating ramen in Japan is like a punch to the face. The levels of fat you're dealing with can get pretty intense. But the number of flavours in a single bowl...the complexity you can find in just the broth...sure, you're taking a couple years off your life but it's worth it!

Don’t get me wrong, ramen in Japan is not uniformly good. As with everything, there’s the best places and there’s the mediocre places. In the best places, you’re not just getting a complex broth that took hours to cook, noodles that are both well-made and properly cooked (note: you should be able to specify the doneness/firmness of your noodles when ordering), perfectly cooked slices of meat, and various complementary toppings, but you’re also getting it at the correct temperature. Temperature isn’t something we tend to think about but it’s actually a key component of what you’re eating since temperature will impact both the texture and taste of your food.

At this point, maybe you’re thinking “Whatevs, I totally know my ramen! I’ve been to the best places in North America, like Ippudo and Santouka!” Sorry, but those places are pretty mediocre. Like, for North America they're “the best” but if you've ramened around in Japan you're probably thinking the same thing as me - Ippudo and Santouka are fast-food chains. You go there because you want ramen and don’t really have any other options. Or you go because it's right there and you're hungry. They're what I'd consider the lowest-level that earns the title of “ramen” for a restaurant.

Don't get me wrong, I’m not just talking about taste here or whether it's good from a personal perspective (remember, I’m the one who happily ate ghetto instant noodles daily), I'm talking about what “ramen” itself actually means to most people, and that's something along the lines of our baseline bowl of porky tonkotsu goodness. And when you want the best, it's hard to get better than a small shop in Japan with decades of experience focused solely on making one glorious bowl of ramen.

~ Tess likes to eat. Her hobbies include reading Lucky Peach issue 1 and thinking about ramen and eggs.

Everyone go check out her blog over at  Adventuretess!

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