At its most fundamental, a good bowl of ramen hinges on two things: quality noodles, and a flavour-rich broth. A very basic guideline for sure, but there are certain tricks that will elevate this modest dish to ultimate perfection.
So what’s the secret? We teamed up with the guys and girls dishing out the best ramen in London to find out. Soak up their advice, and friends and family will soon come clamouring for your homemade ramen.
Concoct a stunning broth with a method ‘pretty much the opposite of what’s taught in Western cooking’
The rules of making broth or stock as we know them involve the following: bundling bones or veg in a pot of water, then keeping said pot on a low simmer for a couple of hours. Doing so might attain a decent enough infusion of those ingredients in the liquid, but actually its potential is wasted. You might compare it to finishing a Pulitzer-winning novel after the first chapter.
‘The best broth lies in the cooking time,’ says Kanji Furukawa, exec chef of Shoryu. ‘Our broth takes 12 hours of cooking time at a constant boil to form enough collagen, fat, marrow and calcium to emulsify perfectly.’ While the results are a rich and creamy soup the colour of milky tea – ripe for the application of sake, soy, and mirin, etcetera (also known as the tare) – the intensity of flavour ultimately depends on how much patience you’ve got. Bone Daddies’ group head chef Tom Moxon advises ‘throwing all your bones and veg into a pot, covering with water and boiling hard for up to 10 – or even 20 – hours, topping up with water as you go along.’
Use your noodle to find the perfect noodle
As you’d expect, fresh ramen – in its various shapes and lengths – is the go-to noodle. Why? Because of kansui, an alkaline salt naturally occurring in Chinese waters, where the ramen noodle originated. ‘It’s what gives the noodles their characteristic bounce,’ says Emma Reynolds, co-founder of Tonkotsu. ‘Generally speaking, the thinner the broth, the thicker the noodle.’
Ramen noodles can be a little tricky to get hold of, but neighbourhood oriental shops – and if all else fails, the emporium that is the Japan Centre near Piccadilly – are a good bet. But for obtaining the ultimate noodle, Tom has a furtive little tip. ‘Search out a noodle that a bit of care and experience has gone into,’ he says. ‘China Town for example has at least one back-alley noodle factory making them fresh every day.’
Seek top-drawer ramen toppings
At the very least, ramen is typically served in restaurants with noodles, half a soft-boiled egg – usually marinated in soy – and spring onions. Provided your broth is on standby, this makes a good starting point for a quick lunch. ‘From there,’ says Emma, ‘it’s really up to you.’ It could be worth introducing roasted pork belly, crunchy bamboo, or roasted leek oil – you don’t have to think complicated here.
But then, if you’re anything like Shoryu, maybe you do. ‘Our Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen includes nitamago egg [marinated in ginger, soy, mirin, sake, and tsuyu], pork belly simmered for four hours in soy, caramelised black garlic from Hakata, spring onion, Asian wood ear mushrooms, nori, red ginger, and sesame,’ says Kanji.
This is pure alchemy and just the beginning – there are dozens of widely-accepted ingredients that can elevate an otherwise basic soup noodle dish to a delectable, wholesome, and well-rounded meal. Even still, you don’t have to stop at those…
Rulebook? What rulebook?
The real beauty of ramen lies in its creative potential – no one is oppressed into doing things the ‘authentic’ way. ‘Really the possibilities are endless,’ says Tom. ‘Give some respect and love to each ingredient, and you can’t go wrong: we found that padrón peppers go really well in a spicy miso ramen, and roasted sweetcorn is another one that takes any bowl of ramen to the next level.’
With toppings specifically, Emma says you should feel free to go conservative, a bit mad, or somewhere inbetween, as long as the combined flavours are in synergy with one another. ‘Pork belly, pulled pork, chicken, brisket, venison, pumpkin, mushrooms,’ she says. ‘Even a thick slice of ice-cold butter.’
Finally, as no one should have to turn down a bowl of hot noodle broth, there are delicious substitutes to the usual, such as gluten-free buckwheat soba noodles and vegetarian-friendly soups (‘try a miso or soy-based broth’, says Kanji). Meanwhile, subbing in an alternative for that boiled egg to get a bowl of vegan ramen is perfectly acceptable. Soy-marinated tofu, anyone?