By Nathan Carey
I will never quite forget the first time I tasted authentic ramen. In 2017 I had the privilege to travel to Japan. During my two week sojourn, I made it my priority to try as much food as possible. At one point during my stay, after marvelling at the ‘snow monkeys’ bathing in their hot springs, I found myself at the base of the Jigokudani Yaen Kōen nature reserve. Tucked in behind the towering trees stood a small café with a sign out front promising bowls of hot ramen inside. My mind lit up with excitement. After years of enjoying instant packet ramen, I was finally about to taste the real thing. Chewy noodles bathed in a creamy Tonkotsu broth, topped with lightly charred pork belly and a slew of fresh vegetables. The first sip of broth was ambrosial, truly unique and unlike anything I had tasted before. From that moment on I strived to make every bowl of ramen taste even half as good. A couple of years on, and literally hundreds of bowls of ramen later, I’m here to share how to level up the humble packet ramen. As students many of us are very familiar with the small rectangular pouch of dried noodles and flavour packets, and while great in a pinch, with just a little love they can be transformed into something great.
For the unindoctrinated, what exactly is ramen? It’s believed that ramen originated first in China and then made its way into Japan in the late 19th century. The original Japanese dish hasn’t changed much over the years. At its core ramen consists of wheat noodles and a broth (traditionally made with pork or chicken). There are a plethora of regional variations, all with their own unique broth recipes and toppings. The well-known instant ramen was first introduced in the late 1950s and quickly rose to worldwide adoration. In 2017 the World Instant Noodle Association (yes you read that right) reported that over 100 billion servings of instant noodles were consumed annually for the first time and the number has grown in each subsequent year. In each packet, you will find a block of dehydrated noodles and one or two flavour packets. These packets usually contain a spice blend that you add to water to create a soup base, and sometimes fragrant oils to add flavour to the dish. To cook, you place the noodles in 500ml of boiling water and cook for 2-3 minutes before adding the flavour packet. Boom, you have ramen. You can see the appeal right? A meal in less than 3 minutes is pretty tempting. The ease of making instant ramen is a clear factor in its rise in popularity, but by giving yourself just over double the amount of time and some pantry staples you can elevate the humble noodle dish into something so much more flavourful.
One of the main ways to boost the flavour of your ramen is by building up the soup base. The flavour packet can do a lot of the heavy lifting so don’t toss it! To begin, add about 500ml of water into a small pot along with the flavour packet. To add some extra umami flavour I always add a teaspoon or two of miso paste. Miso can be found in most supermarkets but if you’re having trouble finding it, check your local Asian grocery store. The latter option is actually my preferred way to get my hands on miso as you can get a much wider selection. Miso is a paste made from fermented soybeans and kōji (which itself is fermented rice). This paste is overflowing with flavour. It comes in lighter and darker varieties giving sweeter or deeper notes. I also like to add about a tablespoon of soy sauce, to boost the umami flavour even further. You can also add aromatics at this point if you’d like. Some finely minced garlic or ginger is always a good call, and if you like some heat,
definitely go with some freshly chopped chilli. For even more heat try adding gochujang paste, another fermented ingredient that packs a punch. If you can’t tell already, I like my ramen super spicy! Once all the extras have been added, boil the noodles in the broth for about 2-3 minutes until they are cooked through but still have a slight bite to them.
Here’s where you can let your imagination run wild. I usually start with a protein such as chicken, pork or tofu. Roasting your protein first gives it a nice colour and keeps it juicy. Marinating the protein before you cook is another great way to layer flavour, some garlic and soy sauce would work great. You can slice or shred the protein depending on your preference. When it comes to vegetables I like to add mushrooms that have been lightly fried in sesame oil and glazed in a splash of soy sauce. Fresh scallions sliced on a bias add a bright contrasting flavour to the deep umami of the soup – they also look visually appealing. I often add sliced chilis to add a pop of colour and more heat, sometimes I even add steamed dumplings to the broth! Honestly, the list of toppings could go on, and the combinations are virtually endless, so try out your own!
One of the most striking features of a bowl of ramen is a perfectly boiled egg. Bright whites surrounding a jammy yolk, there’s nothing quite like it. If you have trouble getting the perfect cook, follow this simple guide for perfect eggs every time:
- Before you begin cooking, prepare a bowl or jug filled with cold water and ice, this ice bath is key to getting the perfect yolk consistency.
- Bring a small pot of water to a boil and drop in your egg(s). Start a timer for 7 minutes immediately.
- When your timer goes off, remove the egg from the pot and plunge into the ice bath. Stir gently and allow to cool for 5 minutes.
- Carefully crack the egg all over and peel.
By following these 4 simple steps I guarantee that you will consistently make perfect eggs. From here there are a few options you can take. The first is to simply slice the egg and serve with your ramen. The second option requires some foresight but yields an even more delicious egg. Take your egg(s) and place in a jar or cup with 1 part soy sauce, 3 parts water. Make sure they are completely submerged. Store in the fridge for at least 1 but up to 3 days. Marinating the eggs like this gives the outermost whites a tan colour and an amazing flavour. You can make a couple at once and have soy-marinated ramen eggs ready to go all week!
When you’re ready to serve, lay the noodles in your favourite bowl. Pour over the flavourful broth and add your protein. Arrange any vegetables and other toppings on top of the noodles. I like to nestle my egg just below the surface of the broth to warm it up. Depending on the flavour packet used, I sometimes add a spoonful of chilli crisp, extra soy sauce or a dash of sesame oil. A sprinkling of sesame seeds brings the whole dish together, all that’s left to do is grab a pair of chopsticks and dig in!
If you make yourself a bowl of ramen or any of the other recipes featured in the Express, we would love to see them! You can post a picture on Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #ExpressCooks.