Roots of Ramen Adventureby Sophia Hsu
What is ramen? Is it the 25 cent packet of instant noodles and sodium-laden flavor packet? Is it the hand-pulled noodles and clear broth at a stall in Flushing, or the hand-cut noodles and creamy broth in the East Village? Ramen is all of these. The term ramen can be interpreted in as many ways as there are people who consume it. Chef Rick Horiike at Ganso Ramen, in partnership with Sun Noodle, highlights seven Japanese regional varieties in their Roots of Ramen series during the month of April. Part taste testing experiment, part teaching project, part travel itinerary, Chef Horiike puts his own spin on these quintessential regional interpretations of Japanese ramen.
The region Chef Horiike takes us to first is Japan’s deep south with the Hakata Tonkotsu featuring an all-pork-bone broth and thin, straight noodles, trademarks of this region’s ramen. Flavored with sesame and roasted garlic, the dish reflects the warmth of Hakata Ward on Japan’s southernmost island of Kyushu.
Next, we travel to the big island of Honshu to taste a dry ramen, Tan Tan Mazemen, from Yokohama on the east coast. If the name tan tan mazemen sounds familiar, the dish’s roots are in the pervasively popular dan dan noodles originating from the Sichuan region of China, known for the numbing spiciness of the Sichuan peppercorn, also known as huajiao. A brothless but not sauceless ramen leaves a warm tingle at the back of the throat. The signature chili oil heats up the chewy, fettucine-esque hirauchi noodles.
From Yokohama, we travel west to Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto. A creamy, thick chicken broth simmered for at least nine hours gives the Kyoto Paitan its distinctive and seductive chicken schmaltz aroma and velvety texture. While almost all of the ramen dishes in the series are accompanied by melt-in-your-mouth, slowly braised slices of pork chashu, the broth particularly complements the tender meat, leafy greens, and linguine-like temomi noodles. This writer not-so-secretly hopes that the paitan makes it to the main menu.
To the far north, to Hakodate on the island of Hokkaido, known for its dairy products, Ganso presents the Hakodate Shio, a seafood ramen in a traditional, clear, salt-flavored broth with thin, wavy Tokyo noodles. This crisp and clean noodle soup puts the treasures of the sea on display with a dashi and chicken broth base, a particular favorite of Chef Horiike’s.
As we leave Hokkaido and return to Honshu, we travel to Japan’s current capital Tokyo for some fun with our ramen. The Tokyo Tsukemen is a “dipping” style ramen with its trademark shoyu, or soy sauce, chicken broth and chewy, dense tsukemen noodles. The first rule of tsukemen is never to pour the broth nor the side dishes over the noodles. The fun is to grab a few strands of noodles with your delicate chopsticks, dunk the noodles into the broth without letting go, and stuffing them greedily into your mouth. This way, you can maximize the enjoyment of the simple flavors, unique and uncomplicated.
We return to Hokkaido with the Sapporo Miso. A savory, white miso accompanied by thick, wavy noodles and fresh corn make this distinctive, hearty ramen memorable. While it was introduced to Japan by the Portuguese in 1579, corn was not grown locally until the 1900s, when Hokkaido underwent large-scale transformation to farmland. A nod to Hokkaido’s famous dairy products, a pat of butter is traditionally slid onto the ramen right before serving. To learn more about Japan’s historic love of corn, check out this Japan Times article: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2014/08/19/food/japans-historic-love-corn.
From one extreme to another, we end our travels in Kagoshima on Kyushu. The Kagoshima Tonkotsu features an all-pork-bone broth paired with thin, straight noodles and flavored with soy sauce. While bone broths are very in vogue across the US gourmand and foodie communities, the tradition goes back centuries, testing both the chef’s patience and skill while developing the layers of flavor in this soup base.
Taking this culinary journey with Chef Horiike has been an honor, and no matter how you were introduced to ramen, whether from those instant packets or hand-pulled in front of you on the streets of Taiwan, you must visit Chef Horiike and his team at Ganso Ramen at 25 Bond St. at Livingston Street, in Brooklyn Check out what’s simmering next on their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/gansonyc or on their website http://gansonyc.com/ganso-ramen/.
Japanese Ramen Glossary of terms
Dashi: a broth made from fish and kelp
Hirauchi: thick, fettucine-like noodles
Mazemen: dry ramen, brothless
Miso: a fermented soybean paste traditionally used as a soup base
Paitan: literally “white soup”, describes a thick, cloudy soup
Sapporo: thick, robust noodles
Shio: literally “salt”, describes a broth flavored with salt and usually thin and clear
Temomi: flat, linguine-style noodles
Tokyo: usually categorized as wavy or straight, thin noodles
Tonkotsu: a cloudy, pork bone broth
Tsukemen: known as the dipping ramen, eaten by dipping the noodles in the broth, not pouring the accompanying soup over the noodles