Cost: about £9, serves 6 with seconds for everyone
Ramen is not just a London trend, and not just a Japanese obsession – although it is both these things, the darling of hipsters and food fans, the subject of consumer quests for the best ramen in London and scientific quests led by patient, meticulous Japanese chefs, it is a food experience that soothes and thrills at the same time, both simple in its innate comfort and complex in the depths of savoury flavour it achieves.
This recipe is a practical way of recreating that experience at home. I say recreating, not replicating, because whilst I believe it is possible to do, it’s really not practical. This recipe for the tonkotsu ramen broth delivers collagen-rich, intensely porky broth which in turn delivers sticky-lipped contentment – but it’s easy. And although it takes many hours to physically cook, the active time for the cook is well under an hour.
The broth is darker and less creamy than the platonic ideal – the former is because it’s much less effort- and time-consuming and the latter is because it has less fat, almost none in fact.
My first bowl of ramen was halfway up a volcano in Hakata, the home of tonkotsu ramen, although I didn’t know that at the time. I ordered udon noodles in miso soup. The Husband ordered tonkotsu ramen, which I assumed was a Japanese brand of instant noodles. I could never have expected that a Y600 (about £4) bowl of noodle soup in a tourist-trap café could be so good – bouncy noodles submerged in a creamy, opaque broth heaped with spring onions and topped with a couple of pale, meltingly tender slices of pork.
The best ramen I’ve ever had was on a pavement in Fukuoka, where a couple of cotton hairbanded, cleaver-wielding chefs erected and manned a tiny stall by the side of the road, serving tonkotsu ramen and skewers of whisper thin slices of pork belly, rolled up and barbecued to glazed deliciousness to skinny Japanese students, diamond-encrusted dowagers who stashed their designer shopping bags under the tiny bar and rolled up the sleeves of their fur coats to tuck in, and the two of us, wide-eyed with wonder and wide-mouthed with appreciation.
We even spent a very happy day at the ramen museum in a town just north of Tokyo (Shin-Yokohama), where one floor is devoted to exhibitions which explain the research and development process of ramen, and the other is a detailed reconstruction of Tokyo in 1958, the year that instant ramen was developed. It is incredibly immersive (haha) and ye olde buildings are actually outlets of ramen restaurants from across Japan that were specifically recruited to present a sort of edible showcase of the best of ramen.
Since then we’ve eaten ramen at the famed Ippudo franchise and tiny neighbourhood joints across Japan, and more recently in London where the ramen is pretty decent and even at 2-3x the cost of the ramen we enjoyed in Japan, is not terrible value compared to other restaurants in Zone 1. In case you are wondering, my favourite is probably Bone Daddies – which isn’t as strictly authentic, but I rather appreciate the extras – particularly the extra slick of black garlic oil that marks it out as dirty ramen…in a good way. Shoryu is very authentic, and Tonkotsu was decent but not as compelling as the other two.
Recipe: Tonkotsu-esque Ramen Broth
This method is unashamedly based on the hours of meticulous research by J. Kenji Lopez- Alt at The Food Lab. I recommend having a read – it a combination of a love letter to ramen and a set of laboratory notes. This man is amazing and he has done all the work so that you and I don’t have to.
This recipe is basically his, but without the cleaning of the bones (which as he explains, gives you a paler, more authentic-looking soup but does not materially affect the flavour – I have made this a couple of times, and once did the cleaning of the bones, so I can corroborate that it makes no difference to flavour, only to my mood…so for me the cost-benefit isn’t worth it) and without the addition of finely chopped pork fat at the end, because I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. This broth, when chilled, only gives up a thin layer (about 1mm) on the top, unsurprisingly since the ingredients are rich in collagen but not in fat.
3 onions, peeled and diced to about 1.5cm pieces (or two onions and one roughly chopped leek, if you have it)
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
Half a thumb-sized knob of ginger, peeled with a teaspoon and finely chopped 100g mushrooms, washed and chopped
4 pig’s trotters (or more, depending on the packet size) – these are available from the butcher or from Morrisons. Most places refuse to split them for you – that’s fine.)
Leftover pork of chicken bones (raw or cooked), if you have them. Straight from the freezer is fine, and any quantity is all right as long as there isn’t too much for the pot. Pork bones are also sold cheaply at Morrisons or given away free at the fancy butcher.
Ramen noodles (straight wheat noodles available from Asian shops), spring onions, beansprouts and crispy onions to serve. You could also serve with peas, chopped spinach or other greens to up the vegetables but this is a bit less authentic.
1. In a large stock pot, fry the onions, leek if using, garlic and ginger in a little oil on a medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Cook for around 20 minutes until they have gone past soft transparency, and are dark brown, almost black. Hold your nerve. Whilst they are cooking, rinse the trotters.
2. Place the trotters over the aromatics in the pan – if they haven’t been chopped up, then yes this is a bit unsettling, and yes it feels uncomfortably like shaking hands with a pig. Hold your nerve.
3. Add the mushrooms and other bones, if using, and then add cold water to cover the whole lot. Then add a fair amount of salt – cheap table salt is fine, and about a tablespoon – and turn the heat up high to bring to a boil, and let the boil roll on for about 20 minutes. During this time, there will be a fair bit of scum. It’s normally advised to skim it off, but the last few times I’ve made it I haven’t bothered, and eventually over the long hours that follow, any impurities basically break down into the broth again and I couldn’t detect any difference in the end result, so unless the idea really bothers you, don’t worry about skimming it.
4. Reduce the heat to a simmer – so there are still some bubbles, but it’s not going nuts any more, and put the lid on. Then you basically leave it for around 8-10 hours, adjusting the heat as necessary to maintain the simmer and topping up with cold water if the bones start to emerge. I wouldn’t dare to do this overnight or to leave the house whilst it’s on, but you really don’t have to watch it very much, and if you do have to go out, just turn the heat off (leaving the lid on) and turn it back on when you return. If you leave it to cool, it should form a stiff jelly.
5. Taste the soup and adjust the salt if necessary. It should be thicker than water, but not as thick as cream, and have a pleasing stickiness on your lips – this is collagen, the good stuff that celebrities inject themselves with to keep things perky.
6. Boil the noodles according to packet instructions, adding the beansprouts (and other vegetables, if using) right at the end just to blanch. Drain, pouring the water over your serving bowls to warm them first, then divide the noodles and beansprouts between the bowls. Whilst the noodles are cooking, finely chop the spring onions.
7. Strain the soup through a sieve directly onto the bowls of noodles, and top with spring onions. This ramen is great just with vegetables, or else with hard-boiled eggs with just-set yolks (seven minutes).
For something special, I really recommend J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s char siu:
Recipe: Braised Pork Belly (Char Siu)
This isn’t the very pale, very thinly sliced pork of the most authentic ramen in Japan. It’s just as tender, but with a punchier flavour and it’s slow but straightforward to make.
Serves 6 generously
1 piece of boneless pork belly, about 900g.
Nothing good happens to the fat in this recipe, so choose a piece with minimal fat, if possible. If not, either remove it before cooking (to make pork crackling, score with a sharp knife and scald with boiling water, then dry thoroughly and rub with oil and salt before cooking at 230C over a rack until bubbled up) or after before slicing.
200ml mirin (either the sake, mirin or both can be replaced with cooking sherry)
100ml soy sauce
90g sugar (any type – I used unrefined granulated)
6 spring onions, roughly chopped
1 onion, peeled and cut into eighths
6 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly crushed with the flat of a knife
Half a thumb-sized knob of ginger, peeled with a teaspoon and roughly chopped
1. Preheat oven to 130C.
2. In a large ovenproof pan with a lid (e.g. a cast iron Le Crueset) boil everything except the pork over a high heat. Then add the pork belly (it won’t be covered, which is fine). Then cover with lid, leaving slightly ajar and cook in oven for 3-4 hours until the meat is soft and doesn’t resist a fork.
3. Turn the heat up to 230C and drain the liquid (reserve to season the ramen). Remove fat from the pork, if there’s loads, and return the pork to the oven to just crisp the top slightly for about 15 minutes.
4. Remove the pork from the oven and rest for 10 minutes before slicing as thinly as possible against the grain.
Serve a couple of slices over the ramen.