Over the past month or so that I've been dialing in this recipe, one question more than any other has been asked of me when I'd mention that I was working on a vegetarian ramen post: Why?
This simple question typically didn't stem from sincere curiosity, but rather was shaded with a sort of befuddled, puzzlement at the seeming incongruity of, me, a person who regularly eats animal things, going about kicking at the fleshy cornerstone of ramen. And I get it. Kinda doesn't make sense at first. But let me explain.
This whole post started with me making dinner for a friend. I had just returned from a trip to New York where I'd eaten a delicious bowl of ramen at Yebisu (and on a side note, a seriously good breakfast at Okonomi) and thus had ramen on my mind. The way my dumb mind works is that when I get thinking about a cooking project it's nearly impossible to get me to think about anything else, so when I made plans to have a vegetarian friend of mine over for dinner, I immediately set about planning on making a vegetarian version of ramen. I was in ramen mode, and no amount of animal eating abstinence could deter me.
It wasn't until I got to work researching ramen in general, including some extensive Googling as to how to veg the stuff up, that a simple dinner turned into this rather long post. That's because it soon became apparent that the internet was full of some really great advice on how to make ramen, and practically none of it was written for vegetarians. And by practically none, I mean absolutely none. Other than some good tips for various toppings, most every vegetarian recipe was really uninformative and pathetically unambitious. I was annoyed. Mostly because it was yet another example of vegetarians being underserved by their own kind, re-affirming once again that most vegetarian food suffers not for lack of animals, but for lack of effort.
The two primary areas I took issue with was that most every vegetarian ramen recipe relied on pre-packaged broth, and I didn't find one that mentioned tare.
My problem with the first point isn't that I'm a snob who is against leaning on the ease of a store-bought broth from time to time, rather, my problem is with the flavors within those broths. They're French. And being French they're full of parsley and thyme and everything that makes French food delicious and would only make Japanese food taste, well, like French food. Adding French stock to your Japanese soup just doesn't make sense. So don't. Also, vegetable broth takes of all one hour and like no effort to make. Make it from scratch.
Which brings us to my second point, Tare, or the lack thereof. Tare (pronounced ta-REH) is the essential second stock of ramen, a highly concentrated broth used to season each bowl of soup. It is the flavor of the tare that designates the type of ramen one is eating (shio, shoyu, or miso). I've seen it argued that it is the ingredients of the tare, not the broth itself, that are actually the most essential and well kept secrets of many Japanese ramen chefs. And that essential element of ramen was completely neglected by every vegetarian recipe I found.
And before I get ahead of myself, let me first define what I mean by ramen. I'm using it only in the loosest terms possible. I have the first issue of Lucky Peach, and thus I am very familiar with these pages and those that follow...
I get it. There is no one ramen, but instead there are ramens, many, many ramens. And they all get really specific and regional and I'm sure are the source of all sorts of arguments in Japanese that I can only hope get televised in that epileptic, hyper-stimulating, cute noise that is either authentic Japanese TV or at least the parody of Japanese broadcasting that I'm most familiar with. Point being, I fully acknowledge that beyond omitting meat, my vegetarian version of ramen likely commits sins both multitudinous and nefarious in regard to regional style and the purity thereof. But I also think it's a damn tasty bowl of vegetable noodle water. And so I'm proceeding here, hat in hand, humble, probably a little buzzed, and asking you to maybe give this tasty vegetable water with noodles in it a try. The goal of this post then is to fill in a few of the gaps I noticed when searching for advice on making meatless ramen. I made about 7 different variations over the last few months and this last one was definitely the best, but by no means is this the end all, be all of vegetarian ramen. Rather, it's just the beginning. I hope it inspires you to make something even better.
Lastly, not once would I ever imply that this version is as good as a meat based version. Not because I don't think this version is delicious, it most definitely is, but because I think that's an intrinsically stupid comparison to make. Vegetables and meat don't taste anything like one another, and luckily for us, they aren't competitors anyway. They're collaborators, working together to make things delicious, which is really all that matters. You'll have plenty of time in your life to eat meat (if you're lucky), plenty of times to not, so there's really no reason to cram meat, or a comparison to meat, into everything. Dead animal noodle water and dead vegetable noodle water don't taste like each other, but I'll be goddamned if they're both not capable of tasting fantastic. My advice, eat both, compare less.
That's why. Here's how.
AN ORDER OF OPERATIONS
Just like traditional ramen, this recipe relies on a few different pots of various things to be cooked up simultaneously. The good news is that unlike traditional ramen, an organized cook can knock all this out in about two hours, which, put another way, is a mere one-ninetieth of the time it would take to listen to every single episode of the Cooking Issues podcast (which I have done and highly recommend).
Here's a basic overview.
- Make the dashi
- While the dashi is steeping, caramelize onions and fennel, then sauté vegetables
- Meanwhile, dice tare ingredients and sauté those. This means you'll be sautéing two things at once. You can do this. I believe in you.
- Dump the dashi into the broth vegetables
- Add water to the tare vegetables.
- Bring both to a boil, cover, and simmer for an hour.
- While those guys are simmering, prepare ramen toppings.
- Lastly cook the noodles. Assemble. Stop the clock. Two(ish) hours.
FIRST UP: THE DASHI
To make vegetarian dashi for this ramen all you need is one thing: Kombu. You could fancy it up for other uses, but for this simple is best because we will eventually be adding all the flavors of that more elaborate dashi to this ramen. Kombu is a seaweed cultivated primarily in the seas surrounded the northern Japanese region of Hokkaido. There are a few different varieties of Kombu and this website should be a great resource to figure out exactly what kind you should buy IF it wasn't for the fact that my experience with buying kombu was that not one package explicitly states (at least in English) what variety it is. I bought the kombu pictured top left there because it was the cheapest one, and guess what, I didn't much like the flavor of its broth. On my return to the Japanese grocery store by my apartment, I bought the kombu up right there, which was originally much more expensive but on sale for next to nothing because it was "technically" expired. I'm still not sure why dried seaweed has an expiration date, but whatever the reason, the dashi broth it produced was markedly more delicious. So my advice, it pays to spend a little money on your kombu. Also, maybe ask the nice people at the store for help.
Regardless of type, the two main things to remember when extracting flavor from kombu is:
- Use 5g of kombu for every 500ml of water
- Steep the kombu for about an hour in water heated to 150F.
The later numbers I got from this great test that Dave Arnold published a few years back.
The general approach I used was to heat 2000ml of water (which ends up being about enough broth from 3-4 people) to 150F, drop in 20g of kombu, put the lid on the pot, turn off the heat, and ignore it for an hour. Some folks recommend wiping kombu clean before using it, or even rinsing it. I couldn't find much good information on why, except that I think it has to do with the fact that kombu is dried in the sun after being harvested and shipped, and thus can sometimes carry with it inedible outside things like dirt, rocks, and though not explicitly stated but assumed by me, seagull turds. So check your kombu for the rocks, dirt, and turds, and if you don't see any, I can't see any reason why you'd want to rinse some of its flavor down the drain before making the broth.
Oh, and if you're interested in making pickled shiitake mushrooms to put on your ramen, throw a handful of dried shiitakes in with the kombu here. After a half hour pull them out and follow this recipe to make the pickles (you should, they're delicious).
It's also worth mentioning that kombu is a great source of glutamic acid, aka glutamine, aka, the g in god's salt: MSG. Kombu was actually the product that led to the discovery of the fifth taste and current blog buzzword, umami. Glutamic acid pairs well with the guanylic acid in dried shiitake mushrooms (another source of umami) and serves as another way to bore your dinner guests with facts about the food they were almost enjoying before you started yammering about bullshit you definitely don't understand on any sort of scientific level (admittedly, I'm talking mostly to myself here).
LET'S MAKE A BROTH!
What you need:
- Two to three onions, depending on size
- A leek
- Three ribs of celery, two for the broth and one to eat with peanut butter while cooking
- A parsnip sized parsnip
- Let's call it 4 cloves of garlic
- A two inch chunk of ginger
- Half a large fennel bulb, all of a not large one
- Peppercorns, white is more traditionaller
- Handful of dried shiitake mushrooms
- A quarter cup of popcorn kernels
When I first started working on this recipe I, inspired by a line from the aforementioned Lucky Peach issue, went really carrot heavy. It was a bad idea. The broth, unsurprisingly, tasted like carrots, as in, entirely of carrots, and as much as "tastes like carrots" isn't normally a bad thing, it just wasn't what I was looking for in ramen. I dialed back the carrots the next time but the result was still too carroty. I kept lowering the amount of carrots until I realized that ultimately, carrots had no place in the broth. I replaced the carrot with a parsnip, which has a similar sweetness, but a mellower flavor. It worked perfectly.
The parsnip for carrot trade was good, but the broth was still lacking. My initial idea was to keep the broth pretty mellow and use the tare to add roasted flavors, but that idea turned out to be conceptually fantastic and practically not all that tasty. Next up I decided to roast all the vegetables pretty heavily. It worked, but too well, adding so much roasted flavor that the vegetable flavors were a bit obscured. Finally I went with the advice I received from Kusuma Roa while having dinner with her and a few friends. She runs the blog Ruchikala and is all around better at food than I am, and suggested that I try adding caramelized fennel. I did. She was right. I worried at first that the anise flavor of fennel would overpower the broth, but it mellows when caramelized and added a great bit of needed complexity. I ended up finding a middle ground between my first two approaches and heavily caramelized the fennel and half of the onion, followed by a relatively quick sauté of the remaining ingredients.
In a large dutch oven, caramelize fennel and half of the onions you're using for the stock. If you want to learn how to caramelize things quickly, watch this video.
While the onions and fennel are caramelizing, grind some dried shiitake mushrooms to a powder.
Dump the rest of your vegetables in the post and sauté them all together for about ten minutes. Top with the mushrooms, cover with the kombu broth, and then...
Make some popcorn.
Here's where the popcorn fits in.
This post is for miso ramen in particular, and from what I gathered via a few different blogs, miso ramen is often flavored with corn and butter. I figured I'd throw some corn cobs in the broth to give it some sweetness, and that worked well the first time I tried it. But then summer ended and corn got gross. I just couldn't recommend that you buy bad, out of season corn for this recipe. I tried using frozen corn instead, but the texture was atrocious when used as a topping and the flavor way too subtle for the broth. At the last moment, entirely sick of working on this, I remembered a recipe I read in Bon Appétit years ago that called for the addition of popcorn to a lemongrass broth. I gave it a shot. It worked amazingly well. Trying the boths side by side, the one with popcorn was easily more delicious, and the best part, popcorn is always in season!
After a few minutes of infusing with popcorn, strain the broth (pressing hard on the popcorn to get all the broth out), add a teaspoon of MSG, and you're all good to go.
ON TARE AND NOT REALLY KNOWING WHAT I'M DOING BUT IT WORKS I GUESS
Tare is a hard thing to really pinpoint, because so little is written about it, at least in English. The gist I've gathered though is it's basically a much more concentrated soup stock that is flavored primarily by salt, soy, or miso. For my tare I decided to steal Ivan Orkin's use of apples, add the carrot back, and cook everything super hard.
I went ahead and let things char, knowing that all that bitterness would be balanced out with the sweetness from the apple and mirin, the acidity of the sake, and the saltiness of the miso. After thirty minutes of pretty aggressive cooking, I deglazed with mirin and sake, reduced that, then added two cups of water, brought it up to a boil, put a lid on the whole situation (I wanted to the flavors to infuse without the water evaporating), and knocked the heat down to low. I let that simmer the entire time I was working on the broth, so about an hour and a half total.
After straining the tare I added both white and red miso to taste (roughly one heaping tablespoon of both). The goal is to make it aggressively flavored, because it will be what's seasoning your whole bowl of ramen. I waited until the end to stir in the miso because I read somewhere online that miso doesn't hold up to long periods of cooking. Not sure if that's true, but I figured it wouldn't hurt to go along with it.
AND NOW, TOPPINGS
This category is endless really. But here are a few of my standards.
QUICK PICKLED CUCUMBERS:
We've discussed quick pickled cucumber before. They're tasty, easy to make, and work perfectly in ramen. I normally go with this recipe but then spike it with a splash of rice vinegar because I'm a rebel and a non-conformist. Also because I like the acidity. Most that last part.
MAYU BASED BURNT GARLIC-SESAME-CHILE CONDIMENT:
This burnt garlic-seseme-chile oil I found over at Serious Eats ended up being a surprisingly perfect addition here. The bitterness from the burnt garlic really works to add a lot of depth to what can sometimes be a an easily too sweet broth when meat isn't included.
SOME SORT OF PAN FRIED TOFU:
I love tofu and eat it all the time at home. My go-to approach is to brown it, add a mixture of sugar, sambal, rice wine, soy sauce, and ginger, then let that reduce until the sauce is thick and coats the tofu. Michael Natkin has a good short video of this basic approach that you can watch right here. His recipe is specifically high sugar, seeing as how caramel is in the name and all. It's delicious but not necessary all the time. Normally I add a heaping tablespoon of sugar, just enough to balance out the saltiness of the soy sauce.
SIX MINUTE EGG:
The six-minute egg is brilliant because the name is the bulk of the recipe. The other bits are: lower eggs in their shell into boiling water. Let them hang out for six minutes. Remove. Place into ice water for a minute or two. Peel carefully. Make one more than you need just in case you mess up peeling one.
The six-minute egg always comes out with a perfectly creamy yolk, which I, a person who really doesn't like the flavor of hard boiled egg yolks, really appreciates. While hard boiled eggs have a place in the world of ramen, I think creamy yolk is super critical in vegetarian versions, which will inherently be lacking the gelatin and body of meaty versions.
LETS TALK NOODLES REAL QUICK
The relationship noodles have with broth is what I imagine it's like being the parent of a teenager. All you do is give, give, give and all they do is ungratefully take and then try to ruin your day. I mean, when was the last time noodles didn't make broth better, right? Never. Never is the answer. But broth, well, broth is determined to ruin noodles. Being both hot and liquid, broth is just the sort of environment that first cooks, but then quickly overcooks noodles, rendering them inedible mush and me upset.
Luckily for us, ramen noodles are designed to withstand the rigors of broth, at least a bit longer than traditional wheat noodles. Fortified with alkaline ingredients, potassium carbonate and sodium carbonate, ramen noodles stay springy and toothsome in hot broth. It's more than possible to make your own ramen noodles, I've done it, but I almost always go with a store bought noodle.
It can be confusing shopping for ramen specific noodles, so look for both of those carbonates on the ingredient list of the noodles you plan on buying. If they're present, you're good to go. I'm lucky to live in a city with a Japanese market that sells Sun Noodles, which are the industry standard as far as good quality ramen noodles are concerned. They come frozen with dry soup flavor packets (which I can confirm do not taste good sprinkled on top of popcorn). Throw out the packets, cook the noodles for 2 to 4 minutes until al dente in boiling water right before assembling your ramen.
If you can't find any decent ramen specific noodles near where you live, and you don't feel like making them from scratch, you can always ramenize your spaghetti.
AND JUST LIKE THAT, IT'S TIME TO EAT
Every component of ramen can be made ahead and reheated, except for the noodles. So while the cooking can be as paced out and mellow as you'd like, the assembling always gets a bit hectic. Have your broth, tare, and tofu (if using) hot on the stove, your noodles boiling in another pan, and all of your toppings arranged on the counter. The more organized the better.
Start by adding a bit of tare to your bowl. I normally go with one part tare to five parts broth.
Good ramen broth has fat in it to help it cling to the noodles and because fat tastes all sorts of good. There should be a few droplets of oil on your broth leftover from caramelizing the onions, but it wouldn't be a bad idea at all right here to swirl in a pat of butter.
Drain the noodles quickly from the boiling water and carefully place them in the bowl.
Add your toppings. Scallions should be bountiful and freshly sliced. Nestle the burnt garlic sauce under a mound of sliced nori (which I prefer to sheets of the stuff). A few toasted sesame seeds on the tofu is a nice touch, as is a sprinkling of shichimi togarashi.
This was seriously delicious.
Want the gist of this recipe in simple, easy to follow along form? That exists right here.