With ramen recipes introduced in Bon Appetit and Serious Eats, homemade ramen seems to have established its place in the public, although in Japan, homemade ramen still remains an obscure art reserved for the serious cook or the immensely bored.
Since I lived in a rather ramen-free location in the midwest for the past five years, and also because I spent a lot of time at home as a graduate student, I began to practice ramen making myself, trying to make use of strange ingredients I found around my town.
Although it is hard to generalize about ramen making (since the large number of regional styles and subcategories within regional styles makes universalist assumptions impossible) many of the contemporary ramen have three main elements to their broth: the sauce (a concentrated liquid with salty seasonings) the body (a non-salty broth that constitutes the majority of the soup) and the oil. Breaking down ramen broth into these three elements do not only assist in understanding the makings of a ramen broth, but also help in organizing your workflow. I’ll demonstrate with my last creation before I left Kansas, the smoky ramen.
The body generally consists of animal broth and vegetables. For this batch, I first began with blanching and then stewing smoked ham hocks. After an initial round with the pressure cooker, I threw in bits of ginger and green parts of scallions and some chicken bones that I’ve been saving up in the freezer. I cooked everything in the pressure cooker for about an hour, and ended up with this milky colored broth.
Many ramen places employ a combination of animal and seafood broth. However, this is rather troublesome for the home cook, since the cooking time for animal bones and dried seafood (such as Kombu kelp or bonito flakes) differs in their cooking time, so there’s a need to get another pot of broth going. I (and a lot of ramen cooks) often simplify this process by making a very concentrated broth/soup base, by infusing seafood stuff (in my case powdered dried anchovies, kombu, and some dried mushrooms) into some water that gets mixed with a heavy load of soy sauce, sugar, and sake. Before serving, you can ladle some into a bowl and mix it with the other broth.
Many ramen places top the ramen with some infused oil of sorts. This seems to be a modification of the convention for Chinese noodles, which in many cases call for some sesame oil before serving. Sapporo style ramen is also famous for having butter as a topping (although that seems to have gained more popularity outside of Sapporo). On any account, the oil is infinitely customizable. For my smoky ramen, I simmered some bacon bits in sesame oil until the fat rendered out, and then put in garlic and dried shrimp until it almost overflowed the oil. You can put about a teaspoon of oil before serving.
Using these three elements, you can customize your ramen in quite a number of ways by playing with the combination. I’m envisioning a Thanksgiving leftover ramen with turkey carcass broth, turkey grease, and a miso based sauce with roasted brussel sprouts.