I have never realized the peculiar nature of zaru-soba, zaru-udon, and somen until I started getting interested in noodles produced in other countries. The format of having a relatively concentrated sauce on the side to dip the noodles into does not seem to have too many parallels in other cuisines.
But it makes a lot of sense. Unlike soup noodles, which often results in leftover broth, not too much of the broth goes to waste because of the smaller quantity necessary for the dish. This characteristic of dipping noodles makes them ideal for people who cannot bear draining leftover broth down the drain. Since the money I receive looming over copying machines for professors barely support my eating and drinking habits, dipping noodles are something that I turn to quite often.
However, since my financial situation in Japan was somewhat similar to my current one, I rarely had a chance to eat ramen. Also, the sheer quantity of information about ramen places in Japan is enough to discourage anybody. For the rare special occasions when I allowed myself to eat food outside, I usually stuck to Kumakichi, a ramen place in Suita, Osaka, that maintains a low price point while serving extremely heavy broth and mouth-numbing homemade kimchi that creates the sensation that your anus is panting.
So I was overjoyed upon finding that Kumakichi started serving tsukemen:
The first thing I noted was the briny quality fo the broth. It had an almost overpowering taste of fish broth, mixed with hints of pork, maybe chicken broth. The broth contained bits and pieces of char-siu braised pork.
To recreate the briny quality, I added a lot of nuoc mam and granulated fish broth. But I think you can do without nuoc mam and sub it with soy sauce instead.
Since I was too lazy to make char-siu from scratch, I just sauteed onions and bits of pork.
So what you do is fry up some onion and pork, throw in a lot of minced garlic, and when the garlic starts to smell pretty good, throw in some nuoc mam or any other fish sauce. Add water, throw in a good portion of granulated fish broth (I use hondashi because of time and budget constraints) about two teaspoons for each serving, and add some chinese chicken broth powder, about a teaspoon or so. When its done, throw in a whole lot of sesame seeds, and add some sesame oil or chili oil. The oil is essential here, since the layer of oil functions to keep the temperature of the broth relatively high. Or so they say.
This is Japanese junk food, so don’t worry about chemical additives or MSG or artificial flavorings or the like. You can make char-siu and throw in some bonito flakes to the leftover stewing liquid to make a more “natural” version, but, well, its a lot of work.
Also, a lot of ramen places offer you some lightly flavored broth that you can mix with the leftover tsukemen sauce to drink as a soup. However, I have no idea what goes on in those brothy things, so you’re better off doing whatever than hearing my hypothetical theories.
Japanese pickled eggs and bamboo shoots will be great additions to this. The lack of Asian markets in my vicinity is the reason I do not have any of that going on.