Geese fly overhead as I slide the wooden bar that secures double-doors at the entrance to the cooking school. Signs of late summer are everywhere here in Tutka Bay, even in the sky, but particularly in the fat, ripe berries blanketing the ground all around. Cooking school students make their way along the boardwalk behind me, stopping to snap a few photos at the ridge where the school first comes into view. Our little school is housed in an old quirky crabbing boat, and it is always a surprise when visitors first see it.
This isn’t our last class of the season, but things are winding down. We’ve been offering weekend classes throughout the summer, rotating through series of culinary topics. Today, we are teaching what I think is my favorite class of the year – how to make a bowl of homemade ramen noodles.
Although ramen has been popularized as a Japanese dish, it is Chinese in origin. It migrated to Japan during a period of war between the two countries at the turn of the last century. A popular dish born of war isn't new in food culture, but it is interesting that ramen got an extra boost after World War II when relief agencies flooded Japan with an abundance of wheat.
Ramen has risen to mythical status over the last few decades, particularly since instant ramen hit the market in the 1970’s. In the States, it is perhaps most associated with starving college students on a tight food budget, but an estimated ninety-five billion packages are sold worldwide each year in virtually every country on the planet. Oddly, instant noodles began as a luxury item in the 1950’s, with fresh noodles being about a third less expensive. These days, good ramen noodle shops in Japan and other places will make their own homemade noodles.
Ramen is made from wheat noodles, broth, and garnishments. Pretty simple, it seems. But, ramen has come to define regional cuisines and cultures, and the variations on these three components are arguable and infinite.
To oversimplify, the variations of ramen tend to fit in the following categories:
- Broth – Made from pork, chicken, seafood, or some combination of each. In Japan, broth tends to be categorized as made with salt, soy sauce, or miso
- Noodles – Thick, thin, curly, or straight
- Garnish - Pork, scallion, nori, ginger, egg, fish, chili paste, miso, sesame, and mushrooms
For our Tutka Bay version of a bowl of ramen, we decide to make our broth based from our favorite one-hour chicken stock. We like this recipe because it is flavorful, fast, and doesn't consume hours of fuel, which can be an issue in rural Alaska. We add in a small piece of kombu, or dried seaweed to our chicken stock, a tablespoon of miso paste, and a little ginger.
Ramen noodles are alkali noodles, meaning they are made with flour, water, and an alkali substance called kansui, or lye water, that can be found in bottled form in most Asian markets. Alkalinity changes the consistency of wheat to make it chewy and firmer. And, it also changes the color of the wheat from white to a golden yellow. In Japan, noodle makers would look for older wells that were framed in wood to find this alkali water. Kansui is named after Lake Kan, presumably an alkali lake, in Mongolia, famous for its noodles.
In our class, we use baked soda as our source for food-grade lye. We bake a half-cup of regular baking soda for 30 minutes at 250 degrees. This turns the sodium bicarbonate into sodium carbonate, a strong alkali. You can learn more about baked soda and other culinary uses for it in a 2010 article written by Harold McGee for the New York Times.
We add bread flour to the baked soda and water. Then, we roll out the dough, fold it, and cut the dough into thin noodles, using plenty of flour to prevent them from sticking together. We cook the noodles in simmering salted water.
Our garnish is seafood, of course. In the classes we have taught this summer, the seafood has changed each time with availability: rockfish, salmon, halibut, shrimp, and other Kachemak Bay delicacies. Today, we've pan-seared fresh black cod to top our noodle dish. Students select vegetables to add to their individual ramen bowls: carrots, cabbage and mushrooms seem to be most popular.
One final small secret to ramen is the tare, a small ball of flavor that is put into the bowl before the ramen is served. Tare is usually a “chef's secret,” something not often divulged by ramen chefs. Our tare consists of a little ball of sesame seed, sesame oil, and red miso paste.
Students in the class have rolled, chopped, diced and chatted away as they prepared the garnishes for their bowls of ramen. Now, we let them sit down to enjoy a glass of wine.
To assemble our ramen, we heat the broth to piping hot. We place our tare into the bottom of a deep-sided bowl. Next comes a nest of noodles, the hot broth, and the garnish carefully placed on top. Ramen purists might claim that there should be pork in the broth, or raw egg cracked over at the last moment, or a dollop of hot oil floating across the surface. At the end of the day, we have historic license to invent our own ramen, Alaska-style.
Homemade ramen noodles
1 tablespoon baked baking soda (recipe in the text above)
1/2 cup warm water
3 cups bread flour
1/2 cup cold water
Combine the baked soda and the warm water together in a medium bowl. Add in the remaining water. Add in the flour and stir. The flour will change colors from white to a golden yellow. Form a ball with the dough and knead it vigorously for about 5 minutes. Wrap the dough and let it rest in the fridge for about an hour.
Roll the dough out to about an eighth-inch thick. Fold the dough into thirds. Slice thinly to create the noodles. Toss the noodles in flour to keep them from sticking.
Heat a large pot of water to boiling. Add in a small handful of salt. Reduce to a rapid simmer and drop the noodles in a handful at a time. Simmer for about 2-3 minutes. Remove the noodles with a mesh strainer.
Add the noodles to your favorite piping hot broth and garnish with meat, fish, vegetables and other favorite toppings.
Makes 6 servings.