There are a few luxuries you get when living in the urban areas of the West Coast, and one of those is a wide variety of good food. Living in close proximity to authentic Thai restaurants, tacos shops, and basically anything I could fancy meant that eating out at any hour of the day was always on the menu. That all changed when I moved to the South. Going from an urban neighborhood to a rural area where the only thing around was a giant Ingles supermarket, I found myself doing more home cooking than ever before. And that meant trying to perfect those restaurant meals I missed so much, like ramen.
If all you know about ramen is that it costs about twenty cents per pack and contains more sodium in the flavoring than you should consume in a day, you haven't had proper ramen. Ramen is a savory, umami Japanese noodle dish that takes time to master. It usually includes ingredients like pork belly, soft boiled eggs, green onions, ginger, and miso.
And when it's done right, it can warm up your belly like that damn good home-cooked Southern comfort food your grandma makes. Ideal for cold winter nights, hangovers, and anytime you crave a taste of comfort, learning how to make a quality bowl of ramen can be life changing - at least I think so.
So like any Southern missing all the best foods of the South, I went on a quest to perfect the array of authentic dishes I could get back in the urban neighborhoods of the West. That's why I started to make ramen, and I have to tell you, it's harder than it sounds. While doctoring up those cheap packets can easily serve for a late night meal, making a ramen bowl worthy of the name is more difficult than you would think. From the broth to the toppings, here is what I learned on my quest to making the perfect bowl of ramen.
1. You need umami broth.
First off, you need to add umami. Umami is the whole base of this dish. In fact, it's a basic taste discovered by the Japanese. If you're not familiar with umami as a flavor think of savory meat like pork. Yep, now you've got it.
In order to add a touch of umami to a steaming bowl of ramen, miso paste and mushrooms are key. Miso paste - made from fermented soybean - can be difficult to find if you don't have an Asian market around. One shortcut I found was to buy Trader Joe's Miso Ginger Broth. The broth has an earthy, mushroom-y, gingery flavor that serves as an excellent starting off point for developing the delicious, complex flavors of ramen broth. And the mushrooms? Besides adding an extra earthy, savory flavor, they also are an essential topping to add to a bowl of ramen.
2. Fish sauce and Tamari are key.
When building the complexity of a ramen bowl, there needs to be layers. Fish sauce and tamari are two layers to the broth that are a must. I forgot once to add the two because I was too focused on prepping my garnish, and I can't tell you how much of a difference it makes. Fish sauce and tamari add a layer to the dish that leaves it totally lacking in flavor when it's forgotten. In fact, when I realized what I did I immediately ran to the kitchen - bowl in hand - to correct my mistake.
Why are the two so vital? Fish sauce adds a salty, fishy kick that was meant for this savory dish. Tamari on the other hand is like soy sauce, but better. Tamari is made with fermented soybeans like soy sauce, but the flavor is more rich and balanced. When making your broth, don't forget to add a few dashes of these two Asian condiments.
3. Add fresh ginger and garlic.
Fresh ginger and garlic are a must. Unlike dried spices, fresh ginger and garlic will be more fragrant, enhancing the dish. Without them, and the whole dish fails. Seriously, these two spices elevate the broth to a whole new level.
While how much you add is up to you, I feel an equal ratio of the two spices is the best way to go about it. But watch out if you are using the Trader Joe's Miso Broth. With ginger already in the mix, you may want to cut back on the fresh stuff, otherwise it may be a tad overpowering.
4. You need fresh veggies to garnish.
To cook the veggies or not to cook the veggies, that is a question I constantly ask myself. And to be honest, I prefer my ramen with fresh veggies. The crunch of fresh veggies not only adds a burst of flavor, but it adds texture to the dish. I feel that cooking your veggies gives the ramen bowl a consistency similar to noodle soup.
Ramen is supposed to be both complex in flavor and texture, so I feel that fresh is the way to go. To start, try veggies like julienne carrots, bell pepper, bok choy, those umami mushrooms, and green onion. Green onion - along with a twist of lime - is certainly a must.
5. With no Sriracha, there's no ramen.
Some people aren't hot sauce fans, and I'm not one of them. For me, a dish isn't complete without it's accompanying hot sauce. In the case of ramen, that's Sriracha. Sriracha is a chili paste style hot sauce that was meant for Asian dishes - particularly ramen. It has a garlic, chili, vinegar flavor that adds a touch of heat that enhance ramen in a way other hot sauces fall flat. One bite of a ramen bowl without Sriracha, and you can tell that something is missing.
6. Don't forget the soft boiled egg.
No ramen bowl is complete without being topped with a jammy soft boiled egg. The two were meant for each other like peanut butter and chocolate. Without it, and it's like cooking collards without the pig - something is totally missing. The entire point of ramen is to be a complex savory, umami bowl.. When you slurp up your noodles with a pair of chopsticks - or fork if it's too much work, no judging here - having an egg with a slightly under-cooked yoke and firm whites is like biting into a bit of heaven.
If you've never made jammy eggs, it can take some mastering. The best way to do it is use older eggs and follow the egg scale here. With a bit of practice - trust me it takes time - you'll have the picture perfect jammy eggs to match your tasty bowl of ramen.
Ready to test your ramen skills? Here are 13 homemade ramen recipes to get you started.