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A way of life in Japan, a trend in Europe
“Ramen is part of Japan’s culture”, explains Lorenz Muster. And he should know. Together with his wife, Makiko, he runs two Japanese restaurants in Zurich – the time-honoured Sala of Tokyo and the ramen shop Yume Ramen, which opened in 2017. To understand why ramen is so popular, we chatted to him, while watching fresh noodles being made at his restaurant.
“There are two key ingredients: the broth, and the noodles”, says Lorenz. Ramen is basically a noodle soup. But each and every wonderfully fragrant bowl contains a secret. There are over 200,000 ramen shops in Japan, and each one has its own secret recipe for the broth, the noodles, and even the toppings. So it's well worth taking a look at what goes into a ramen chef’s pot.
Rather than tell us the secret recipe that he and his wife, Makiko, slaved away at for many years, Lorenz prefers to tell us about his trips to Japan, during which time he visited four or five ramen shops in succession.
Many of them have one specific feature to help them stand out among the huge number of shops – the obligatory egg in the ramen soup makes a good candidate in particular: “Some places burn characters onto the outside of the egg, others marinade them until they turn dark”, he explains.
But you don't actually need any fancy touches for a good bowl of ramen. All you really need is a lot of time, because the soup tastes best with home-made noodles. We were able to watch them being produced at Yume Ramen.
“The noodles are easy to make”, says Lorenz. Ramen noodles are made from wheat flour (in Japan they often use Australian flour, but Swiss flour works fine), water, salt and kansui, which is a solution of potassium carbonate and sodium bi-carbonate. This raising agent, which can be found in pharmacies and drugstores, gives the noodles their yellow hue, regulates the acidity of the ingredients, and gives the cooked noodles the desired texture even after having sat in the hot broth a while.
All of the ingredients are mixed together slowly in the machine until a crumbly mixture forms. Finally, this mixture is pressed through a roller – over and over again – until the dough is of the required thickness. However, you can use a simple pasta machine to make fresh ramen noodles at home: “As long as you understand the principle, you’ll be fine”, assures Makiko.
Once the dough has been rolled, the machine is then used to slice the noodles. Little by little, this creates noodle nests, which are stored in small tubs. Lorenz recommends allowing the fresh noodles to rest a little while. At Yume Ramen, they store them for around 24 hours before using them.
There are four basic types of broth for ramen: The best-known ones are shoyu and miso. Shoyu is a mostly brownish, clear broth based on soy sauce, whereas miso can always look a little different, as the miso paste made from fermented beans is often different from region to region. Shio is a salty broth made from fish or seafood, while the fourth type, tonkotsu, is a whitish, opaque broth made by boiling pork bones over a long period.
As Lorenz well knows from his ramen travels, with ramen, you can let your imagination run wild. “Ramen offers endless possibilities, you can really experiment”, says Lorenz. You can even make a tomato-based cheese ramen, suggests the chef. But the most important thing, he adds, is the fat. “Fat is the flavour carrier that ensures that there is enough umami.” In Japanese, umami means “deliciousness” or “flavour”, and it is one of the taste categories that we can perceive in addition to sweet, sour, salty and bitter. But it's not just fat that guarantees umami – glutamate, soy sauce, parmesan, shiitake mushrooms and dried tomatoes are all ingredients with umami.
Fat is the flavour carrier that ensures that there is enough umami.
You don’t need fillets of meat to make a decent meat broth – most ramen soups are made using parts such as the neck or bones. Even a chicken-based broth is great for ramen. Lorenz has an insider's tip: “We boil the broth with meat and bones and at the end we purée the chicken meat with the broth, to achieve a creamy consistency.” Lorenz also explains that there’s a good reason why ramen noodles are oblong in shape: “This gives the fat, which flavours the soup, a broader surface area to stick to, so that the noodles can take on as much of it as possible”. So he and his wife recommend that when you eat ramen, you try the broth first, then the noodles, and then everything together so that you can enjoy each individual component to prepare yourself for the tremendous amount of flavour.
Makiko and Lorenz both agree that, “The most important thing is the egg”. But it doesn't matter whether this is an onsen egg (an egg which is cooked slowly at 65 degrees, which is very popular in Japan), or your usual boiled egg. “The yolk should still be a little runny, but the white should be fully cooked”, says Lorenz.
All other toppings are a question of taste, explain the pros. Here, you can let your imagination run wild, whether you go for chashu (fatty slices of pork), menma (bamboo shoots), negi (spring onions or leek) or moyashi (cooked or raw mung bean sprouts). In some ramen bowls you will also find sweetcorn and seaweed, and in others kamaboko, which is slices of fish cake with a red or pink spiral design (also known as naruto or narutomaki).
“As far as I’m concerned, there is no other cuisine in the world that is as varied as that of Japan”, enthuses Lorenz. Japanese cuisine means perfection, he explains: “People work on recipes for many years, and even if guests tell them that it’s perfect, the head chef is never satisfied.”
This philosophy also applies to ramen, even though the dish is seen as a typical workers’ meal in its home country. In Japan, ramen is eaten quickly and often alone. People slurp loudly to help cool the boiling noodle soup in their mouth. “And sometimes one of the ramen chefs will tell you if you’ve been in their shop for too long”, says Lorenz, laughing.
While ramen is simply part of the fast food lifestyle in Japan, it is still a food trend in Europe. Here, we take our time in the ramen shop and enjoy eating together. “Young people in Switzerland often discover ramen through anime and manga”, says Makiko. Eating can be found everywhere in Japanese comics and animated series. “They have grown up closer to Japanese culture than Europeans of previous generations”, she says. “I think that this is a large part of the reason why ramen has become so trendy in Europe.” What's more, “Eating is such a simple thing to understand – you bite into something and you either like it, or you don't”, she adds.
Makiko sends us on our way with another insider's tip: “Ramen tastes best after a boozy night out.” Her favourite drink is a grapefruit highball, whereas in Japan a nice cold beer is hugely popular as an accompanying drink. However, Makiko advises against ordering sake: “That would be like drinking wine with a hamburger!”
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