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The Vegan Experience: The Foothills Of Mount Ramen (I.e. Vegan Udon)
Note: For the 32 days between February 1st and March 4th, I'm adopting a completely vegan lifestyle. Every weekday I'll be updating my progress with a brand new recipe. For past posts, check here!
I decided before I even began this year's Vegan Experience that an excellent vegan ramen broth would be one of my ultimate goals.
But one does not simply jump into ramen. Its rich tastes are created by more than just pork. There is flavor there that goes quite deep. The chef's eye must be ever watchful. It is a filling taste, man. Riddled with garlic, oil, and...I don't know how much longer I can go on with this overused meme, so I'll stop right there.
Suffice it to say, ramen is a high mountain to climb. Given that its Chinese origins make it generally a far punchier, richer dish than its other Japanese noodly brethren soba (buckwheat noodles) or udon (thick wheat noodles), I decided that I'd start my much-expected journey by exploring the foothills of mount ramen. Namely, by coming up with a vegan udon broth that could compete with the real thing in terms of flavor potency and sheer deliciousness.
Traditional udon is made with dashi, a Japanese broth made from kombu (giant sea kelp) and katsuobushi (dried, smoked, shaved bonito flakes). If you've ever seen a piece of kombu, you'll notice a white, powdery coating on it. These are crystals of glutamic acid formed on its surface as it was dehydrated. That's the same glutamic acid that powdered monosodium glutamate is made with. Indeed, until modern methods of synthesis were developed, kombu was where all the MSG in the world was derived from.
MSG gets a bad rap in the Western world, but if you've ever had a really good Japanese soup—ramen, udon, miso soup, whatever—then you've been eating it, whether extracted from a natural source like kombu, or added in powdered form. It's the chemical compound that makes meats, broths, and other foods like mushrooms and aged cheese taste savory to us.
And it's definitely the start to a good vegan broth.
Many recipes for vegan Japanese soup base end right there, but I find a kombu-only broth to be rather bland, especially when I'm used to the flavor punch of katsuobushi in my dashi. Some recipes call for reinforcing that savory flavor using dried shiitake mushrooms, but after trying it, I can't recommend it—the shiitakes overwhelm everything with their intense flavor, which is far more potent in dried form than in fresh.
Shiitakes were out, but how about other mushrooms? I made a series of broths using various dried and fresh mushrooms—shiitake, shimeji, enoki, matsutake, wood-ear—but it wasn't until I tried to use some traditionally Western mushrooms that I really struck gold. Both dried morels and dried porcini added tons of depth and aroma to the broth. Balancing them out with milder wood ears and the scraps from a few other fresh mushrooms (I used a mix of enoki, shimeji, and shiitake—fresh shiitake don't have the same intense flavor as dried), along with a few alliums (an onion, some garlic, and the bottoms of a few scallions I'd chop and save for garnish) made for a broth base that was intense, rich, and ready for seasoning.
A dash of good quality soy sauce and some sweet mirin were all it needed to become every bit as satisfying as any udon broth I'd ever had, and a good deal more satisfying than most.
The good news: Using mushroom scraps to make my broth left me with a whole bunch of mushrooms which I could subsequently stir-fry and use as a topping.
Topping udon is a easygoing affair—you can use whatever vegetables you like. But since I already had the wok out to fry my mushrooms, I decided to use it to stir fry some napa cabbage as well. I love the nutty, sweet aroma cabbage takes on when you char it. Finally, I had a bit of fried tofu in my freezer (you can buy packages already fried!) that I added to round out the dish into a full meal.
I hope everyone's brought their gas masks, because we're now deep into the foothills of mount ramen, and the air up there gets mighty thin!
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.