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This recipe incorporates two of my own personal humble additions to the ramen universe. They're going to stick around my repertoire, and I hope you consider incorporating them into your own because—not to too my own horn—they are damn delicious.
The first is a crispy braised pork shoulder that adds texture and rich flavor to the bowl; the second is a sweet, spicy, and bitter aromatic condiment that's sort of like the CliffsNotes of the ramen world: Stir some in and even a bowl of bottom-of-the-barrel instant ramen can come out with something interesting to say. Stir it into some home-made broth and you've got a meal that you can sit down with for a deeply intellectual discussion.
The second is a new meat-based topping that's simultaneously crispy and juicy, with deep, rich pork flavor. It's better than any ground or shredded pork topping I've had and it's now become the default ramen topping of choice 'round here.
Here's a quick preview:
But first, let's talk broth.
Of the three major flavoring elements used for ramen in Japan—shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), and miso—miso is the newest form, first appearing in the 1960's and originating in Japan's Northernmost prefecture, Hokkaido. The chilly weather up there demands a heartier bowl of soup than the thinner salt and soy-based ramens of the south, so locals took to whisking miso—fermented soy bean paste—into their lard-laden broth, creating the style known as Sapporo ramen.
The result is rich and filling with a nutty-sweet aroma and an intensely savory flavor, thanks to the plentiful glutamates and inosinates found in miso. It's the definition of umami in a bowl. In Hokkaido, it often comes topped with sweet corn and a pat of butter.
You can make miso ramen with any sort of soup base, but this version starts out identically to my tonkotsu broth, which, I'm afraid, is a project unto itself. You can doctor up some high-quality store-bought pork broth (if you can find it, Sun Noodles' pork ramen is the best brand I know), but really, there are no shortcuts to quality.
Similarly, look for high quality red miso, which has a nuttier flavor than the white, while still retaining a sweetness that is lacking in the brown-styles. As with good miso soup, the goal when making miso ramen is to heat it to just below a simmer, but not to actually bring it to a full rolling boil after whisking in the miso. A touch of soy sauce also adds saltiness while enhancing flavor.
Hearty broth demands hearty toppings, so that's what we're going for here. I use a whole $h*t-ton of sliced scallions along with some sliced wood ear mushrooms for their crunchy texture and a soft-cooked ajitsuke tamago (you can get that recipe here).
On to the new additions to the family.
The Burnt Garlic-Sesame-Chile Oil
The idea for this sauce, intended to be drizzled over a bowl of finished ramen, originated when I was ever-so-briefly in Fukuoka a couple years ago. I stopped by the original Ippudo ramen branch, where I picked up a bottle of their spicy sesame oil condiment. Thick, creamy, and oily, the stuff in that little bottle was magical, transforming pots of mediocre store-bought broth into powerful flavor bombs with its sweet-salty-savory aroma. I went through the whole thing in about a month and haven't been able to find more since.
Sesame paste goes particularly well with robust tonkotsu and miso ramens, so I vowed to come up with my own version of sesame sauce that I could keep around in my fridge.
I started by deciding to use mayu as the oil base for my sauce.
Mayu is a condiment made by cooking grated garlic in oil until it is pitch black in color, giving the oil a bitter-sweet, garlicky aroma that adds extra dimensions to soup when used sparingly. To this base, I experimented with a whole slew of different flavorings—sesame oil, tahini paste, chili bean pasts of various sorts—before coming up with my final recipe.
After cooking down the garlic, I blitz it all in blender with some sesame oil and then return it to a clean skillet. To this mixture, I add some fresh grated garlic—in order to layer that burnt garlic with a bit of a more pungent, fresh aroma—and some sliced thai bird chilies, whose bright heat I preferred to any of the fermented pastes. I heat it up just until it starts bubbling, then let it all cool down so that the flavors can infuse.
Finally, I mix in some roasted sesame seeds that I've ground to a very rough paste in a mortar and pestle, adjusting the seasoning with a hint of sugar and salt.
The resultant sauce is thick, creamy, and slightly oily, with a robust, noodle-clinging texture that adds flavor to every bite. It's really dreamy stuff.
I'm particularly happy with this new topping. The idea for it came from a few different directions at once.
I do enjoy the tender shredded braised pork shoulder that you find in ramen occasionally—think David Chang's bowls at Momofuku noodle car—but often lament the fact that they're so... textureless. They're just soft, moist, mush. Tasty mush, but mush nonetheless. Wouldn't it be great if we could get some extra flavor and texture in there?
That's when I got to thinking about carnitas, the Mexican preparation of pork shoulder that's slow-cooked in fat, then shredded and crisped. It has this magical property, able to stay simultaneously moist and crisp, even when completely doused in sauce. Perhaps a similar method would work for my shredded pork ramen?
I braised off a hunk of pork shoulder, using the simmering pot of ramen broth as my base (I could stick it into the pot as the bones started cooking, then fish it out a few hours later when it was completely tender, giving me plenty of time to let it cool while the broth finished cooking).
After shredding it up by hand, I seasoned the shredded meat with a little soy sauce and mirin, then threw it into a skillet over heat.
And bingo. It worked like a charm, giving me deeply flavored bits of pork that dispersed throughout the bowl and clung to my noodles as I slurped them, adding flavor and texture to every bite.
Want to know a little secret? You don't have to simmer that pork shoulder on its own. If you happen to live near a Mexican restaurant (and who doesn't live near a Chipotle these days?), just go in, order yourself some plain carnitas with no toppings or tortillas, and bring them home. Once you get home, season them up with a bit of soy and mirin, then crisp them in a skillet just as if you'd made that shredded pork yourself.
Your instant ramen bowl will not know the difference, I guarantee it,
Now open wide and say ahhhh...
Wider... Wider... That's it...
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.