Don't Put Your Hand in the Noodle Machine: Notes From Ramen School in Osaka

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[Illustrations: Zac Overman]

Toranoana Ramen School Osaka, December 2013

Some people use a sledgehammer at work. The rest of us, particularly the guys, figure that if it ever came down to it, we'd be pretty good at swinging one.

That's what I was thinking when Miyajima-sensei handed me a bag of bloody pork leg bones and a sledgehammer and told me to go to town. We were busting up bones before throwing them in the pressure cooker to make stock for tonkotsu ramen.

This was my moment.

Sam Evans and I were the only two students spending the day at Rikisai Miyajima's cooking school in Osaka. Miyajima placed a sheet of plastic on the concrete floor. I put a single bone on the plastic and raised the sledgehammer over my head. I brought it down, and the bone went flying. Miyajima replaced the bone, and this time I nailed it, dead-on. Just not very hard. Finally, after a few more blows, the bone gave way, exposing its rich marrow. Just two dozen bones to go.

Luckily, Sam, a brawny yet baby-faced 24-year-old from Manchester, England, was on hand. After initially wrinkling his nose at the pork carnage, he took up the sledgehammer and dispatched the remaining bones without breaking a sweat. Sam was, at the time, living the dream of the young gaijin (Westerner) in Japan, writing for an expat magazine. I lost count of how many times that day he described something as "fookin' great."

Sam was in Osaka to write a magazine article. I was there on a research mission. I'd written a book about Japanese food (Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo), but I felt like there was so much more to say, particularly about ramen, which I'd been eating more often than is clinically advisable since I first encountered the good stuff at a little noodle shop in Hawaii when I was 11.

So I decided to write a book about ramen. Which meant, of course, going to ramen school in Japan.

From the outside, the cooking school looked like a ramen shop. Inside, it also looked like a ramen shop: a counter with a few stools. Miyajima ran his own ramen-ya for years before health concerns led him to retire, sort of, and work as hard as ever training the next generation of chefs.

Along with pork bones, Miyajima likes to use chicken feet in his stock to add gelatin, and therefore body. "The nails make the soup cloudy," he explained, as he pulled out a big bag of chicken claws and started clipping off the nails with a standard drugstore clipper. "Here, you take over."

"Oh, Jesus Christ," said Sam, clearly disgusted, as he stepped back. So, I pedicured a pile of chicken feet, just like they teach you in beauty school.

We dumped the pork bones and chicken feet into Miyajima's pressure cooker, which holds over 100 gallons and can make a batch of tonkotsu broth in 90 minutes, instead of the hours or days that it takes in an unpressurized pot. Once it's finished, the residual pressure in the pot is used to force the broth through a filter and into a hose. When chefs see Miyajima's pressure cooker, they want it. When they hear it costs $20,000, they reconsider.

With the stock cooking away inside its pressurized cocoon, Miyajima showed us how to make a simplified clear broth with ground chicken and pork. It's easy to do at home, and the process is a little gross, which means kids will love it. Making the broth requires kneading water into a bowl full of ground meat until it gets sludgy. The broth is then simmered briefly with aromatic ingredients. The protein in the meat clarifies the broth, which comes out beautiful and golden; the meat, having done its job, is discarded.

Into the Noodle Factory

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Now, with two broths simmering, we headed upstairs to the noodle factory, where Miyajima introduced us to the electric noodle machine. Most ramen shops that make their own noodles have a similar machine: a hopper with a beater for mixing the dough, which then passes through a pair of rollers and onto a take-up reel, just like in an old-fashioned tape deck, but with more carbs. Then you unspool the roll of dough through a noodle cutter. Miyajima showed us a series of noodle cutters in different thicknesses: a narrow one for making Fukuoka-style noodles, an ultra-thick one for making dipping noodles, and sizes in between for Tokyo- and Hokkaido-style noodles.

The machine is not fully automated: You often have to reach in with your hands to guide the dough around its obstacle course, and that's what made me nervous. The ramen shop down the street from me in Seattle has one of these machines, nearly identical to Miyajima's. One day, a noodle maker got her arm caught in the machine, pierced by one of the protrusions on the kneading axle. To make matters worse, the machine was set up in the front window of the restaurant to lure in customers with the promise of house-made noodles. So, for over an hour, people gathered around snapping photos of this crucified employee while paramedics tried to free her. Eventually they disassembled the machine and took her to the trauma hospital, with her arm still skewered by the metal spike.

The noodle maker recovered and went back to work. But her near-dismemberment underscores the fact that noodles are by far the trickiest part of making ramen. I told Miyajima that I was planning to visit a noodle factory in Sapporo. "Ah, Nishiyama Seimen," he said. "Nishiyama-san will tell you that the best noodles come from a factory, but a lot of shops make their own. House-made noodles are a selling point."

"Do you think Nishiyama-san is right about factory noodles?" I asked.

"Yes," said Miyajima, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

When people go to ramen school, though, they want to learn to make noodles. So he measured all-purpose flour into the hopper of the noodle machine and added salt and kansui, an alkalinizing agent similar to baking soda.

To me, kansui is what makes ramen ramen. How do ramen noodles stay bouncy in boiling hot broth? Kansui. Noodles made with too much kansui (a common problem) have a soapy taste, a rubber-band texture, and a Yellow Dye No. 5 hue. Noodles made with too little kansui (less common, but equally annoying) roll over and die between your teeth instead of biting back.

Miyajima added water to the flour mixture in the hopper and started the mixing rotor. As the machine beat the water into the flour, pockets of yellow began to appear. Kansui at work! Long before the mixture resembled dough, however, Miyajima pronounced it finished. Ramen noodle dough is very dry. It's like pie dough: If you add water until it comes together in a ball, it's too wet. It will stick to the machine, stick to itself, and fall apart in the soup. Properly mixed ramen dough looks like coarse, pale yellow sand.

Miyajima lifted the hopper and dumped the shards of dough onto the chute that led to the steel rollers. The dough enters the rollers as a moist powder and comes out a beautiful sheet. You run it through a few times to knead it, then set the rollers to the desired thickness, grab the dough's tail as the rollers release it, and feed it onto the take-up spool. The result is a roll of dough like a bolt of cloth, so dry that the layers remain separate.

Next, we fed the spool of dough into the cutter. The cutter slices the dough lengthwise into noodles of the desired width, but it also slides a knife across the noodles periodically, cutting them to proper noodle length. As the noodles emerge onto a conveyor belt, the maker has to reach in, grab each skein of noodles, fold it with a smart flip of the wrist, and place it in a plastic box. Some noodles fell on the floor. Nobody lost a finger.

Noodles are best after aging for a day or two. This ensures that they're evenly hydrated, and gives the kansui more time to work. But we wanted to eat our own noodles, so we sent them downstairs in a dumbwaiter. This was the first time I'd ever used a dumbwaiter. When I was a kid, I read a book in which a child got stuck in a dumbwaiter, and I added dumbwaiters to my list of preposterous fears (quicksand, rattlesnakes). Well, dumbwaiters are awesome. I want to install one in my single-story apartment.

Time for Lunch

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Back downstairs, we retrieved our noodles from the dumbwaiter and began prepping our lunch. Miyajima heated two bowls by filling them with boiling water and then dumping it out. Then he added pork fat, shio tare, and hot clear broth to each. Tare (pronounced to rhyme with the first half of "Hare Krishna") is a flavoring base, and the shio tare in this case was simply a concentrated mixture of salt and water. Why not simply add salt when making the broth? Flexibility. This way, you can make multiple types of ramen from the same broth by adding a different tare, such as shoyu (soy sauce) or miso.

We boiled the noodles for about one minute. I was tasked with standing by the pot with a large bamboo skimmer, watching Miyajima's cute eggplant-shaped kitchen timer count down. My task: when the timer beeped, scoop up the noodles and drop them into a colander without leaving any behind or dumping the whole mass onto the floor. Unlike with the sledgehammering, I nailed this assignment. Miyajima portioned out the noodles, giving each bundle a little flip with his chopsticks so the strands would align in the bowl. (This is done purely for aesthetics, which is a good thing, because I've tried to execute this flip a dozen times now and still haven't figured it out.)

And that was our lunch: fat, salt, broth, noodles. Ramen in its Platonic form. Sam and I slurped our noodles and drank the broth until it was gone. The soup was salty and meaty, but still clean-tasting and light. Despite the addition of a literal spoonful of grease, it didn't taste greasy. Honestly, it reminded me of chicken-flavor Top Ramen, similarly unadorned but made with high-quality ingredients and care. (Later that day, we drained the pressure cooker and made two versions of tonkotsu ramen.)

Ramen school changed me, but perhaps not for the better. I sometimes make ramen at home (with store-bought noodles), but when I eat it at restaurants, I'm pickier. Is the broth salty enough even after the noodles have been dropped in? If the noodles are house-made, are they any better than Sun Noodle's excellent frozen product? What would Miyajima-sensei think?

I also learned that the world of ramen is a lot more complex and expansive than I ever knew. I've had many more ramen-fueled adventures in Japan since my day at Miyajima's academy...but I still haven't written that ramen book.