It's not just great vegan food, it's great food, period.
I hope you've all brought your oxygen tanks and crampons, for today we climb Mount Ramen, and the air up there is pretty thin. We've made the ascent to the top a few times in the past. First we took the full-frontal, brute-force approach via the Tonkotsu Slopes. Next we made the traverse over to the neighboring peak using the Garlic-Miso Access Trail. Today we take what may well be the most treacherous trail of all: We are climbing up the sheer face of The Vegan Ascent. The climb may be riddled with stumbling blocks, razor-thin cracks, and tricky mantling spots, but I promise to guide you safely to the very top. What a view we'll have!
This is the bowl of ramen I've been working towards ever since I first ventured into the vegetable-based foothills of Mount Ramen two years ago with my vegan udon broth. It's a rich, creamy, complex broth that coats the noodles as they're slurped from the bowl. Little pools of glistening oil twinkle on the surface like gems. Four different toppings that pull no punches in the flavor department and cover all of your texture bases, from tender to crispy to meaty to slick.
This is hands-down the best bowl of ramen I've ever made. And it can all be yours—with a little bit of heavy-duty climbing, that is. It's a bear of a recipe with many moving parts and tons of individual elements that need to come together in one bowl at the end. Set aside at least half a day for this project because you won't be making it on a weeknight. That said, it's not very difficult, technique-wise, lots of simmering and straining and just a bit of roasting. Come with me. I can lead the way and put the anchors in for you, but you're going to have to pull yourself up to the top.
Your Basic Gear
Ramen can be as simple as a bowl of good broth flavored with salt or soy sauce and a pile of fresh alkaline noodles. Most of my meat-based ramen recipes fall into that category. But the best ramen is a little more complex. Sure, they start with a good broth, but there are other elements involved.
If good broth is a bowl of ramen's secret sauce, then tare (pronounced "tah-reh" with a very lightly rolled "r") is the secret sauce's secret sauce. It takes a wide variety of forms, but in essence, it's an intensely flavorful soy-based seasoning blend that is added to the bowl just before the ramen broth goes in. A meaty ramen broth, for instance, might be seasoned with tare made from chicken stock, dashi (bonito and seaweed broth), sake, mirin, and soy sauce.
Flavored fat is almost equally important. With a bowl of creamy, emulsified tonkotsu ramen, you aren't likely to see bubbles of fat pooled on the surface—the fat is built right into the broth. But for pretty much any other type of ramen, a flavorful fat is either added to the bowl with the tare or drizzled on top, adding richness and another, deeper layer of aroma and flavor.
Yes, our vegan ramen will have great broth, but it's also going to have a world-class tare and a flavorful fat that complements it. Let's start at the beginning.
Assari—that's the Japanese term for a thin, clear broth—vegetable broths are a relative walk in the park to make. In fact, the version I used for my Vegan Udon would work wonderfully in a bowl of ramen, whether you season it with just some good quality sea salt or with tare and flavored fat. Kotteri broth—broth that's rich, creamy, and opaque—on the other hand, is the real trick.*
* Check out my ramen style guide for more information than you'd ever possibly want on broth styles.
With a meat- and bone-based broth like pork-based tonkotsu, getting things rich and creamy is a simple matter of time. Cook pork or chicken bones at a rolling boil for long enough and they'll release enough dissolved solids to turn water into a thick broth all on their own. Vegetables lack the gelatin, calcium, and other soluble minerals that bones give off, so we need to take a different tack.
But first things first: flavor.
I started my broth by simply simmering a whole bunch of vegetables—onions, garlic, ginger, leeks, scallions, cabbage, dried and fresh mushrooms—along with a big piece of kombu, the Japanese sea kelp from which MSG was originally derived. It's what provides savoriness and a sort of roundness of flavor to many Japanese soups and stews. On its own, the broth was fine, but it wasn't quite as deep as I wanted it to be. Roasting the onions, garlic, and ginger under a broiler added some essential bass notes and a bit of sweetness to the mix (we'll get to what that eggplant is doing on the tray in a moment).
I topped up the pot with water, brought the whole thing to a boil, let it simmer for about an hour (vegetables give up their flavor much faster than meat does—one of the advantages of making vegan ramen is that it's much faster!), then tasted. The flavor was good. Great, even, but of course, it lacked any body.
I considered a few different approaches. Thickening with cornstarch or flour. Adding vegan gelling agents like agar or modified food starch. The problem was, those guys thicken without really adding any richness or significant body. I wanted my broth to coat noodles like tiny, noodle-sized lingerie.
As I started to dump out the spent vegetables I'd strained out, a lightbulb appeared over my head. A tiny, garlic-shaped lightbulb. Japanese cuisine is typically not very heavy on garlic, but in dishes that have a Chinese origin—like ramen—you'll see it used with abandon. Straight up raw or broiled garlic would be too powerful for my broth, but what about this garlic that had been simmering for an hour? That should be plenty of time to destroy the lachrymators—the chemicals responsible for raw garlic's strong, sharp qualities.
I squeezed a few cloves out of the soft head of garlic and tasted them. They had a wonderfully mild garlicky aroma with none of the sharpness. Perfect. I squeezed out all of the cloves and blended them into my strained broth. It gave the broth a little bit more body (and a lot more flavor), but it still wasn't quite there.
What about something a bit starchier? Regular potatoes would make it a little too gummy (and wouldn't help in the flavor department), but something like sweet potato or squash seemed like a good bet.
I roasted some sweet potatoes, butternut squash, kabocha, and acorn squash, tossing them with a bit of oil and a big pinch of shichimi togarashi, a Japanese seven-spice blend with a mild chili heat and a ton of flavor. After roasting them to tenderness, I tried blending them with batches of broth to see which worked best. Sweet potato won by a landslide both in terms of rich texture and complementary flavor (though kabocha was quite tasty in its own way).
Cutting up a whole sweet potato and pureeing only part of it with the soup gave me the added benefit of flavoring my broth while also providing me with chunks of tender, caramelized sweet potato to use as a topping for my finished bowl.
I'm the kind of guy who likes to optimize his time, so I figured while I have the oven on, I might as well roast a second topping as well.
I love the way mushrooms concentrate in flavor and crisp up as you roast them, so that seemed like a natural choice. My favorite is fan-shaped maitake mushrooms (hen of the woods), though beech mushrooms or even plain old quartered buttons work just fine.
With my broth (and two of my toppings) out of the way, I decided to move on to the next element: the tare.
Have you ever peeked into the window at a ramen-ya and seen the cooks ladling an ounce or two of black liquid into the bottom of the serving bowl? That's tare. Why the fiddly business of keeping it separate until just before serving? There are a few reasons. First, it makes sense in a restaurant setting to keep the seasoning separate from the broth. It gives you more versatility when one broth can be flavored by tare, by salt, by miso, etc. For a home cook, it allows you to adjust the salt level of a bowl on an individual basis (almost all of the salt content in a bowl of ramen comes from the tare).
Finally, some folks claim that heating ramen with the tare already mixed into it will destroy some of its more subtle flavor. I'm a little skeptical. Tasting a batch of mixed-then-heated broth and tare side-by-side with a bowl that was mixed just before serving with no subsequent heating was pretty inconclusive. If there's a difference, it's a small one. One thing is certain: if your tare contains thick or fatty elements like miso or sesame paste (and mine will eventually contain both), then adding it to the broth before heating is a bad idea. Excess heat can cause both to coagulate and form distinct particles. You end up with a grainy broth instead of a creamy one.
All of this is reason enough for me to stick with tradition and store my tare separately from my broth.
More kombu was an obvious first choice for tare ingredients. You can never have too much umami when it comes to ramen. I started by making a very basic tare of soy sauce and mirin simmered with kombu, scallions, ginger, and garlic until reduced by about half, giving me a dark, syrupy liquid with intense salty-sweet flavor. It was good enough, but I could do better.
I decided to see if I could get another two-for-one deal out of the tare. Simmering fresh shiitake mushrooms with all the aromatics not only gave the tare another dimension of flavor (and a bit of a gelatinous texture), but it also gave me tender, slick, flavor-packed mushrooms to use as another topping.
Once I simmered the mushrooms in the liquid for about half an hour, I discarded the aromatics and kombu, drained the mushrooms, and reserved the mushrooms and tare separately.
On to the final soup element: the oil.
The Flavored Oil
Like cast iron pans and tanned beach bodies, ramen is simply better when it has a thin, thin layer of glistening, aromatic oil coating it. In great ramen-ya, cooks will float a small ladleful of flavored oil onto their soup before serving it. The oil pools into shimmering golden bubbles that don't just taste good, they look gorgeous as well. With a meat-based broth, this can be rendered pork or chicken fat, perhaps flavored with some aromatics from the broth. With a vegetable broth, it's a little tougher to find a good oil with complementary flavors to use.
I tried a few different widely available flavored oils to start. Sesame oil worked okay, but was very strong. I liked chili oil enough that I'd use it all the time, but this is meant to be a standard bowl of ramen, not a spicy one. Flavored nut oils were out of the question—they just didn't mesh.
In the end, I decided to make my own quick-flavored oil that would complement the flavors already in the broth.
I started with more of those dried porcini and shiitake mushrooms. Back when I worked at Clio in Boston, we'd make a black pepper- and porcini-infused oil that we'd use to finish vegetable soups, salads, and some meat-based dishes as well. I figured the same technique we used there—covering the mushrooms in oil and slowly heating them just until they start to release bubbles—would work for my ramen as well.
For added flavor I also tossed in a few roughly chopped scallions. After covering them with oil, I heated them on the stovetop until bubbling, then covered the pot and let everything steep for about half an hour before spooning a bit onto a bowl of broth.
Score. This stuff is fantastic. The flavor you pick up in an oil is quite different from what you get in a broth. While a broth's water-soluble flavor compounds can escape very easily into the atmosphere (and up your nose), a flavored oil takes a little more heat and close contact to give its flavor and aroma up. The result is that by combining a flavorful broth with a nicely flavored oil, you have aroma that hits you straight out of the bowl (mostly from the broth), followed by flavor that creeps up on you as you start to slurp (thanks to the oil).
The Eggplant Toppings
The story with toppings so far: We have our simmered shiitake (adding that slippery, umami-rich flavor), our sweet potato (for meaty bite and sweetness), and our roasted mushrooms (for those little crisp edges that keep the sweet potato company). What we need now is the ringleader. The one guy who can bring together all of the elements to get the job done. That's where the eggplant we charred earlier comes in. Think of it as the Lion-o of your ramen bowl.
After coming up with a technique for making a tender, creamy, smoky eggplant ramen topping last year, I've yet to find something I like better. The broiler gives it a nice smoky char while a mixture of seasoned soy sauce and mirin give it depth. In that recipe, I spin out excess liquid from the eggplant with a salad spinner, then simmer it on the stovetop with a piece of kombu and some dried bonito flakes before stirring it back into the shredded eggplant flesh with a handful of sesame seeds.
Realizing I already had a great, concentrated source of soy and mirin (the strained liquid from my simmered shiitake mushrooms), I changed things up a bit. In the interest of streamlining, for this application, I decided to spin the eggplant (this removes excess moisture and concentrates both flavor and texture) and then add that liquid directly to my broth.
I then stirred some of my mushroom seasoning and some toasted sesame seeds in with the eggplant flesh.
That eggplant, along with some thin-sliced scallions and another sprinkle of togarashi were the final pieces of the toppings puzzle, giving me a huge range of textures and flavors that all played off each other perfectly.
We're down to the final stages here. Up until this point, everything can be prepared in advance. The broth and toppings can be stored in the fridge as-is. The oil should stay in a sealed container in the fridge with the aromatics still left in it (it'll just get better with age). The shiitake soy should be stored in a sealed container as well (you'll notice that it will turn a little gelatinous as it cools; this is from thickening agents found in shiitake caps). This is good news if you're planning a ramen party, because once you've got everything complete, it takes just about 10 minutes to serve from fridge to table.
I start by combining the three major elements of my seasoning base: the tare I made with the mushrooms, a dollop of white miso paste, and a bit of sesame paste (tahini will work just fine). The latter two don't just add flavor, but they also add body to the stock.
I plated up bowl after bowl of this stuff and loved every sip, but there was still a little something missing: more garlic. Sure we've got plenty of mild garlic flavor in the broth, but doubling up on it by adding a bit of raw garlic to the flavoring solution adds a necessary sharp, spicy element.
Just like with risotto, the first step in plating a bowl of ramen is to make sure that your bowl is hot. Nobody likes a bowl of ramen that is lukewarm by the time you reach the bottom. Pre-heating the bowl will keep it piping hot for a good 10 to 15 minutes. (And if you're taking longer than that to eat your ramen, you're doing it wrong!)
I heat my bowl by placing it in a warm oven for a few minutes. You could also fill it with boiling water and let it rest for a few minutes, dumping the water just before filling and serving.
Once the tare is in the bowl, the hot broth goes in next. I give it a little stir with a spoon and adjust the seasoning as necessary with a bit more tare or a pinch of salt.
Next up: fresh-cooked ramen noodles. I highly recommend the fresh noodles from Sun Noodles. Even though it can be tough to find a store that sells just the noodles without the concentrated soup base, I think it's worth it to buy the whole thing and discard the soup base just to get at those noodles. Check your local Japanese or other Asian market for fresh ramen noodles, or use our trick of cooking pasta with a pinch of baking soda to get yourself some very similar end results.
Once the ramen are in, add a big drizzle of the oil...
...then all of your toppings. Don't do what I did and stop to take a picture. Now is not the time to dawdle. If there's one downside to ascending Mount Ramen, it's that there's no time to stop and check out the view. That bowl of ramen is there for the taking and it's not getting any better as the noodles cook more and the broth cools. Stop admiring, stop back-slapping, stop high-fiving, just stop everything and eat NOW.
There it is. Creamy, rich, and layered with tons of flavors that build and build as you work through the bowl.
Just look at the way the broth clings to those noodles as you pull them up.
Did you pack your sleeping bag with you before you started? I have a feeling this is a peak you're going to want to hang around for a little while.
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