A classic shoyu ramen is a beautiful thing: thin, wavy noodles swimming in a light, clear broth that's been faintly stained by soy sauce; a raft or two of sliced pork floating on top, maybe, along with a scattering of greenery from scallions sliced as thin as humanly possible. A sheet of nori might be stuck to one side of the bowl, or, like the pork, it might be planked across the top; there might also be a bundle of welcomingly bland blanched spinach, or a tangle of crunchy pickled bamboo shoots. Hidden in plain sight, one of the most crucial components: jewels of glittering fat, scented with ginger and garlic, crowded along the sides of the bowl, sticking to the edges of every float, speckled across the few windows in the broth that reveal the noodles below.
We've tackled ramen before. Kenji wrote a thorough explanation of how to make a deeply flavorful tonkotsu broth in 2012, and, since then, we've published a guide to ramen styles, a very good vegan ramen recipe, a turkey paitan recipe, a recipe for hiyashi chuka (cold ramen), a Halloween-themed ramen, a video about how to slurp ramen, and much, much more.
But recently, as I looked through our ramen library, I realized that we'd never published a recipe for a shoyu ramen.
There are a few reasons for this. For one, while it's ubiquitous in Japan, chintan shoyu ramen—that is, a clear, soy sauce–based ramen—was for a long time overshadowed in this country by the gut-busting tonkotsu, the thick, creamy ramen broth made by boiling pork bones for hours and hours. In New York, at least, it's been only in the last couple years that a diner could find superlative examples of chintan shoyu. At Nakamura, Shigetoshi "Jack" Nakamura has a shoyu ramen on his menu (the Torigara) that's as classic as can be, and Keizo Shimamoto, who runs Ramen Shack in Queens, has one that's every bit the Torigara's equal, even though it's an entirely different eating experience. Between those two bowls, you get a glimpse of the range that the style can offer, and why some people vastly prefer it to the thicker, heavier styles of ramen.
Another reason for its comparative obscurity here is that, like all ramen, shoyu ramen is difficult and time-consuming to make well. Combine these two factors, and there was historically little reason to formulate a recipe for home cooks.
But in the time since 2012, something changed: The pressure cooker went from being a niche item in the United States to a device that's now approaching the popularity of the microwave, in no small part because of the Instant Pot. And, since one of the tasks at which a pressure cooker excels is making good broth and stock in a very short amount of time, I figured we could come up with a recipe that uses a pressure cooker to quickly produce most of the components of a chintan shoyu ramen, and that does it with (mostly) common ingredients bought at a grocery store.
The process had to be relatively simple, and it had to have a relatively high chance of success and be pretty foolproof. Of course, the final bowl also had to taste great.
Along the way, I stumbled across something interesting: Not only can this process produce a fine, clear broth, perfect for a chintan shoyu, it can also, with a little extra effort and time, produce a second broth that is wonderfully rich and cloudy, perfect for making ramen or any number of noodle soups of different kinds.
Two broths, for the price of one? We'll get to that in a bit, but first let's tackle the question of what, exactly, I set out to produce.
What Makes a Bowl of Ramen?
Every bowl of ramen is made up of five components: broth, noodles, tare, aroma oil, and toppings. The most important component of any bowl is the men, or the alkaline noodles, but bowls of ramen are usually identified by the tare, or seasoning, used to flavor the broth. Thus, your basic choices at a typical ramen shop will generally be between shoyu (soy sauce), shio (salt), and miso ramen.
In a good bowl of ramen, each component will be thoughtfully and carefully prepared. In a great bowl of ramen, it's not just that each component is prepared well; each is prepared in a way that complements the others, creating that unique sort of culinary alchemy in which the sum is greater than its parts. (Think: hot dog, hot dog bun, and mustard, and no more.)
Even the cheapest instant-ramen packets cover four of the five bases, and nod to the fifth: The fried-noodle blocks provide both the oil and the noodles; the flavor packet, when combined with water, handles both the broth and its seasoning; and the suggested serving image on the packaging makes it clear that toppings are an option if the consumer is willing to go to the trouble.
At the outset, I knew that the tare had to be made separately, and obviously the same applies to the noodles, which you can either buy or make yourself. But I suspected that, with the help of a pressure cooker, one could devise a recipe for the broth, the fat for the aroma oil, and at least one topping—pork—using only a single pot.
What Is Ramen Broth?
Ramen is fundamentally just a dish of noodles in soup, no different in conception from a Taiwanese beef noodle soup, a pho, or even chicken noodle soup. In fact, shoyu ramen in particular is often called chuka soba, which essentially translates to "Chinese noodles," a tribute to the country in which alkaline noodles were first made. (It's also sometimes called shina soba, a name that uses an archaic kanji character for China that's considered racist by many Chinese.)
Because of its Chinese origin, ramen is not technically considered a part of washoku, or traditional Japanese cuisine. (Examples of washoku are things like the typical Japanese breakfast; an elaborate, multicourse kaiseki meal; or something as simple as soba.) But ramen is firmly in the camp of wafu, or Japanese-style cuisine, and part of that has to do with dashi, Japan's super-savory and somewhat smoky stock, which is usually made from kombu (dried kelp) and katsuobushi (cured, smoked, and dried skipjack tuna).
Most ramen bowls will have some component that includes dashi's flavors of kombu and/or katsuobushi, whether it's the tare, the broth, the aroma oil, or all three. This isn't a strict requirement, but because these two ingredients are integral to making hondashi (literally, "base stock"), which is the foundation of washoku, their inclusion in ramen was what initially distinguished it from its Chinese precursor.
They're also the reason why ramen is so tasty. You can read more about this in our article on dashi, but both ingredients essentially function as natural flavor enhancers. Kombu provides glutamic acid to the dish, which combines with the inosinic acid provided by the katsuobushi (or, say, chicken or pork) in a multiplicative way, amplifying the savory qualities of the broth.
Chintan? Paitan? What's the Difference?
A classic shoyu ramen has a chintan dashi, which translates roughly to "clear broth." The opposite of a chintan broth is a paitan broth, of which tonkotsu is the most famous example; paitan merely means that the broth is emulsified, and is therefore milky or cloudy.* ("Tonkotsu" is a bit of shorthand, since there are, for example, chintan tonkotsu broths, or pork-bone broths that are as clear as a pane of oily glass; these are also sometimes called assari tonkotsu, which means "light tonkotsu.")
*Both "chintan" and "paitan" have kanji, or Chinese characters, that denote their meaning, but they are both slightly strange terms that are specifically associated with ramen, and thus their characters are pronounced in an unorthodox way that's closer to their pronunciation in Chinese. This is a further indication of how indebted Japanese ramen culture is to Chinese gastronomy. The terms translate, literally, to "clear warm water bath" and "white warm water bath" (or "pure warm water bath," since in Japan whiteness is traditionally strongly associated with purity).
There is no rule that dictates what kind of seasoning a given broth should have; you can flavor a milky chicken paitan with soy sauce (and thus produce a "shoyu paitan"), or you can simply season a chintan broth with salt instead of soy sauce (and thus produce a shio ramen). That said, if you said to a Japanese person that you'd eaten a bowl of shoyu ramen for lunch, they would assume that you were talking about a chintan broth flavored with a soy sauce tare.
How to Make a Light, Clear, Pork- and Kombu-Flavored Chicken Broth
I wanted to produce that shoyu ramen, which meant I needed to come up with a method to produce a broth with a strong dashi profile, combined with the flavors of chicken and pork. The bowl of ramen I had in my mind was inspired by the bowls I used to eat when I visited my grandparents in Fukushima in the summer. (Really, it's a replica of the chuka soba at Korakuen, a ramen chain known for its very cheap pricing and its gyoza.)
The main challenge is that infusing the flavor of kombu and katsuobushi into a broth can be tricky, as they both produce bitter flavors when subjected to boiling temperatures, or sour flavors when left in hot broth for too long. Ramen chefs have a bunch of different methods for limiting the production of those off flavors, most of which require precision temperature control—something I couldn't do with the extremely high heat of a pressure cooker. I knew that I wanted the flavor of both kombu and katsuobushi in the bowl, but I also didn't want the recipe to be too fussy, with multiple extra steps needed to work around this hurdle.
Another element I had to consider was the clarity and color of the broth. Using a clear broth is in part an aesthetic choice, but it's also a choice that affects flavor, since some techniques are off the table if you want to ensure that the broth is both very clear and subtly flavored. Browning the bones beforehand, for example, would add a deeper, roasty flavor, but it isn't compatible with making a light and clear broth.
I knew that a pressure cooker could make a reasonably clear broth full of chicken flavor, but I wanted to minimize the amount of color the broth took on. So I knew I wasn't going to cook vegetables in it, lest they start to caramelize and impart some brown to the broth, nor was I going to do any browning of the bones and meat beforehand.
Using Daniel's experiments with pressure cooker chicken broth as a departure point, I knew I'd be using a whole chicken, rather than its parts, to serve as the base for my ramen broth.** The collagen-rich backs, wings, skin, and legs would give the broth body when heat transformed that collagen into gelatin, and the meat from the legs and the breasts would give the broth a bunch of chicken flavor.
I knew from conversations with Jack Nakamura that he added kombu to his broths after they were cooked, steeping the kelp in the hot broth like tea, so I decided I'd do that, too. I just had to figure out how to give the broth some vegetal complexity without adding any color, and how to add a bit of pork flavor to the mix.
** That said, I did nevertheless test broths made from just chicken wings and just chicken backs, and broths made with the whole chicken minus the breasts. I found the whole-chicken broth to be superior.
Figuring Out the Pork
I had originally envisioned putting a piece of pork shoulder into the pot. In the United States, pork belly is the most common pork topping for ramen, but in Japan, pork shoulder is just as prevalent, if not more so.
I'd thought that the shoulder could serve three purposes: It would add pork flavor to the broth, it could be used as a topping for the final bowl of ramen, and it would render out some pork fat, which I could skim off the surface of the final, cooled broth along with the rendered chicken fat, which I could then use to make my aroma oil.
I tested it several times, but I ran into a few issues. The first was that in the time it took to produce a full-flavored broth, the pork would invariably overcook. The second was that the shoulder didn't always render quite enough delicious fat. The third was that the ideal cut of shoulder for chashu is the group of muscles at the top of a pork shoulder, right behind the pig's head. This is the same muscle used to make coppa; I believe barbecue enthusiasts in the United States call it the "money muscle." When butchered correctly, it consists of several muscles with large striations of fat between them, and the whole group together forms a rough cylinder.
You can purchase this muscle from specialty butchers (for some of the photos in this piece, I included a piece of chashu made from the collar of a milk-fed piglet, or porcelet, which I purchased from specialty purveyor D'Artagnan), or you can cut it out of a whole shoulder yourself, but I knew that the average home cook wouldn't have the skill or the willingness to do so, so I nixed that idea. The alternative—to just instruct people to use pork shoulder and hope for the best—was not ideal.
So, after some discussion with Daniel, I decided that pork belly was the way to go. Now, pork belly, too, is a specialty cut, but it has a couple advantages over pork shoulder. Pork bellies, particularly those harvested from industrially farmed pigs, are pretty consistent in size; they require very little technical skill to work with, especially if you don't call for rolling them; and they can withstand a fair amount of overcooking and still remain moist and palatable—because they have a lot of fat. This also solved the fat-rendering problem: With every belly trial, the rendered fat was abundant and pleasantly porky.
I should note that for this recipe, any form of pork belly will work. If you get a misshapen hunk from a butcher, or if your supermarket sees fit to sell weird, half-inch-thick slices of belly, either is usable, if not ideal. But if you can find a nice rectangular slab that's at least two inches wide and has a good ratio of meat to fat, then you can cut it in a number of different appealing ways after cooking—as planks, or as squares.
There was one issue with using pork belly to flavor the broth: The plain, boiled pork belly was bland. To address this, I cured the pork overnight in a 50/50 mix of sugar and salt.
This was perhaps the greatest deviation from the best practices of stock- and broth-making—you should never season a broth or stock!—but if we were going to suggest using this pork as a topping, it had to have some flavor on its own. And while the pork does impart some seasoning to the broth, as long as the broth isn't reduced or over-seasoned later, it still works perfectly as a ramen broth.
As an optional step, to further increase the pork belly's savor, you can also store it overnight in a zip-top bag filled with some of the tare (more on the tare below).
With the pork and chicken squared away, I just had to figure out how to add the vegetables.
Adding Vegetables to the Broth: Think of It Like Consommé
If you throw vegetables into a pressure cooker to make a stock, the high heat a pressure cooker achieves will caramelize the sugars and encourage Maillard reactions in the vegetables, which, sure, produce lots of good flavor, but they also produce a lot of brown color. I was willing to sacrifice some of the flavor that comes from caramelized vegetables, but I wasn't willing to sacrifice all that vegetal complexity. That meant I needed to find a way to get their flavor into the broth without adding them to the cooker from the beginning.
I did know, from classic French stock-making technique, that for so-called "white" stocks, you achieve a lighter color by discarding the skins of onions and carrots and the like, so I knew I'd follow that method here. But I didn't know when or how to add the vegetables to the pot.
The easiest solution was to add the vegetables to the pressure cooker after the chicken and pork had already been pressure-cooked, then keep the broth at a bare simmer until the vegetables were spent. But I knew I'd want to add the kombu after the broth was done, so adding the vegetables after the meats would just lengthen the entire cooking process, which went against my desire to keep this recipe reasonably quick. The idea of steeping the kombu, though, made me think of consommé.
With a consommé, a rich stock is mixed with egg whites and shells, finely chopped vegetables, and ground meat, and the mixture is brought to a simmer. The egg whites bond with the shells, vegetables, and meat to create a protein raft, which then sieves out all the particulate matter in the stock as it rises to the top.
While that's happening, the vegetables and meat flavor the stock further, kind of like a tea. Since I was planning on steeping the kombu in the broth anyway, I figured that I could do the same thing at the same time with the vegetables, thus cutting down on the total time required.
The first time I tried it, it didn't work out well. I put a piece of kombu in the bottom of a mixing bowl, then dumped in diced onion, minced garlic, sliced ginger, a chopped leek (the white and light-green parts only), and a diced carrot. When my pork-and-chicken stock was done, I strained the liquid directly into the mixing bowl, gave it all a stir, then let it steep for 45 minutes.
I strained it out, seasoned it with a little salt, and tasted it. It was good—lots of vegetal complexity, a nice hit of kombu umami, the strong taste of the chicken along with meaty overtones of pork. And then, a few seconds later, it was not so good; there was a slightly bitter, slightly cloying aftertaste, as if I'd over-extracted the kombu, which, of course, I had.
The problem I had not considered was that the broth, straight out of the pressure cooker, was near boiling, and the kombu was sitting in too-hot broth for too long. But the vegetables offered up the perfect fix. On subsequent trials, I strained the broth directly onto the vegetables alone. After a quick stir, the vegetables cooled the broth down immediately to about 176°F (80°C), which happens to be the ideal temperature for steeping kombu. In the end, this was the method I settled on.
Another benefit of steeping the vegetables in the broth off the heat is that by the time the steeping period ends, the broth is cool enough to decant into containers and immediately refrigerate.
Mottainai! Or, How to Get More Bang for Your Buck
While this process produces a sufficiently clear and subtly flavored chintan broth, I realized that the chicken carcass, the vegetables, and the kombu still had a lot of flavor left to give, and it seemed like a shame to just toss them in the trash. Then I remembered that Mike Satinover, a.k.a. /u/Ramen_Lord, had talked about using spent chicken bones from a chintan broth to make a paitan broth, a technique he, in turn, had heard about from Keizo Shimamoto, the chef behind Ramen Shack.
This idea is not as outlandish as it may appear to some. Within Japanese cuisine, it's standard practice to reuse kombu and katsuobushi after making a hondashi—the kombu and katsuobushi are simmered together to make what is called a niban dashi, or "second broth." Similarly, in classic French cuisine, part of the process of creating a concentrated veal stock is boiling the veal bones a second time to make a remouillage (literally, "rewetting"), then combining the remouillage with the first veal stock and reducing them together.
Still, the idea does seem odd when you're working with chicken bones, since they usually give up all the flavor and gelatin they have fairly quickly. But that wasn't the case with the chintan broth I had produced; because of the short cook time required to make the pork belly palatable, the chicken bones don’t get cooked nearly long enough to be totally spent. So I experimented a bit, and, in the end, came up with a process that uses the same chicken, vegetables, and kombu to produce a perfectly milky chicken paitan broth, which we'll be publishing later in separate technique and recipe posts.
For now, the photo below will have to suffice. If you make this shoyu ramen recipe before the paitan broth recipe is published, you might want to save your chicken, vegetables, and kombu (separately).
How to Make Tare, the "Soul of the Bowl"
Every bowl of ramen is seasoned with a tare. Tare translates to "sauce," but in the context of ramen its essential function is to add salt to the broth, so it can be based on anything that is salty.
As I mentioned above, the three main tare choices you'll be presented with in a ramen shop are shoyu (soy sauce), shio (salt), and miso. While those names seem pretty straightforward, they're more like general descriptions than prescriptions. A shoyu tare can have some salt in it, and a shio tare can have soy sauce in it; a miso tare will use miso as its base, but can also include peanut butter, tahini, fish sauce, soy sauce, salt, or chili paste.
Beyond salinity, the tare offers an additional opportunity to add concentrated flavors to the bowl. Consequently, the use of dried-seafood products, like katsuobushi, kombu, or dashi, is very typical, as is the use of monosodium glutamate (MSG).
One of the main creative elements of making ramen, and one of the most challenging, is harmonizing the tastes in a broth with those of the tare. For my bowl, I knew I wanted soy sauce to be the primary flavoring—it is a shoyu ramen, after all—but I also wanted to add a bit of complexity that was otherwise missing in the broth.
The main element of a shoyu ramen that my broth was missing was the smoky, fishy flavors of katsuobushi. My solution was to make a dashi heavily infused with katsuobushi, then flavor that with soy sauce and sake, which, along with mirin, are pretty standard in a lot of shoyu tares.
The final consideration was how dark I wanted the ramen. If your goal was just a pristine bowl of broth that was sufficiently seasoned, you'd go with a direct shot of salt (and MSG), or very salty dashi, as your flavoring, and you'd have a shio ramen. But, aesthetically, to make the bowl look like the one I had in mind, I wanted the final broth to be a relatively light amber, which required a healthy dose of soy sauce tare, but not too much.
The process is very simple: Cold-soak about 12 grams of kombu overnight in 500 milliliters of water. The next day, bring the water and kombu to a bare simmer, then add a few handfuls (30 grams) of katsuobushi and let the mixture steep for three minutes. Strain the dashi (reserving the kombu and katsuobushi for another use), then add 350 milliliters each of sake and soy sauce, bring the mixture to a boil, and reduce it by about half.
Recognizing with your eyes alone when a liquid has reduced by half is easier said than done, so I took a cue from a step Stella often recommends in her recipes and measured the reduction by weight. The tare mixture alone should start with a weight of 1,050 grams, and you want the final weight to be half that, or 525 grams. If you measure the total weight of the saucepan and the liquid, when the weight drops by 525 grams, you're done.
What Is Aroma Oil, and Why Is It Important?
The aroma oil, as its name suggests, is fat that has been infused with highly aromatic ingredients, which can be as simple as ginger and/or garlic, but can extend to include scallions, onion, dried fish, mushrooms—you name it. When you lean over a bowl of ramen and inhale, most of what you're smelling is the aroma oil. The aroma oil's flavors are also present in every bite of noodles, since the fat clings to them as you lift them from the broth.
You can use any fat you want as the basis for your aroma oil. Since the broth-making process produces a lot of rendered pork and chicken fat, and since one of the goals of this bowl was to minimize waste wherever possible, I used that. But if you have a ton of reserved rendered fat in your freezer, you could use that instead. Use whatever you want, as long as you keep in mind that you want something that complements the rest of the bowl. Duck fat might sound luxurious, but it tastes a little weird in the mix; ditto bacon fat.
Once the broth has chilled and the gelatin has set, it's relatively easy to skim the layer of fat off the top and put it in a saucepan. (Don't worry too much about getting a bit of broth in there, but if you do, take care while heating the fat, as it will sputter and spit.) You should have about a half cup of fat. If you don't, or if you're worried at all about not having enough, you can trim some of the solid fat off the cooked pork belly and cook it in the rendered fat; it'll render additional fat very quickly, giving you more than enough fat to work with. You can also supplement the rendered fat with a neutral oil.
When the fat is hot, I add plenty of minced fresh ginger and six cloves of sliced garlic. It's a generous dose of ginger and garlic for a small amount of fat, but I wanted the aroma oil to add some much-needed brightness to the bowl, which is also why I eventually flavor it with the zest of a lemon.
I stir the garlic and ginger pretty much constantly while they're in the fat, just until they're about to turn brown. At that point, I put the lemon zest in the bottom of a fine-mesh strainer and immediately pour the liquid fat through into a clean bowl, allowing it to pick up the citrus oils on its way.
How to Assemble a Bowl of Shoyu Ramen
Once you have all the components prepared—the clear chicken/pork/kombu broth; the shoyu tare; the rendered chicken and pork fat spiked with garlic, ginger, and citrus zest; and a nice hunk of stewed pork that's been chilled overnight and is ready to be sliced—you'll want to have some noodles on hand, either bought from the grocery store or from your favorite local ramen place, or made at home.
You'll also want to prepare any other toppings you might want in the bowl. Want a different kind of pork in there? Try this chashu recipe. How about a marinated, soft-boiled egg? If you don't want anything extra in there, don't worry: I tend to think of every topping as optional except for scallions, so if you just want to slice up a scallion as thinly as you can, do that and call it a day. You're ready to put a bowl together.
But first, let's talk about necessary equipment. This will depend on how many people you plan on serving ramen at the same time, and how frequently you plan to serve ramen at home. If you're going to be making ramen regularly, and you want to make it for more than just a couple of people at a time, I suggest you pick up two of these noodle baskets. (And if you do end up purchasing a couple baskets, you'll need a pot both wide and tall enough to accommodate both at the same time, like one of our recommended stockpots.) If you choose to forgo the baskets, you'll just need a standard-issue fine-mesh strainer for noodle-draining.
Finally, you'll want some tools to help you accurately portion out the components of your ramen bowl. This recipe was designed to work with conventional measuring-spoon amounts, so I set the amount of broth per bowl at 350 milliliters, which neatly translates to two full ladlefuls of the 175-milliliter ladle I have at home. The final liquid ratio should be: 350 milliliters (two 175-milliliter ladlefuls) broth to 30 milliliters (two tablespoons) shoyu tare to 10 milliliters (two teaspoons) aroma oil.
You don't have to follow this exact ratio, but I do recommend it as a starting point, because it's appropriately salty. By that, I mean it's very salty! The main reason restaurant ramen (or instant ramen, for that matter) is better than the stuff many people make at home is that it's saltier than you'd think is necessary.
Figuring out the ratios you want to use and ensuring that they can easily be achieved with the tools you have on hand is particularly useful for slinging multiple bowls of consistently flavored ramen in a short amount of time. It also ensures that the soup in the bowls is always hot—if there's any cardinal sin in ramen-making, it's serving a lukewarm bowl of soup. If you take a moment to measure out the hot broth into a measuring cup or something before it goes in the bowl, I guarantee it won't be hot enough.
Bring a pot of water to a boil on high heat for the noodles, and put your broth in a separate pot and bring it to a simmer over medium heat. While this isn't of the utmost importance, you'll want to avoid boiling your broth, both because you don't want it to reduce any more (because of the added sugar and salt from the cured belly) and because the agitation from boiling will make it cloudier.
While the noodle water and broth heat up, set up your components so that they're all within easy reach—once the noodles start cooking, putting the bowl together happens in a matter of seconds, not minutes. You may need to stick the fat in the microwave for 30 seconds, just to get it into a liquid state, and you may want to broil or torch your slices of pork belly. (I highly recommend this step, although it is optional.) After that, lay all the components out on your counter or work surface, along with your bowl(s) and the tools you need to portion out those components.
When the water comes to a boil, fill each bowl with a ladleful of boiling water to get it nice and warm. After about 30 seconds to a minute, drop the noodles into the pot of boiling water, start a timer for however long the packaging says they require, and stir them with chopsticks to ensure they don't clump up.
Dump the boiling water out of the bowl(s), then quickly add two tablespoons of the shoyu tare, two teaspoons of the aroma oil, an eighth of a teaspoon of white pepper, and a scattering of sliced scallion to the bottom of each bowl.
Add 350 milliliters of hot broth to each bowl. Drain the noodles thoroughly when the timer goes off, slide them into the bowls, and, using a pair of chopsticks (or spring-loaded tongs), stir the noodles around in the broth to loosen them up. Lift them up clear of the broth and fold them over. Here's a collage of the entire process:
Arrange your toppings however you see fit. If you're using just the chashu included in the recipe and some sliced scallions, you can go minimalist:
Or you can take a maximalist approach:
How to Make This Recipe Better
Is this a recipe for the best chintan shoyu ramen? No. It's a recipe for a fairly straightforward, reasonably easy, and yet still very good chintan shoyu ramen, one that emphasizes the simplicity of the dish.
If you make it once and are pleased, but you'd like to make something that rivals the best restaurant bowls, you could use more complicated toppings, fancier ingredients, or both. But given the dish's simplicity, the best way to make a better bowl is to focus on the base ingredients: the chicken, the pork, the kombu, the katsuobushi, and the soy sauce and sake.
Because the basis of the dish is the chicken, and its flavor comes through in both the broth and the fat, buying a nice chicken, as opposed to a supermarket bird that's had water added to it as part of its trip through the abattoir, will significantly improve the flavor of the soup.
Since the only topping this recipe produces is the chashu, and since pork fat is also a major component of the aroma oil, buying a nice piece of pork belly—cut from a once-happy pig raised on a varied diet, perhaps from a heritage breed, one whose flesh is as red as beef rather than the pale pink of the commodity pork produced from clones on a factory farm—will improve the final dish significantly.
Good kombu and good katsuobushi are both tricky, in the sense that access to quality kombu and katsuobushi is generally limited in the United States. Plus, even though both are dried products, once you open their packaging, you need to use them quickly before the quality degrades. I am a strong advocate for incorporating more dashi into your cooking routine, so if you want to make your ramen better and make the stuff coming out of your kitchen better generally, purchasing more expensive kombu and more expensive katsuobushi is a good idea, so long as you use both regularly.
If you'd like to experiment with other dried-fish products that are sometimes used to make dashi instead of katsuobushi, like sababushi (dried mackerel flakes) or niboshi (dried sardines), you can try adding them to the tare, the broth, or the aroma oil.
Since soy sauce is the primary flavor of the tare, you might think I'd recommend buying the best shoyu you can find, but I don't. My Japanese family, which is decidedly lower-middle-class, uses Yamasa, so that's the shoyu I've always preferred. You can use Kikkoman, if you like. Don't use La Choy. Beyond those basic rules, if you want to experiment with different or fancier soy sauces, it's up to you.
As for sake, the main thing to consider is that one of sake's primary roles in this tare is to provide sugar. For the photo shoot, I ended up using a fancy sake from a Brooklyn-based brewery near our office. The one I happened to buy is a sweeter variety of sake, which led to a sweeter tare than the one I made at home using Gekkeikan, a cheap sake that is widely available.
The only rules I have for sake are to use something you wouldn't mind drinking, since there will be some left over, and take into consideration its sugar content—the sweeter the sake, the sweeter the tare and, consequently, the final bowl of ramen.
Finally, the noodles. The quality of your noodles will always make or break a bowl of ramen. We have a noodle recipe if you'd like to make them yourself, but if not, Sun Noodle's fresh product seems to be available in most major metropolitan centers in the US at this point, and Sun Noodle offers a range of noodles that work well in this recipe. One of its more commonly available noodles, at least in my experience in New York City, is the No. 20 Kaedama, and it works great.
You can also turn to your favorite ramen shop, which will probably be more than happy to let you buy raw noodles, although keep in mind that the ubiquity of Sun Noodle's product in quality ramen shops means that you may just be buying Sun noodles anyway. On the other hand, ramen shops have access to a wider variety of Sun Noodle's product line than the retail customer.
In the photos for this piece, half of the bowls feature noodles from Shimamoto Noodle (this includes the photo just above), run by Keizo Shimamoto of Ramen Shack fame, and they are fantastic, fantastic noodles. If you live in NYC, buying Shimamoto noodles would be my recommendation.