Broth-less ramen is having a bit of a moment right now, in part because one of the better-reviewed restaurants in New York City—Shigetoshi "Jack" Nakamura's restaurant, Niche—served variations on mazemen, or "mixed noodles."
I have to admit, up front, that I personally am not the biggest fan of mazemen. If I were forced to choose between Nakamura's mazemen offerings and a bowl of any one of the options on the menu at his other restaurant, Nakamura, I'd pick a bowl of noodles swimming in beautiful broth, without hesitation.
But there's a time and a place for everything, and the best time to make your own mazemen is definitely during the hot summer months, when the idea of big, steaming pots of ramen broth, made either on the stovetop or in a pressure cooker, is eminently unappealing.
What Is Mazemen?
Mazemen, also called mazesoba, isn't really a new thing, even in the ramen scene in the United States. Yuji Ramen, for instance, has been producing fine bowls of mazemen for years now.
Mazemen is kind of a subset of abura soba, or "oil noodles." The original soup-less ramen, abura soba was invented at Chinchintei, a ramen shop in the city of Musashino, located in the western part of the larger entity called the Tokyo Metropolis.*
*Tokyo isn't really a city, per se, but more of an agglomeration of cities that functions as a larger prefecture.
As ramen lore has it, Chinchintei initially came up with broth-less ramen as a cost-effective staff meal—cost-effective because the broth is the priciest element of a bowl of ramen. The restaurant then started offering it to customers as a more affordable menu option, which appealed to the large number of parsimonious students attending a nearby university.
Chinchintei's abura soba looks pretty much like what you'd expect a broth-less ramen bowl to look like. It has all the hallmark elements of a classic bowl of shoyu ramen—noodles, chashu, nori, and the braised, fermented bamboo shoots known as menma—presented in the same way that they would appear in a bowl of shoyu ramen, but without any soup. The tare, or seasoning, and ample amounts of fat are ladled into the bottom of the bowl; the diner is obliged to mix up the noodles to distribute the seasoning and oil before eating.
The distinction between abura soba and mazemen is a pretty fine one.** Some people hold that the difference lies in how much broth is allowed in the bowl: While abura soba cannot have any broth at all, a little is permissible for a mazemen. Others point to the names, saying that abura soba has to be quite oily and mazemen has to require some mixing on the part of the diner. I find that this last explanation underscores the absurdity of the taxonomical approach, since even the original abura soba requires a little mixing.
**Soba and men are both general terms for "noodle." While you might think that "soba" refers only to buckwheat noodles, it is often used to describe ramen as well. So, for example, you'll see mazemen called "mazesoba" and tsukemen, or dipping ramen, described as tsukesoba.
There is, of course, another form of soup-less noodles, and that's hiyashi chuka, a kind of cold ramen salad that's quite popular in the summer months. Is hiyashi chuka, which requires some mixing but doesn't have a lot of oil, a mazemen and not an abura soba?
I believe the correct answer is that it's neither. Hiyashi chuka is its own thing, since it has unique attributes: chilled noodles, a highly acidic dressing, et cetera. But it does show how the distinctions between these dishes are more a matter of noodle geekery than anything else.
How to Make Tasty Ramen Without a Flavorful Broth
Given my ambivalence about soup-less ramen in general, it may seem odd that I developed a recipe for mazemen. But I didn't develop this recipe so much as sort of had it fall in my lap.
Again, both mazemen and abura soba are basically a bowl of ramen without a significant broth component. The main flavors in both come from the tare and the fat, which together form the sauce that ends up coating the noodles.
To make a tasty bowl of mazemen, you have to have a good tare, preferably one with a lot of dried-fish flavor, and a flavorful fat. We've already published recipes for a basic, flavorful tare and an aromatic oil, and I could have used them to make a decent mazemen, but it just so happened that I had another option at my disposal.
A few months ago, Sasha published a recipe for XO sauce, the super-savory, jam-like condiment made from cured ham and dried seafood, among other things. In the process of developing that recipe, he ended up producing several iterations of XO, which meant that we had jars and jars of this delicious stuff in our test kitchen. We were all invited to use it however we saw fit, which in turn meant that all of us on staff were putting XO on everything.
Since I make noodles fairly frequently for lunch, I obviously put XO in my noodle soups, both blending it into broths and dolloping it on top as a kind of mix-in. One day, though, I found I had a bunch of ramen components on hand—noodles, pork fat, tare, scallions—but no broth. So I made a quick mazemen with what I had, combined with a fair amount of XO.
And it was incredible.
Since that first impromptu mazemen lunch, I've made a number of different variations, all of them relying heavily on the flavor bomb that is XO, and all of them were very, very good. If you don't have XO on hand, either store-bought or made from Sasha's recipe (which, frankly, is amazing), you can follow the method outlined below, using a flavorful tare and fat, to make a decent mazemen dish. But it won't have quite the same depth of flavor as this version.
How to Make XO Mazemen
It can help to think of mazemen as pasta, since a good mazemen, like a well-sauced plate of pasta, will consist of noodles sheathed in a light slick of flavorful sauce. And, just as with pasta, the best way to achieve that effect is to create an emulsion.
I borrowed the same method Sasha uses for spaghetti con la colatura di alici—which means that I started out by finding a very large mixing bowl. You really want a too-large mixing bowl, one that can easily accommodate the pile of noodles and the sauce components, since the emulsion is going to be created by whipping the cooked noodles and sauce around the bowl very forcefully, so that the starch on the exterior of the noodles can be thoroughly mixed with the oil and liquid of the sauce.
Extra-large bowl in hand, for every serving of noodles, I add two tablespoons of XO sauce, two tablespoons of oil or other fat, one tablespoon of rice vinegar, and one tablespoon of soy sauce, and stir the mixture briefly with chopsticks to combine. I boil the noodles, drain them, add them to the bowl, then immediately toss and stir them vigorously with the sauce.
After about 30 seconds, the disparate components of the sauce should start to take on a creamy consistency, at which point I place the noodles in a serving bowl. Top with thinly sliced scallions, and there you have it: XO mazemen.
One note of caution: I've found that you can scale up this recipe for two portions of noodles, but going any further messes with the salinity of the final product. It is also far easier to whip two portions of slippery ramen around the bowl than three or four, so if you want to make this dish for a crowd, make it in two-portion batches. Or, even better, make each individual portion separately, wiping out the mixing bowl between portions.
You can make this dish with any kind of ramen noodle you have on hand. If all you have access to is Shin Ramyun packets, use those. If you have access to better-quality ramen, like the Sun Noodle product line, use those. If you have some ramen you've made yourself at home, you can use those, too. Even though better noodles will make a better dish, an XO mazemen made with Shin Ramyun noodles is still quite tasty.
You can also make this mazemen with any oil or fat you might have on hand. I tend to prefer using pork fat, but you can use rendered chicken fat, schmaltz, olive oil, a mixture of sesame and canola oil, homemade chili oil, shallot oil... whatever. I bet even clarified butter would work.
I've found that I can eat this mazemen at any time of day. I've made it for myself as an indulgent breakfast before work. I've had it for lunch and for dinner. I've made it many times late at night on a weekend, four beers deep and standing in my underwear in the kitchen.
This isn't just because it's tasty. If you have XO on hand, it takes just a little bit more time to make this dish than it does to boil a bunch of noodles. With my homemade noodles on hand, I can sit down to a bowl of XO mazemen three minutes after a pot of water has come to a boil.
Of course, if you want to make it more of a meal, you can add an assortment of toppings. For the photo shoot for this piece, I chose to add blanched sugar snap peas and an onsen egg, but you can add whatever you like.
Personally, I like a bit of greenery, whether it's blanched vegetables or some sturdy salad greens, like chicory or kale. The onsen egg makes a luxurious topping, and the fattiness of the soft yolk serves to temper some of the aggressive salinity of the dish, but if you don't have the time or inclination to make an onsen egg, you can add a fried egg, a poached egg, or even just a raw egg yolk on top.
The egg has the additional effect of obliging whoever's digging in to mix the noodles up, thereby distributing the yolk and toppings evenly throughout the bowl, which pushes this dish out of abura soba territory and places it firmly in the soup-less, "mixed-noodle" realm.
Not only is this dish perfect for summer, when it's too hot to do all that much cooking, but it also offers many of the pleasures of a nice bowl of ramen—slippery, springy noodles; a savory sauce; luscious fat; and a mixture of textures provided by toppings—in a mere fraction of the time, and with hardly any effort required.