Welcome to our new interview series, Obsessed, in which we'll be talking to amateurs and professionals from all across the food world. The series will shed light on the passions that drive enthusiastic food nerds, from home cooks to chefs on the line to veteran butchers, fishmongers, and farmers. Hopefully we'll also pick up some of their favorite tips, tricks, and food wisdom along the way. Know somebody who you think would be perfect for this interview series? Email us!
Several years ago, I started researching recipes for a classic bowl of shoyu ramen, in part out of frustration at the tonkotsu craze that had swept New York City in the wake of Ippudo's arrival. After a lot of fruitless searching, I stumbled upon a small community on Reddit, one that seemed largely devoted to posting pictures of either dressed-up instant ramen or ramen eaten at restaurants. But hidden in the mix were posts written by a user with the name Ramen_Lord, featuring both gorgeous photos of homemade ramen and meticulously detailed recipes.
[Photograph: Evan Benner]
It turns out that Ramen_Lord is in fact Mike Satinover, a 28-year-old marketing research consultant who lives in Chicago. Mike fell in love with ramen while studying Japanese at Hokkaido University in 2009 and 2010, and he decided to pursue making ramen as a hobby upon his return to the United States. That Mike is an amateur is remarkable, given the range and depth of his ramen knowledge and his dedication to not just improving his many different recipes, but also documenting the thinking behind his recipe development. Over the years, he has refined every aspect of his recipes for shoyu, shio, miso, tonkotsu, and tori paitan. (His most recent recipe is for the tantanmen featured in the photo above.) And he does more than create complex, carefully crafted broths—Mike's expertise extends to making the noodles specific to each style. Through his work, he has created one of the best English-language resources for good ramen recipes.
Name: Mike Satinover, a.k.a. Ramen_Lord
Day job: Marketing research consultant
Why ramen? What is it about ramen that you find so compelling as a subject for experimentation?
I've loved ramen for a really long time. It has a strong combination of the things I love in food: It's comforting, fast, and unpretentious. It's also uniquely positioned as a "B-gourmet" food, by which I mean it's currently being made at a very high level of quality and craftsmanship, but is still approachable to most people. When I lived in Japan, I realized how unbelievable it was, there just isn't anything like it in the US. It was kind of like finding your soulmate in food, something that resonates with you so deeply and personally. I was obsessed. To the point that I studied it in college, no lie.
Ramen is also interesting in that it's based heavily on Chinese noodle soups. So (and I'll quote some Japanese cooks I spoke to on this), ramen is "too young to have a culture." It doesn't have a lot of rules, unlike more traditional foods from Japan. That results in an extraordinary number of styles and variations, and a very loose set of rules binding them together. Each region of Japan has its own style, and chefs are constantly innovating. There's a lot to explore, and a lot to build on. It feels very limitless.
There's sort of a fascination with specialization in Japanese culture. Restaurants often only have a particular focus; maybe it's yakitori, or donburi, or sushi, or, more obviously, ramen. There's a saying in Japanese, "多芸は無芸," which means "many talents is no talent," sort of a moral code to being an expert in your craft. For me, finding a specialization of my own was really gratifying.
What was your first exposure to ramen?
When I was a kid, my family used to take me to Mitsuwa (for those not in the know, it's a Japanese supermarket chain in the US), and they had a food court with a ramen shop named Santouka. I remember the first time trying it; I ordered miso, only because it was the only flavor I recognized. But my first true exposure to the stuff was while I was living abroad in Japan. I lived in Sapporo for a year and ate probably more bowls of ramen than any other food—several times a week, easily. For those who don't know, Sapporo is the birthplace of miso ramen, so they have a lot of history around the dish, and locals have a lot of respect for it. In total, there are something like 2,000 shops in Sapporo slinging noodles; there's a lot to choose from and explore.
When did you decide to start devoting a significant amount of time to exploring making ramen?
After I got back to the States, it just made sense to try to start making ramen. I had worked in kitchens before and had tinkered with the cooking lifestyle, so I knew I had a passion for cooking overall. It made sense to try to replicate my favorite food back home.
It's worth noting that for most of my life in America, ramen was really hard to come by. Folks don't realize this, but the ramen boom we're seeing in the US is an extremely recent phenomenon; when I started making ramen in 2010, there was literally just one shop in my city, and I was frustrated by the lack of options. Coastal cities like New York City and Los Angeles had a few shops, but the rest of the country was pretty barren.
As I started getting a better understanding of the dish, it made more sense to devote more time to it. The first five bowls I made were god-awful. Just terrible. Like, I am ashamed of them; people in the subreddit are making way better ramen now than I was back then. Some of that was technique, but a lot of it was just the lack of information available, in English or even in Japanese. Ramen chefs are notoriously secretive about their techniques. So the challenge was enticing—really enticing. For a lot of recipes, you try them once, they turn out awesomely, and you move on to the next thing. Ramen was the first thing I felt like I didn't understand, and I liked that feeling: It felt like I could learn something on my own and challenge myself with something. Add to that the fact that I was so in love with the food already, and I had to keep going.
Do you think making ramen at home has made you a better or more curious cook, generally?
Absolutely. Ramen requires understanding a number of cooking techniques. You have to understand how soup-making works, how gelatin interacts with fat, how collagen breakdown works, how to extract flavor from ingredients, and how to balance and layer flavors in a dish. And ramen noodles are crazy, a whirlwind of complex and intricate chemical interactions, despite being made of, basically, water, wheat, and alkaline salts.
"So much of this process has been self-taught. I had to learn to accept failure"
So much of this process has been self-taught. I had to learn to accept failure. But it helped make me more curious in the long run, and more diligent in how I experiment, without question.
Do you have any aspirations to pursuing ramen-making as a career, or is it strictly a hobby? Why?
I never say never. I've looked into hosting a pop-up before. But I've tried to be a cook several times in my life and failed pretty miserably (I may or may not have been kicked out of a few kitchens for stupid mistakes). I'm not sure I'm cut out for it. Loving a dish and loving making a dish are only part of the equation for owning a restaurant, and I have an immense respect for those who pursue that career, but it might not be my strong suit.
But I love educating people and sharing the gospel of ramen. That has sort of flourished into what I do now: developing recipes, posting them online, getting feedback, refining them, and talking with other folks about this amazing dish.
What's your favorite type of ramen to eat?
Miso. Hands down. Sapporo miso is something ethereal, a clean pork-broth base with rich, savory, creamy miso tare (the seasoning), and usually a thin film of scalding-hot lard floating on top, trapping the aroma and heat of the soup beneath. Bean sprouts, maybe cabbage or onion, some negi (green onion), chashu, menma (pickled bamboo shoots), and, for the glutton in us all, an ajitama (steeped egg) round things out.
What's your favorite type of ramen to make?
Miso is what got me into the game. Miso is, and always will be, my favorite. I've been making it for seven years and still learn more every day. I also feel like, because of that, it's the most delicious recipe I've made, so the work-to-reward ratio is high.
Is there a recipe you've come up with that you're particularly proud of? What about it is important to you?
Apart from the miso recipe (go figure...I know), I feel particularly proud of the noodle recipes I've made. A lot of ramen shops don't even make their own noodles, so it's sort of a point of pride for the shops that do. Translating Japanese noodle techniques to a Western kitchen has been an interesting challenge.
Noodles also involve understanding a lot about dough, which is complex. Making them requires knowledge about how gluten development works, how alkalinity affects gluten, and how the ratios of the few ingredients—which often seem trivial—can impact the dish. I spent a lot of time working on noodles, way more time than any other facet of the ramen-making experience, and I still make mistakes (I did several whole wheat noodles the other day that were all awful). But there's freedom in the result; you get to have even more control over the dish when you make the noodles right.
Noodle-making is also not for everyone. It's challenging, takes time to understand, and is physically exhausting, sometimes. But, like all masochistic cooks, I get a certain sense of accomplishment from it.
The other recent recipe I've been super proud of is my ajitama (steeped egg). I got really frustrated with the guesswork of making a standard ajitama. Normally, you cover the soft-cooked peeled eggs with soy sauce, mirin, maybe the braising liquid from chashu, maybe sake, or whatever flavoring you like, and let them steep in the liquid for four to six hours. But this approach has problems: How do you know when it's soaked enough? What if you over-steep? And even when you pull them out, the brine never really penetrates more than a millimeter or so, leaving a thick dark brown ring of seasoning while the rest of the egg is unflavored. I wanted an egg that was evenly flavored, edge to edge, including the yolk, and a method that removed guesswork and gave me a consistent product.
"I had a guest literally shout "THE EGG!" when he tasted it the other day."
Equilibrium brining solves all of these issues, if you have the time to plan. You just cook and peel your eggs as normal, then put them in a container. Get the total weight of the eggs, plus the weight of the water to cover, and then add 10% of this total weight in soy sauce, and 10% of the weight in mirin. So, if your eggs and water weigh 500 grams, add 50 grams each of soy sauce and mirin. These eggs then sit in this brine for 48 hours, but they can keep in the brine for up to five days without any degradation in quality. The flavor isn't complex, so you can add other flavors if you like (sesame oil, sake perhaps, smashed garlic), but it changed the game for me. I had a guest literally shout "THE EGG!" when he tasted it the other day.
Do you have a ramen-making-related kitchen tool that you can't live without?
My electric pasta machine (a Marcato Atlas). Noodles are basically impossible without it. I highly recommend one for anyone serious about making pasta or noodles at home.
Do you have a recipe/idea in the works? Anything that's particularly challenging or thorny about it?
Right now, I'm revisiting tonkotsu (pork-bone broth) entirely. My current method is done all at once in one pot, but most shops in Japan don't make it that way. Most tonkotsu shops have batches with bones boiling at different levels of extraction, with the thought being that bones go through several phases during cooking, so you can capture those phases in different broths and combine them all at the end. I have no idea if this is true, but it's worth exploring, and I'll admit that when I've tried it, the results have been stellar. The problem is that this batch cooking at home takes a while (like 36 hours of cooking), and that's not feasible for most home cooks. So I'm looking into solutions for that. Pressure cookers, roasting the bones, saving bones from previous batches—all are potential routes that I'll be exploring.
Any tips for the aspiring home ramen-maker? Ideas about where to start?
The first part is to just understand what ramen really is. Ramen has four main components: soup, tare, noodles, and toppings. Each of these components has variations: the soup can be clear or full of emulsified fat and cloudy; the tare can be a backdrop seasoning or a main focal point of the flavor; the noodles can be thin, curly, thick, chewy, wiry, alkaline, mild, all over the place. As a cook, the goal is to harmonize those four components despite their potential variations, and to make sure that they work together and seem cohesive at the end.
For the newbies, I suggest starting from existing styles. Don't try to reinvent the wheel if you've never made ramen before; it can be very overwhelming. Ramen has a lot of ingredients, but ramen cooks have already figured out the chaos of these four items and made styles that are tasty, balanced, and approachable.
You should also not be afraid to make things in advance. Some things, like tare and toppings (particularly chashu pork and those delicious soft-boiled marinated eggs), are actually better when you make them in advance. Ramen is all about preparation, as the actual dish only takes five to 10 minutes to assemble. So go slowly, make a few components at a time, and store what you make in the fridge until needed.
I'd also recommend buying your noodles for the first attempt. I love Sun Noodle—they make an amazing product—but regardless of who you end up buying from, getting the noodle portion solved quickly will help you focus on the other components more carefully. Once you feel more comfortable with the process, that's when exploration can happen.
Any resources in particular you'd like to highlight (online purveyors/cookbooks/blogs)?
Unfortunately, there's still not a lot out there in English, so this is hard for me. I really like Ivan Orkin's book, Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes From Tokyo's Most Unlikely Noodle Joint. The number of recipes is limited, but they're solid, and they help the home cook understand the components of a good bowl of ramen.
Any ramen spots you'd like to recommend?
I've only really been to shops in Chicago (where I live) and New York City (where I visit frequently). If you're in New York, Ramen Shack is an absolute must. Sun Noodle's Ramen Lab is also fantastic. In Chicago, I really like High Five Ramen; they do a play on a spicy miso developed by Kikanbo and Kururi, two Tokyo shops. I also like Ramen Takeya; they do this very meaty, savory chicken paitan ramen.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.