Why It Works
- Using the right combination of dried and fresh mushrooms makes this vegan broth incredibly flavorful and umami-rich.
- The dried powder found on kombu is glutamic acid that forms as it's dehydrated, and it's a major flavor-booster (this is what MSG, monosodium glutamate, is made with.)
I decided before I even began my Vegan Experience that an excellent vegan ramen broth would be one of my ultimate goals.
But one does not simply jump into ramen. Its rich tastes are created by more than just pork. There is flavor there that goes quite deep. The chef's eye must be ever watchful. It is a filling taste, man. Riddled with garlic, oil, and...I don't know how much longer I can go on with this overused meme, so I'll stop right there.
Suffice it to say, ramen is a high mountain to climb. Given that its Chinese origins make it generally a far punchier, richer dish than its other Japanese noodly brethren soba (buckwheat noodles) or udon (thick wheat noodles), I decided that I'd start my much-expected journey by exploring the foothills of mount ramen. Namely, by coming up with a vegan udon broth that could compete with the real thing in terms of flavor potency and sheer deliciousness.
Traditional udon is made with dashi, a Japanese broth made from kombu (giant sea kelp) and katsuobushi (dried, smoked, shaved bonito flakes). If you've ever seen a piece of kombu, you'll notice a white, powdery coating on it. These are crystals of glutamic acid that forms on its surface as it is dehydrated. That's the same glutamic acid that powdered monosodium glutamate is made with. Indeed, until modern methods of synthesis were developed, kombu was where all the MSG in the world was derived from.
MSG gets a bad rap in the Western world, but if you've ever had a really good Japanese soup—ramen, udon, miso soup—then you've been eating it, whether extracted from a natural source like kombu, or added in powdered form. It's the chemical compound that makes meats, broths, and other foods like mushrooms and aged cheese taste savory to us.
And it's definitely the start to a good vegan broth.
Many recipes for vegan Japanese soup base end right there, but I find a kombu-only broth to be rather bland, especially when I'm used to the flavor punch of katsuobushi in my dashi. Some recipes call for reinforcing that savory flavor using dried shiitake mushrooms, but after trying it, I can't recommend it—the shiitakes overwhelm everything with their intense flavor, which is far more potent in dried form than in fresh.
Shiitakes were out, but how about other mushrooms? I made a series of broths using various dried and fresh mushrooms—shiitake, shimeji, enoki, matsutake, wood ear—but it wasn't until I tried to use some traditional Western mushrooms that I really struck gold. Both dried morels and dried porcini added tons of depth and aroma to the broth. Balancing them out with milder wood ears and the scraps from a few other fresh mushrooms (I used a mix of enoki, shimeji, and shiitake—fresh shiitakes don't have the same intense flavor as dried), along with a few alliums (an onion, some garlic, and the bottoms of a few scallions), made for a broth base that was intense, rich, and ready for seasoning.
A dash of good quality soy sauce and some sweet mirin were all it needed to become every bit as satisfying as any udon broth I'd ever had, and a good deal more satisfying than most.
The good news: Using mushroom scraps to make my broth left me with a whole bunch of mushrooms which I could subsequently stir-fry and use as a topping.
Topping udon is an easygoing affair—you can use whatever vegetables you like. But since I already had the wok out to fry my mushrooms, I decided to use it to stir fry some Napa cabbage as well. I love the nutty, sweet aroma cabbage takes on when you char it. Finally, I had a bit of fried tofu in my freezer (you can buy packages already fried!) that I added to round out the dish into a full meal.
I hope everyone's brought their oxygen masks, because we're now deep into the foothills of mount ramen, and the air up there gets mighty thin!
1/2 ounce dried wood ear mushrooms (see note)
1/2 ounce dried morel mushrooms (see note)
4 ounces mixed small fresh mushrooms (shiitake, shimeji, oyster, and enoki are all good options), trimmed, stems and scraps reserved (see note)
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1 small yellow onion, skin-on, split in half
1 (4-inch) piece of kombu (see note)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons mirin (see note)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
1 cup Napa cabbage, cut into 3/4-inch strips
2 servings fresh or dried udon noodles
2 to 4 pieces fried tofu (see note)
Combine wood ear and morel mushrooms in a medium saucepan and cover with 1 1/2 quarts water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then remove from heat and let rest 10 minutes while mushrooms rehydrate. Remove mushrooms with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add fresh mushroom scraps and stems, bottom 1-inch of scallions, garlic cloves, onion, and kombu to pot. Bring to a boil and reduce to a low simmer. Cook for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, rip out the tough central stems from the wood ear mushrooms and discard. Slice wood ears and morels into strips and transfer to a small bowl. Slice fresh mushrooms and add to bowl (if using enoki, reserve separately). Finely slice remaining scallion tops and set aside.
When broth is simmered, strain through a fine-mesh strainer and return to pot, discarding solids. Add soy sauce and mirin and season to taste with salt. You should have about 1 quart of broth. Keep warm.
Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in a wok or a 12-inch skillet over high heat until lightly smoking. Add mushrooms (except for enoki, if using) and stir-fry until lightly browned and completely tender, about 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and transfer to a plate. Add remaining tablespoon oil and heat until lightly smoking. Add cabbage and stir-fry until tender and charred in spots, about 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt. Transfer to plate with mushrooms.
Cook udon in boiling water according to package directions, adding fried tofu to the water as they cook to heat. Strain and divide noodles between 2 serving bowls. Pour hot broth over noodles. Top with chopped scallions, stir-fried mushrooms and cabbage, raw enoki (if using), and fried tofu. Serve immediately.
Dried wood ear mushrooms can be found in most Asian grocers. Dried morel mushrooms can be found at specialty grocers and many supermarkets. If unavailable, substitute porcini, chanterelle, or any other dried mushroom.
Kombu is dried sea kelp and can be found in most Asian grocers. Mirin is a sweet Japanese rice-based wine that can be found in most Asian grocers. Fried tofu can be found packaged in the refrigerated section of most Asian grocers.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 21g||27%|
|Saturated Fat 2g||10%|
|Total Carbohydrate 61g||22%|
|Dietary Fiber 9g||31%|
|Total Sugars 14g|
|Vitamin C 12mg||58%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|