Tonkotsu Ramen Adventures

Wednesday, November 4 2015 at 04:03 (cooking) (, , , )

I first tried tonkotsu ramen in the summer of 2012 when I went to visit Fukuoka on my journey around Japan. Fukuoka itself wasn’t that interesting for a tourist and was mostly drizzly and grey, but one thing that my guide book mentioned specifically was tonkotsu ramen, which was invented in Fukuoka and is still served by street vendors along a particular street there. This particular street, however, happened to be about two miles’ walk away from the nearest metro station and my very lazy self nearly gave up on the idea. However, I’d come all the way to the south of Japan and I’d be damned if something good didn’t come of it all.

Thus, I made the trip and found the selection of slightly ragged looking street stalls, and was eventually enticed by a particular stall that was excited that I was a foreigner. I sat down and drank some slightly underage beer and chatted with a few of the locals in limited English whilst I waited for my ramen. When it eventually came… holy fuck. Instant noodles are dead. Nothing in a packet could ever satisfy me anymore. I can’t really offer a detailed description other than that it was deliciously meaty, damn, DAMN tasty and that the whole journey to Fukuoka was made more than worthwhile because of it.

Anyway, fast forward to the present. I’ve since been to Shoryu in Soho several times when I’ve been in London and enjoyed their ramen for sure, though the way they shout at you in faux Japanese when you enter and leave is more than grating enough to put me off going. But whilst their ramen is good, it’s a bit busy in terms of toppings and flavours and can’t quite touch that euphoric memory from Fukuoka.

IMAG0688

Tucking into some Shoryu ramen. Last time we went the service was pretty bad, they misinformed us about their menu, failed to properly imbue a pork bun with spookiness and didn’t cook our noodles to the correct hardness. Otherwise great.

I’ve also tried making my own ramen broth. For the uninitiated, tonkotsu (literally “pork bone”) broth is made by boiling pig bones for a very long time (8-12 hours at least) at a rolling boil until all the collagen breaks down and emulsifies into a delicious, creamy opaque broth – unlike western stocks, it’s quite heavy by itself and extremely rich. There are several recipes out there (though the traditional ones are usually closely guarded family secrets) but I settled on using this recipe from Serious Eats, which overall is a great site for interesting recipes and tips. My first results eight months or so ago were… eh, mediocre. This isn’t unexpected for the first time trying to make a dish, but given the effort involved of literally a whole day of cooking it was a bit depressing to have it come out as a sub-par product. Fortunately the slow-cooked chashu pork belly I cooked as a ramen topping came out perfectly, though I did cook it for several hours longer than the recipe stated.

I’ll summarise the broth recipe here for clarity:

  1. Blanch and then clean all your bones (pig trotters and chicken carcass)
  2. Put all your shit in a big-ass pot
  3. Boil it for 8-12 hours, stirring regularly
  4. Sieve and store or use

Simple, right? So what went wrong? Well, a number of things. The taste wasn’t right for me. The broth was creamy and lip-smackingly fatty but there was an acrid undertaste that I put down to the broth catching on the bottom of the pan near the end of cooking and burning (I nearly broke down when that happened). On top of the acrid taste, there was overall a bit too much vegetable and not enough pork for my liking. Also, and perhaps worst of all, the broth came out brown and not creamy white like I was promised.

IMG-20150204-WA0015

The original, distinctly brown broth.

I’ve had a lot of time to think since then, and I recently decided that the time was ripe for another, upgraded attempt. On my first attempt I followed the recipe verbatim, which includes 1 large onion, 2 leeks, 24 spring onions, 12 cloves of garlic, masses of mushrooms and loads of ginger. My stockpot is not un-large, but this ingredient list paired with the 3 pounds of sliced pig’s trotters and a dismantled chicken left me very little manoeuvring room and meant that the pot was nigh unstirrable for quite a while. Even when the vegetables cooked down a bit they basically turned into a stringy green goop that I’m pretty sure is what caused the burn on the first batch. The vegetables were also, obviously, adding to that vegetably flavour. First order of business: fuck all those vegetables.

IMG_0018

The raw stock ingredients, minus garlic.

The leeks were pretty obvious choices to go, since they took up lots of space and really added nothing good for me. The ginger also went because honestly fuck ginger most of all. It’s good in a few select things but I swear most of the time it just makes things bitter and nasty tasting. Garlic, on the other hand, is delicious and makes everything better. Everything else got downgraded in quantities to my favourite measure, “some”. I put in some garlic, some spring onions, some mushrooms and I think 2 medium onions. This led to a broth that was far easier to stir, easier to skim scum off the top of, far less full of goop and much more porky, whilst still having some flavour.

IMG_0019

Everything in a giant Polish enameled stock pot my mother gave me. Thanks mum!

Another slightly odd step in the recipe was to pretty much char the onions, garlic and ginger in a frying pan before adding them to the broth. Literally fry them till blackened. It’s worth noting that a key step in getting a nice white broth is to blanch your bones and then sit there scrubbing them for twenty minutes, picking out all the blood and marrow and such. It’s labour intensive and not really necessary for flavour reasons but it makes the broth look a lot nicer. Supposedly charring the vegetables is supposed to bring out the umami, but honestly I have a strong impression that this step contributed more to my brown, acrid tasting stock than the burnt bottom every did. Needless to say, I skipped it.

IMG_0021

The pot was like this for most of the day. In the absence of a heavy lid I used bags of Sainsbury’s Basics rice cushioned with a tea towel to keep it down. The rice works terribly as rice, but not bad as sandbags.

The actual cooking process was pretty simple, since most of it is just about waiting for 10 hours and stirring occasionally. The very worst thing about this process is the hours involved: I aimed to be up at 9am (actually more like 10:15) and still didn’t end up with a bowl of ramen in my hands until past midnight. Getting up early always makes me cranky so I kind of ended up punching my pork belly a lot whilst unsuccessfully trying to tie it into a round – I would suggest that this helped tenderise it but honestly if you’re cooking something for 6 hours it probably doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. I’d also recommend that if you’re dismantling a chicken to use for bones that you do that the night before since it’s messy and also kind of intensive. On the upside, the removed meat made for a delicious chicken salad at lunch, though I do find it odd that the meat is basically an unwanted by-product in this case.

IMG-20151018-WA0002

Blindingly white. Creamy as anything. Smells like boiled pig feet.

A couple of stray observations: ladling the finished stock in to a sieve in smaller quantities rather than attempting to pour it all through like I did the first time meant that it was much easier to control and much less of the delicious juices were lost, as the meat pulp could be pressed against the sieve with a spoon. During cooking, meat was pulverised, collagen melted and the onions and garlic were reduced to nothingness; the mushrooms, on the other hand, somehow stayed intact throughout the whole process. I just found that amusing. Having a helper or at least sympathetic company on hand made a big difference to my mental wellbeing throughout the cooking process, which can be rather spiritually exhausting.

IMG_0024

Strained and skimmed stock. It’s all pale and creamy and stuff. I’m still surprised when what the recipe says will happen actually happens – it always feels like I must have missed the part with the cooking magic.

The chashu pork belly is not, as Shoryu puts it, “BBQ pork”. For one thing, its cooking involves nothing close to barbecue sauce. It is also not barbecued, nor should be. It is, at the very least, pork. Basically the idea here is to cook a piece of pork belly very slowly in a mixture of sake, mirin, soy sauce and sugar until it is super tender (even the skin) and mega delicious (and also like 70% fat). Then you slice it up and put it on your ramen. But wait! Mirin? Sake? Where do I get those? Well… I just cheat and use a mixture of vodka, water and sugar for both. Soy sauce should be easily available, and if you use it regularly it’s much cheaper to buy a 1L bottle of Kikkoman off Amazon or from an Asian supermarket than it is to keep shelling out for the paltry 150ml bottles. Sake and mirin are expensive though, so vodka it is. I also kind of default to the “some” measurement here and just throw in amounts of each until it looks right rather than specific quantities – it always seems to come out nicely, regardless.

IMG_0022

The rolled pork belly immersed in its sultry liquid mix, ready to be ovened. Man I wish the skin wasn’t scored.

Once you’ve made your juice then you put some vegetables in it (I even put ginger in this one), add your pork and then cook at a low heat for 3-6 hours, turning regularly. It’s neat to see the slow transformation from okay looking pork to “oh man that looks well tasty”. I will say that I wish I could have got hold of pork belly with a non-scored skin as it makes carving it a nightmare when the skin constantly falls to pieces.

So then all that’s left is assembling the actual ramen. It was surprisingly hard to find plain straight ramen noodles in the Asian supermarket, and the ones I ended up with were slightly overly thick Australian-made noodles that don’t seem very good at all. I mean they’re okay but this is some serious shit here and I want good noodles for my ramen investment. Other toppings than chashu can include soft-boiled egg and enoki mushrooms, though lately I’ve moved away from the egg for somehow making things too rich. In a bowl of basically pork fat with sliced pork fat on top, that’s saying something. Sliced spring onion greens obviously go without saying – even the cheapest noodles include little green bits in their sachets as an homage.

Distinctly brown original attempt broth.

This is close to the minimum amount of spring onion needed. Preferably more.

So basically you need to boil your noodles whilst simultaneously heating up and flavouring your stock – whilst the stock is quite flavourful it’s still a flavour base and not a flavour. Good options include a wack-ton of salt, soy sauce, miso paste or chilli oil/flakes. Much as I love soy sauce it does make the broth more brown, which makes me cry internally for broth’s lost virgin paleness. So then you drain the ramen and put it in a bowl, add the broth and the toppings. Then you eat.

So after all that effort, how is it? Well suffice it to say that I’m vastly more pleased with my broth this time around. It came out creamy pale with no acrid notes and a load of tasty porkiness with just hints of garlic and other alliums. It goes deliciously with the chashu and leaves me feeling warm and contented after the fact. Does it reach the heady heights of that evening in Fukuoka? Of course not, but then what will? Memories are stupid like that. I also feel that there’s some flavour missing somewhere, though I really can’t say where. Is it worth it? Well, as a pretty average joe cook I’d say it’s certainly feasible for most people as long as you have a big-ass stock pot, but it’s really only going to be fun or interesting if you really, REALLY like ramen. In terms of cost investment it’s not terrible as all the main ingredients can be had for around £15 which makes 8-ish bowls of ramen, but if you don’t have the convenient access to pig trotters and the like it can consume a lot of time just to get ingredients together.

After you’re done, the freezer is your friend. The broth and the chashu can be frozen for up to 3 months and simply defrosted any time you fancy a nice bowl of tasty tasty noodles.

brb gonna go make some ramen

Permalink 2 Comments