Noodlin’ Around (Part 2): Alkaline

Noodlin’ Around (Part 2): Alkaline

This one’s a little long to make up for the fact that I’ve been delinquent about keeping my New Year’s resolution of at least one post a week. It’s been a bit hectic lately, but still determined to keep on. Lately, it seems the ramen craze has really taken off, like that of cupcakes and macarons. I’ve been on that bandwagon for quite some time, and after almost a decade of eating ramen in all varieties (not counting the top ramen of my youth), I get picky.

While my discovery of ramen beyond the packaged kind began in Los Angeles, I’ve found that there’s so many more ramen shops up in the Bay Area, at least when I first moved here. After eating hundreds of bowls of ramen, I’ve concluded what makes me appreciate this noodle soup the most.

1. Broth

Like pasta sauces, ramen broth and flavors vary by region. Here are some of the basic flavors:

  • Shio (Salt): A clear broth

IMG_7445Shio clam ramen made by yours truly

  • Shoyu (Soy sauce)
  • Tonkotsu (pork bone broth) – not to be confused with tonkatsu, which is fried pork cutlets

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Orenchi ramen’s signature orenchi ramen, a tonkotsu broth

  • Miso (soybean paste)

Tonkotsu is my running favorite right now for broths, with shio a second runner up given my current obsession with shio clam ramen. The flavors that comprise a tonkotsu broth done right really hearken what the Japanese call umami – the fifth taste. This flavor can be found in the dashi broth base of Japanese soups, and also more commonly in foods like Parmesan and cured meats.

2. Noodles

In Italian pastas, al dente is the term used to describe noodles that are firm, but not hard — the perfect texture for one to bite into the noodle and be able to taste the sauce along with it harmoniously. LIkewise, in ramen, a noodle must also have this al dente texture. As I’ve learned from David Chang on The Mind of a Chef, alkaline is what makes a good noodle hold itself together in a brothy soup. The amount of alkaline in noodles such as ramen and egg noodles prevents it from crumbling, getting soggy, and absorbing all the liquids, thus producing that bite pasta/noodle lovers so seek in the perfect noodle.

3. Egg (Ajitsuke Tamago)

IMG_7687The perfect ramen egg in Orenchi’s ramen: flavorful, just right yolk

I saved this one for last, because it’s my favorite part of the ramen. There’s a reason that Chef Jiro Ono’s sushi apprentices must learn how to make the perfect tamagoyaki before they can move on to anything else. I love eggs – they are a fascinating food. When done right, you can come up with a myriad of creations, or simply poach and sprinkle some sea salt or black pepper and Maggi for a simple breakfast.

But I digress. To me, a perfect ajitsuke tamago is the test of good ramen and its authenticity in the time they took into creating the egg that goes perfectly with your ramen. It’s ramen perfection. The egg that comes with ramen should be soft boiled — a yolk that runs when you pierce your spoon/chopstick/teeth into it (choose your weapon). It is full of flavor because it has been marinated overnight, just like the broth.

Modern Ramen

There are some modern variations to an already more “modern” Japanese food that are delicious, and some I’m not so much a fan. Karaage (fried chicken) has always been an interesting and hearty addition, but big changes on one of my classics is usually a no-no in my book.

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Ramen Dojo: Love corn and butter in my ramen. Surprised by the saffron, and quail egg seems like a (high cholesterol) fancy cop out for soft-boiled marinated chicken egg. Also confused by lettuce garnish.

And sometimes, novel takes on a classic just are done right and you are hooked:

IMG_4867Yakitori Kokko’s spicy black sesame ramen: love at first bite. A surprisingly good combo of flavors and sauce. And notice the egg is still runny, although poached here.

What’s your favorite part of a bowl of ramen?

EAT:

Orenchi Ramen: 3540 Homestead Road in Santa Clara. Thanks to yelp, be prepared for the longest line of ramen in the South Bay of NorCal.

Ramen Izakaya Kagura (not pictured): 279 Baldwin Ave. in San Mateo. This little gem opened up literally down the street from my office. They still need to work out some kinks, but my favorite thing here is not their signature hakata ramen, but their spicy shio clam ramen that reminds me of Tom Yum noodles.

Himawari (not pictured): 202 2nd Ave. in San Mateo. Fun fact: Himawari means “sunflower.” Before Ramen Izakaya Kagura, this was my go-to ramen joint by my office, and it still sometimes is. The Tantan mien is a favorite in my office, but I actually really like the agedashi tofu and their fried rice with pickled vegetables and chasu pork.

Ramen Dojo: 805 S. B St in San Mateo. Can you sense we really like to eat ramen out here in San Mateo? This is another “wait-in-line-cuz-it’s-so-popular” place. Quail egg in my ramen weirded me out, but broth and noodles passed.

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(Un)Domestic Goddess

(Un)Domestic Goddess

When I was growing up, my mom was a full-time working mother who also was a pretty darn good cook. While she believed in the process and diligence of details in cooking, like making her own coconut milk for desserts, having a full time job while also preparing a full meal for her family each day meant she took some shortcuts. One of the shortcuts I remember best that she still uses today, is chicken broth. While I’m a little more semi-homemade than Mom, I’ve certainly held to the chicken broth shortcut in making soups, porridge, and noodles.

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Noodle soup made with chicken broth, packaged noodles, meat balls, ground pork and pork spare ribs. Thanks, Mom.

I recently visited a new izakaya near my office that converted me to being a clam lover. I eat pretty much anything, except oysters, clams and mussels. Recently, however, I’ve grown to actually like clams and mussels (oysters I still can’t handle). Inshou made a sake clam dish that left me wanting to make asari miso soup, which is actually part of traditional Japanese breakfast.

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Sake clam dish at Inshou. The dish that began my obsession with Japanese-style clam soups. Equal parts sake, butter and oishi (delicious)

Along those lines, I wanted to make a Japanese soup one day that transcended the basic miso soup — no shortcuts. I know miso soup came from more than the freeze dried packages that were my shortcut. I owned the miso paste. But what else was involved in a true Japanese soup? I took to the Internet, of course, to find my answer and a recipe for asari clam soup. I came across the most amazing YouTube channel, teaching folks how to make simple Japanese cuisine.

What fascinated me most was this episode that has basically transformed how I see Japanese soups and clam preparation. The basics for any Japanese dashi broth begins with kombu, a kelp. If you’ve ever had plain shabu shabu and seen a green seaweed-like thing floating in the water, then you’ve seen kombu. After a hearty boiling of this kombu, the kelp is removed and replaced with kasuobushi, a salted, dried fish that is then shaved to paper thin slices I’ve known it as okaka until I was enlightened by the great David Chang.  If you’ve had agedashi tofu or okonomiyaki, you’ve probably had this as a garnish in its pure form. Like kombu, kasuobushi is also the base of any good Japanese broth.

The kasuobushi is boiled for a good 30-45 mins, then strained to create the base of the soup, to which you’d then add the miso. In this instance, I wanted to make asari (clam) miso soup. One of the best tricks I learned from watching the YouTube video was how to get the clams to expel sand: you trick the suckers to thinking they’re in their usual habitat being, well, happy as a clam.  Clams like shallow water, lest they drown, so prepare a shallow tray/bowl (somewhere where you can spread them out) with warm salt water — catch my drift here?

Then, place the clams in the water just so there’s enough water covering them. Cover with something so it’s dark and they think they’ve buried themselves in the sand. Keep it like this for at least 15 mins. You’ll start to hear movement and wonder if the dog’s gotten into your groceries again. Then, you’ll realize it’s coming from the clams and that they’re really alive.  Here’s a video from my Instagram of this whole process, with screen shots below. If you watch carefully, you’ll see one actually spit. This cleaning process happens as you’re waiting for the kashuobushi to boil.

IMG_7625Clockwise from top left: Getting clams to spit sand, boiling kashuobushi for dash broth, boiling the clams, final product of asari miso soup

The first time I made this dish, I swore up and down I wouldn’t make it again. The thought of the clams spitting traumatized me too much. But then, I craved this soup again, and thought about going a step further to creating Shio Clam Ramen one day when my new ramen spot was too full to accept our party (You can still be pretty sure I won’t be cooking live crab anytime soon). Shio broth is also made with a similar process, with the addition of another type of fish on top of the kashuobushi.

IMG_7445Homemade shio clam ramen with larger-than-life (ironically named) little neck clams a la Whole Foods

So, if you’re craving clams or Japanese food, I suggest you high tail to the links below. Ramen talk to be continued…

Eat: Inshou Japanese Cuisine, 2942 S. Norfolk St. in San Mateo, CA

Watch: The Mind of a Chef, Season 1 (also on Netflix – binge watch your way to food cravings!)

For step by step instructions on making asari clam soup: How to Make a Japanese Breakfast (YouTube Channel Video)

Noodlin’ Around (Part 1)

Noodlin’ Around (Part 1)

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Kakkemiso Udon at Sanukiya

Have you ever had something so exceptional and unforgettable that you often crave it, but are plagued with being unable to readily satisfy that craving? I’ve felt that recently with many of the meals I experienced on my last trip to Paris. You’d think it was a croissant or a macaron that has yet to be topped anywhere stateside (that, too), but it was actually a bowl of udon, done in a way that brought newfound respect to the noodle dish. I owe this craving to my good friend Jackie (as well as much of my food happiness while in Paris) and her 50 Things to Eat in Paris Before You Die. I can proudly say I checked off a few of those, friend. 😉

I’ve always really loved noodles, but my go-to Japanese noodle has been the ramen (more on that later). During my trip to Paris, while I picked up French words and phrases I used throughout my days there shopping and dining, I found it a bit trippy to be in a Japanese restaurant in France. My language association with Japanese restaurants has always been Japanese, of course, and English, having been to Japanese restaurants mainly in the states. So when we walked into Sanukiya after a laborious shopping day on St. Honore, it felt a little odd to still hear merci. My Japanese might be a little better than my French, when it comes to food and living, so it was almost easier to use Japanese words (and hand gestures) to communicate.

At any rate, Sanukiya did not disappoint (as my friend Jackie rarely does). One of the distinct things about Japanese food and culture is the meticulous time and dedication that’s taken to prepare and present a meal, even a bowl of noodles. The same can be said for French food, which is why the mutual love of Japanese and French does not surprise me. What I’m getting at is the presentation and amazing tastes that came from the bowl of kakkemiso udon in Paris. The noodles were perfectly al dente, served with a light shoyu/dashi broth, arugula (or rocket, as my Thai brethren call it), the most amazing flavorful pork I’ve ever had, and of course, the piece de resistance of any good bowl of Japanese noodles (as David Chang will tell you), a perfectly soft poached egg. The combination of egg, noodle, pork flavors and the surprising arugula has left me craving this dish intermittently since we’ve returned from Paris.

Along with this remarkable creation was also a frozen beer.  Eat your heart out, Homer Simpson. This was a draft Japanese beer, frozen to a slurpee-like consistency that ensured a cold beverage until the last drop.

That day, I left St. Honore feeling full and satisfied, as any great meal should leave you.

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Frozen Beer. Nuff said.