It was the last meal in Tokyo, after many delicious days in Japan, with each meal trumping the last. A final taste of the island was all we craved, in the form of a simple bowl of ramen, the classic Japanese dish.
This was not the familiar stuff of cellophane packages that sells in supermarkets at $1 per dozen. This was the rich, steaming broth, topped with fresh wheat noodles, sliced meat and chopped vegetables that made diners slurp and sigh. It was a meal in a bowl, satisfying and filling at any hour, but especially at 9 a.m. on a damp winter morning in Tokyo.
We headed to Tsukiji, the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. We had spotted a vendor on an earlier visit when we had passed quickly to watch seafood prepped for sale.
It was there my epiphany took place at the end of a pair of chopsticks.
In a narrow stall, tucked between a tuna purveyor on one side and a salmon merchant on the other, ceramic bowls were lined up like dominoes.
The older of two workers, probably the proprietor, ladled a small puddle of dark, fragrant broth into each bowl while customers queued up at the side. We scrambled into formation as he dropped tender greens into the bowls, then reached for the seasoning to strew over each.
When the second worker glanced our way, we raised our hands, each with a finger to signal that we wanted one bowl. He nodded, then plucked a slab of cooked pork from the table, carefully slicing it into thin, yet substantial pieces.
In moves precise as any ballet, the proprietor ducked behind him and scooped noodles out of the pot, dropped them into each bowl, then dribbled more broth over it all.
Seamlessly, the second worker took over, arranging pork slices over the noodles. With a hint of dramatic flair, the proprietor sprinkled a final flourish of sliced green onions.
Breakfast was ready.
There is no delicate way to eat ramen, which is unruly at best with a tangle of noodles that seems to defy a beginning or end. So we did what the locals do, chopsticks poised, noodles askew. We slurped because, well, everyone around us was slurping.
I wiped the driblets of broth that had landed on my chin and breathed in its hearty perfume before nabbing a slice of tender pork.
Then I knew. “This is the perfect meal,” I thought, “in the perfect place, with the perfect companions.”
The universe had shifted course for me as I leaned against the high-top metal counter, bowl of ramen front-and-center, the clamor of street activity all about me.
Sole meunihre may have changed Julia Child’s life. A bowl of ramen changed mine.
RAMEN AT HOME
Most ramen shops in Japan use pork bones as the base to their broth, though chicken bones or dried fish can play a role. This simplified version uses only chicken. A dab of any reserved pan juices in each bowl adds complexity to the dish. From “Japanese Farm Food” by Nancy Singleton Hachisu.
2 small carrots, cut into 1-inch lengths
2 small spring onions, cut into 1-inch lengths
1 (3/4-inch) knob fresh ginger, peeled and finely sliced
4 chicken thighs, bone in, or 8 wings (free-range for best flavor)
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 cups flour
2 eggs plus 2 egg yolks, room temperature
4 half-boiled eggs (see below)
1 small bunch boiled, squeezed and chopped bok choy greens
Seasonings: miso, soy sauce, salt
1 sheet nori (dried seaweed), cut into eighths
3 tablespoons finely chopped green onions
1. Prepare broth: Start the ramen soup at least several hours before serving.
Heat oven to 450 degrees. Put the carrots, onions, ginger and chicken in a cast-iron pan and sprinkle with salt and oil. Distribute the oil around to coat all the chicken and vegetables and roast for 30 to 45 minutes in the middle of the oven.
Scrape the roasted chicken and vegetables and all of the pan drippings into a large heavy pot with 4 quarts cold water and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower heat and simmer, covered, for 1 hour. Uncover, pull out 2 thighs, place in medium-sized bowl, and ladle a bit of broth over to allow meat to cool gently. Simmer stock, uncovered, for 1 hour more.
After the chicken meat has cooled for a half-hour, shred, moisten with a ladle of broth, and reserve.
When stock is done, strain into a clean saucepan and keep warm over low heat. (Discard remaining thighs and vegetables.)
2. Prepare noodle dough: Mix 2 tablespoons sesame oil into flour with your fingers until crumbly. Add eggs and egg yolks and stir with your hands until just incorporated. Knead on clean flat surface for 5 minutes until pliable but stiff. Let dough rest while you prepare ramen toppings.
3. Make half-boiled eggs: Carefully place eggs into boiling water and boil for 7 to 8 minutes. Plunge eggs into cold water and run more cold water over them until water temperature remains cool. Remove eggs from water when completely cool. Slice eggs in half vertically with razor-sharp knife. Scoop eggs from shells.
4. Finish noodles: Fill largest stockpot you own with hot water and bring to boil over high heat.
On a floured surface, roll out ramen noodle dough into a rough oblong shape to slightly less than 1⁄8 inch thick. With a sharp knife or pizza cutter, slice 1⁄8-inch wide strips to create the noodles. Then cut the noodles into 9-inch lengths, flour well, and toss to distribute the flour. Leave on the workspace, but do not clump into a mass.
Take out 1 large soup bowl per person and add seasoning to each bowl: 1 tablespoon miso, 2 teaspoons soy sauce or 1⁄2 teaspoon salt. Mix a little broth in to melt the salt or emulsify the miso. Distribute the reserved shredded chicken pieces among the bowls along with a small amount of broth in which it was cooled.
Boil the noodles for 2 minutes and right before the noodles are done, add 2 or 3 ladlefuls of broth to the bowls. Scoop the noodles out of the boiling water with a small fine-mesh strainer and drop into a large strainer. Divide the noodles among the bowls filled with soup and quickly add 2 egg halves, a dollop of greens and 2 pieces of nori before sprinkling with the green onions. Serve immediately.