Ramen broth, as portrayed in Japanese movies like Tompopo or Ramen Girl, seems almost mystical, something that takes decades to master and a special spirit to really get right. But lately, I've felt emboldened to make my own. It will never be authentic, but it can still be good.
If you don't live in a big coastal city or have a plane ticket to Japan, chances are the only ramen you know comes freeze-dried in a plastic package. Instant soup is good in it's own way, but a great bowl of fresh ramen can be a transcendent experience. This is one of my more ambitious recipes, but worth the effort. Throw a ramen party to show off your work! (If you're looking for the easy way out, try these recipes on Refinery29 instead).
My boyfriend, who grew up in Tokyo and has a very sensitive palate, is my official taste tester. The first ramen broth I made was good, he said, but tasted American. He has lived here 20 years and still has an adorable accent, so perhaps no matter how much Japanese food I cook, it will always have an American inflection. But on my third or fourth attempt, I made a soup so good we haven't wanted to eat out since!
I set out to make a ramen that was classic, in a sense, but also my own. In Japan and in America there's a trend towards over-the-top rich, fatty soup. I prefer the clarity of an old fashioned shoyu (soy sauce) broth—the kind of soup you could eat every day without getting tired of it (though only if someone else was making it for you), the kind you can find at a hole-in-the-wall in my boyfriend's working class hometown. Still, the soup needs to be salty enough to season the noodles and fatty enough to cling to them, more intense that a regular broth. Ramen shops in Japan so covet their soup recipes that they will never let you take it to go, lest you try to analyze and imitate it.
In my recipe, duck replaces the traditional pork—fitting, in a way, with ramen's Chinese roots. I ask you to buy a whole duck (like you might a whole roasting chicken). Cutting it into parts might sound intimidating—I'd never done it before I made this—but you don't need to do it perfectly, or even very well. The rewards are many! Out of one bird you'll get bones for making broth, confit and cracklings as toppings, and tender breast meat to slice like the quintessential chashu (roasted pork belly, from the Chinese char su) that tops most ramen. You'll also have leftover duck fat—try roasting potatoes in it—and extra confit that you can use for hash, salad, or sandwiches. You'll even have the liver and heart set aside, from which you could make a simple pâté, but I digress.
You could attempt to make this whole recipe in a day, but you'd hate yourself, and might not eat dinner until midnight. Do the work on three different days, and it's manageable. Up to a week before you want to serve the ramen (at least three days ahead), you'll cut up the duck, save the breasts for later, and cook the legs and bits in their own fat until the meat falls off the bone. This will take maybe half an hour of your attention, and three hours of unattended cooking.
Make the broth on another day. You'll prepare dashi, a quick seaweed and dried fish stock that is essential to many Japanese recipes; it will be the first layer of flavor in your broth. You'll char some aromatics—shallot, scallion, garlic and ginger—for another layer of flavor. And you'll simmer all this with the bones, carcass and neck of the duck to make the soup unctuous and rich. After hours of simmering, I jumped for joy when I first tasted the result! On this day you can make the tare (tar-ray) too. Tare is the flavoring that gets added to the broth in each bowl—in this case soy sauce and sake brightened with fresh ginger, scallion and garlic. (If you make the broth more than a few days ahead of time, freeze it).
Finally, the day comes that you get to serve your ramen! A few hours ahead of time, you'll prepare all the toppings, so you'll be cool and calm with everything under control when your guests come to the table. You'll sear and slice the reserved duck breasts. Soft boil some eggs and flavor them with soy sauce marinade. Blanch bok choi. Char negi (Japanese green onions) or scallions. You'll fry the duck skin to make cracklings. And you'll let the confit come up to room temperature.
Now, it's showtime! Assembling each bowl is fun and lightning fast. You boil the broth and ladle it into in heated bowls, seasoning it with your tare. You flash cook the bouncy noodles and add them to the soup, and you arrange the toppings in each bowl. It's hard to believe that all those day of work were worth it, but when you slurp the ramen you'll taste every moment of care that went into it. There will be no question that it was time well spent.
There's a saying in Japan that something too good to be true is a "duck bearing negi." Picture a mallard waddling up to you carrying a bunch of scallions for you to cook him with. When I tasted this duck soup I was shocked how excellent homemade ramen can be! It might not pass the test of the masters in Ramen Girl and Tampopo, but it has spoiled me and my hard-to-impress boyfriend for most of New York City's famous ramen shops! He says its the best he's had in the states. You might think this is a duck bearing negi, but try it yourself and you'll see it's for real!
Recipe: Kamo Negi Ramen
I've broken this recipe into sections; scan through to make sure you have all the ingredients before you begin. Some of these ingredients may be unfamiliar if you haven't cooked much Japanese food. Konbu (kelp) and shaved bonito (flakes of dried fish) are essential soup ingredients that can be found in any Japanese grocery or online. Look for konbu with lots of powdery white residue: that's essentially natural MSG. Negi is a kind of green onion that's looks like a big scallion or a small leek, you can substitute scallions.
Fresh noodles are getting easier to find. Sun Noodles are best and you can even get them at Whole Foods in New York. Dried ramen will do if you can't buy the noodles fresh. Discard whatever seasoning comes with the noodles (or save it for some crazy midnight snack).
If you have questions, please leave a comment, or tweet to @sweetsnbitters!
Day 1: Preparing the Duck
1 whole duck
1. 2–3 days before you plan to serve ramen, pat the duck dry with paper towels and rub the whole thing with a generous amount of kosher salt. Remove the giblets and neck from the duck's cavity (reserve for another use), and cut the duck up into parts: legs, neck, and boneless breasts. (Here's a tutorial from Saveur). Do not discard any of the skin or bones! Wrap the breasts in plastic wrap, and refrigerate them.
2. Make the duck confit. Preheat your oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. In a really big cast iron skillet, or two regular ones, place the duck legs, wings, and carcass skin side down. Put any extra bits of duck skin in the pans too. Over medium heat on the stovetop, render the fat out of the duck parts until there is at least 1/8 inch of fat in the bottom of the pan. Turn off the burner, flip the duck parts over so their fatty skin blankets them, cover the pan loosely with foil, and put it in the oven for two hours. Flip the duck parts over, cover, and cook for another hour, until the meat is literally falling off the bone.
3. Pick apart the skin, meat and bones, and separate each into its own container. Save the carcass with the bones. Pack the picked meat tightly into its container, and pour a small layer of duck fat over it to preserve it (you will have more confit than you need for the ramen—use it in salad, hash, sandwiches, or whatever tickles your fancy). Store the remaining duck fat in it's own container. At this point, you can refrigerate everything and make the broth another day.
Day 2: Making the Broth and Tare
for the broth
1 ounce konbu*
3 loosley packed cups shaved bonito
2 large shallots (7 ounces), halved
1 bunch scallions
2 big fingers ginger (3 ounces), crushed, not peeled
1 small head (6 cloves) garlic, peeled
1 apple, halved
duck bones, carcass and neck, from Day 1
*Hannah's Hint: Don't have a kitchen scale? Read the weight on the package and estimate the fraction you'll need.
for the tare
1 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup sake
1 Tablespoon mirin
1 small nub (1/2 ounce) ginger
1 clove garlic
4. At least 1 day before you plan to serve the ramen, make the broth. To make dashi, steep the konbu in three quarts (12 cups) water in a large stockpot for up to 1/2 hour. Bring it to a boil then immediately turn off the heat. Remove the konbu. Add the bonito and simmer for five minutes. Strain out the bonito (don't squeeze it) and save the dashi stock.
5. Preheat your oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. On a baking sheet, scatter the shallots, scallions, ginger, garlic and apple. No need to be fussy–a few peels and roots are ok so long as there is no dirt. Grease them all with a little of the reserved duck fat. Add the reserved duck bones and carcass. You can add the duck neck too. Roast until browned, about 5–7 minutes.
6. Put all the roasted stock ingredients into a large stock pot with the dashi. Simmer for as long as you can, 3 hours is ideal, but 1 will do. If you can simmer for the longer time, you may need to add a little water halfway through to keep all the ingredients submerged. Try not to let it boil. Allow to cool for an hour or so until the pot is manageable, then strain out all the solids and reserve the broth (you should have about 7 cups). The broth can be refrigerated for 3 days, or frozen for at least a few weeks.
7. Tare is the broth seasoning, added to each bowl. Combine all the tare ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, remove from heat, and then refrigerate until ready to use. Remove the ginger, scallion and garlic before using.
Day 3: Preparing the Toppings and assembling the ramen
for the soy sauce eggs
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sake
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 Tablespoons mirin
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
1 scallion, coarsely chopped
1 small nub (about 1/2 oz) ginger
2–3** duck eggs, or chicken eggs
**Hannah's Hint: You only need two soy sauce eggs to serve, but I suggest cooking an extra just in case one doesn't turn out as pretty as you like.
for the toppings and noodles
duck confit, from Day 1
duck skin, from Day 1
2 duck breasts, set aside on Day 1
2 negi or 4 scallions
4 small heads baby bok choi
1 sheet toasted nori
2 packages (4 servings) Sun Noodles ramen
8. A few hours before you will serve your soup, prepare all the toppings. Make the soy sauce eggs first. Put all the water, sake, soy sauce, mirin, garlic, scallion and ginger in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat; this is your marinade. Put the eggs in a small saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a simmer, not a boil, and keep at a simmer for 6 minutes. Then submerge the eggs in cold water. Change the water if it gets warm, until the eggs feel cool. Peel the eggs. Combine the eggs and soy sauce marinade in a small bowl, so the eggs are covered. Marinate for 20 minutes to 3 hours.
9. Take the duck confit, skin, fat, and breasts out of the refrigerator. You want the confit to come to room temperature while you prepare the rest of the toppings. Make the cracklings. Cut the duck skin into 1/4 inch strips. Put a generous 1/4–1/2–inch layer of duck fat in a skillet. Over high heat, fry the skin strips in small batches, until deep golden brown. Drain on paper towels or newspaper. (These can keep at room temperature for a few days, if you want to make them ahead).
10. Place the duck breasts on a clean surface, skin side up. With a very sharp knife, score the skin all over in a cross-hatch pattern about 1/2 inch apart. Do not cut all the way to the meat. Place the duck breasts skin-side down on a cast iron skillet. Cook over medium-low heat to render out some of the fat. After about 10 minutes, when there's a generous layer of melted fat in the pan, pour off the fat, and turn the burner to high to brown the skin well. When the skin is chestnut brown but not burnt, flip the duck breasts over and remove the pan from the heat. They will finish cooking from the heat of the pan; set aside. (These can be made days ahead if you prefer)
11. Turn on your oven to broil. Grease the negi or scallions with duck fat, and put them on a cookie sheet. Broil until barely charred in places, just a few minutes. Cut into 2 1/2–inch lengths; set aside.
12. Bring a large pot of water to a boil: you will use this to blanch the bok choi and the noodles. Put a large bowl of ice cold water in the sink. Dunk the bok choi into the boiling water for about 30 seconds, until they look intensely green and barely cooked, then plunge them into the cold water. Run more cold water into the bowl to thoroughly cool the bok choi. Drain the bok choi and gently pat dry.
13. Fold the sheet of nori into quarters, then break it along the creases into four pieces.
Showtime: Assembling the Ramen
14. It's important to have everything ready so you can assemble each bowl of ramen quickly and serve it very hot. Bring the big pot of water back to a boil for cooking the noodles. In another pot, bring the soup to a simmer.
15. Remove the eggs from the marinade. Put the cooked duck breast in the marinade for 5-20 minutes. Remove the duck breast from the marinade and cut it across the grain at a slight angle into 1/4 inch slices. Cut the eggs in half.
16. Line up all the toppings near the stove: duck cracklings, duck confit, sliced duck breast, bok choi, charred negi/scallion, soy sauce egg halves, and nori. You will also need the tare.
17. Work on two bowls at a time. Ladle some hot water into the bowls and swirl it around to heat the bowl, then dump out the hot water. Put 1/4 cup of tare and 2 cups broth into the bowls. Cook the noodles in the pot of boiling water—using a seive so you can lift them out easily—for about two minutes, stirring with chopsticks to untangle. The noodles should be very al dente because they will continue to cook in the broth. Divide the noodles into the bowls. In each bowl, place half an egg, three slices of duck, a spoonful of confit, a spoonful of cracklings, a piece of bok choi, a few pieces of charred negi/scallion and a piece of nori. Serve immediately! Repeat for the remaining two bowls.
It was worth all the work, wasn't it!