Friday, May 30, 2014

ramen in portland - part 2 中華料理拉麺

The challenges for home cook in preparing a more involving dish is lacking in the economy of scale in which a specialized restaurant has. For someone's most cooking is for a party of one the challenges multiplies. Over the years I adapted and developed methods to alleviate them. For example, when making stock I make a very big batch but leaving the soup base open to a wide variety of possible end dishes. I also learnt that to prolong the shelf life of the stock by re-boiling it after a few days.

This bring me to another point. The ability to think different and willingness to create unconventional dishes. Using ingredients inappropriate for the dish in the eyes of foodie purists foodie is just my daily necessity for efficiency and to avoid food waste.  I do my grocery shopping once a week, and never want to drive to the store just to pick up a few last minute ingredients called for by a recipe.

While I like a very good bowl of ramen over the years I haven't made that many. Yet soup noodles is one of my major stable because of versatility and convenience. Relatively new in the development in ramen in Japan recent years are now quite wide spread in the experiment of diverse ingredients and preparation drawn from different cuisines. Amongst these even the use of butter is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Today everyone is doing it. These days there is hardly any unwritten taboos of what you can do to a bowl of ramen. Even a foreigner from the west can become a successful ramen entrepreneur in Japan where everyone takes a bowl of ramen seriously and there is little tolerance for mediocrity.

Anyone can earn their moment of fame in the ramen hall of fame if he or she has the chops and stay true to the commitment.

When I visited Tokyo I saw a lot of ramen shops ran by Chinese decedents. Most of the time you can tell by the theme of the signage or the shop decor. Sometime on the shop sign it says 中華料理 to qualify that it is managed by Chinese.

While for a good ramen chef, there is no rules to what can be made of a bowl of ramen. However you have to have earn your keep first in honing some basic skills. The most basic is the solid soup base, and a decent half of soft boiled egg. Every bowls of ramen I ever have in the west failed miserably in both counts. It may have something to do with the fear of E. coli or not wanting to deal with complaints by some customers "the egg is not cooked" the shops all served hard boiled egg in the bowl.

I had the hardest time in making a proper soft boiled egg. There are two challenges that I had struggled with and now I had them figured out. The first is able to peel the shell and the membrane cleanly without damaging the delicate egg white. I must had de-shell hundreds of eggs when I was a boy growing up in Hong Kong and it was so very easy. Yet now in the West the shell and and membrane sticks to the cooked egg white tenaciously and I had the hardest of time. After a lot of searching on the web I learnt that you want to use less than fresh eggs. In my childhood we didn't have refrigerator and eggs are always stored unrefrigerated. Even the egg stores kept the eggs in ambient air.

Now I use eggs stored (aged) in the refrigerator at least a few weeks.

The second challenge is timing the boiling time so the egg white is cooked but the yoke is still a bit runny. I experimented by vary the boiling time to little success. Eventually I found this excellent post by Marc at norecipes that I used to read a lot. He wrote a perfect post and listed all the variables that affect the preparation of a perfect soft boiled egg.
Marc's photo of eggs of different doneness by varying the steep time

Here in Portland at almost sea level here is what work quite well:
  • let the eggs comes to room temperature - i let it sit in the pot of cold water a few minutes
  • select a right size pot so you have sufficient water but not wasting too much water; there should be just enough water to float the eggs so they don't come into contact with the pot bottom
  • bring the water to a rolling boil with the eggs in the pot
  • as soon as the water reaches rolling boil turn off the burner and place the lid on the pot; start a timer for 3 to 4 minutes depends on the doneness of the yoke you want
  • when the steep time (about 3.5 minutes for me) is up cool the eggs in running tap water
  • wait for the eggs to be fully cooled before removing the shell

What about cutting the soft boiled eggs? Nothing works better than a piece of cotton thread. Loop a piece of cotton thread once around the egg bisecting it lengthwise and pull. You have a perfect two halves. It is a kind of fun to do.

Here in Portland I would take my heritage as one of the 中華料理 home ramen in exploring my creative license. Here are some ramen preparations with novel ingredients.
instead of just the common braised pork (char sui) i decided to smoke the pork a bit
it gained the red hue after lightly smoked in the Weber grill
smoky cha sui with perfect softboiled egg
once you have the prepared ingredients you can make ramen meal after meal with very little effort - here is another meal
here i added some baby bok choy 白菜子
You seldom see green vegetable in a commercial bowl of ramen. I think it is because of the presentation aesthetics. There is only so much surface in a bowl of ramen to showcase the toppings. There is simple no room for a health portion of cooked green vegetable.

This bring me to my recent Eureka moment on the shape of Japanese ramen bowl. Japanese ramen bowl shapes very different from Chinese noodle bowls. The former has a more uniform sloped side while the latter  has side with continue curvature that is more bowl shape. It is to maximize the presentation area of the topping, and to minimize the amount of broth needed to slightly submerge the noodle. Good broth is costly and the ramen bowl design achieve the conservation of it.

finding satisfactory ramen noodles can be difficult; here i substitute with Cantonese style noodles - with my 中華料理 creative license
not very photogenic bowl here - but i want the bok choy for a more balanced diet
a big pot of pork bone broth - it is like a canvas for to be made into different soup dishes; for example, i can quickly make leek soup with it by bring home a bunch of leeks
tired of eating the new york strip steak i decide to make a novel bowl of ramen with a small piece, and with live mussels
 here i have some 菜心 choy sum for a balanced meal
with NY strip steak and mussels 青口
 another meal of same with baby pok choy 白菜仔 added
a western dish prepared similar ingredients and spaghetti - no broth
 here i added some fresh bamboo 鲜竹笋
this is what fresh bamboo 鲜竹笋 looks like; it tastes completely different from the canned or preserved ones both in texture and flavor
This head of yellow bamboo shoot 黄竹笋 weights about 0.8 pound. I saw a mother of all yellow bamboo that must weight 10 pounds in Suwon 水原 (or 수원), Korea. Strangely normally the pronunciation of Korean and Chinese do not share any resemblance. Suwon is very close to the Chinese Mandarin pronunciation of the words 水原, meaning the source of the water (for a stream or river) or head water. The diameter at the base was over 6 inches. Bamboo shoot is the early grow stage of the bamboo so if left to grow the timber bamboo would have the same diameter. Bamboo grove that yields this size takes decades to develop. They are called timber bamboo.  Do you know bamboo and the shoot is very high in silica? Any tool dull very fast when cutting bamboo so it is rather poor choice for cutting surface.

to make it really over the top - i added some home made andouille sausages; this adds smokiness to the broth

never stop learning - i found out this is the easiest way to toast nori
 just drag it at even pace across a medium low gas frame

 here with a sprinkle of parmesan cheese!
this bowl with watercress - it is just a quickie bowl here

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