Eating My Words (instead of Ramen)

I was recently challenged to cook ramen on Eat Your Words, due to the sometimes (often) harsh criticism I dole out to ramen restaurants that are below my standards. It turns out that the act of making ramen, much less in one hour, is difficult--extremely difficult. I've come today to eat my words and ease up on all those ramen places: it's a hard gig. Much respect.

(If you've not seen the episode yet, it can be found here at myxtv.com)

The process was super fun, though! I got to cook with my buddy Justin in a studio kitchen, we got to joke around, and I got to try to cram what is a several-day process into an hour.

Now, I thought I had this in the bag. I spent a couple weekends getting my process down. I had practiced. Imagine the "getting strong now" part of the Rocky theme swelling to a montage of me chopping, boiling, stirring, and plating until I had created this:

Tonkotsu/Duck ramen with sous vide pork belly chashu, sous vide duck breast, fish cake, and seasoned medium-boiled egg topped with menma, green onion, fried shallot, fried garlic, and nori strips.

Tonkotsu/Duck ramen with sous vide pork belly chashu, sous vide duck breast, fish cake, and seasoned medium-boiled egg topped with menma, green onion, fried shallot, fried garlic, and nori strips.

Now that is a thing of beauty. I did my homework. I dug into my Momofuku, read all the relevant Serious Eats pieces, watched Mind of a Chef over and over. I surveyed my Facebook friends about what they thought made a great bowl of ramen. People talked about loving firm noodles, rich but balanced broths, a great egg, and that pork belly chashu. I thought about what I could add to make ramen my own.

I was in Thailand earlier this year visiting family, and I settled in for a bowl of bamee (Thai ramen) at the 100-Year Market in my mom's hometown of Samchuk.

Pork bamee with clear soup, noodle stall, 100 Year Market, Samchuk, Thailand.

Pork bamee with clear soup, noodle stall, 100 Year Market, Samchuk, Thailand.

There's a clean, brightness of flavor with a clear soup, but it's definitely amped with the inclusion of flavors like fish sauce and fried garlic. I further turned to the pho textbook and added star anise and charred onions to my stock. But my moment of realization finally came when I thought of duck.

You see, I think pork belly and pork fat get way too much hype. Oh, they're good, don't get me wrong, but when I think of a rich, comforting, savory meat that never crosses the line into "ugh I think my arteries are lined with lard," I think of duck. The beautiful bird that is all dark-meat, hanging in Chinese restaurant windows, and also a staple of Thai noodle soups as well. I was going to marry Thai duck noodle soup with Japanese Tonkotsu ramen.

Pork belly ready to sous vide

Pork belly ready to sous vide

Ready to slice and plate.

Ready to slice and plate.

I set to work on the rest of my ingredients. Carefully seasoned eggs and sous-vide chashu (both based on Kenji Lopez-Alt's methods) made up the traditional ingredients. I also sous-vide duck breast and seared it for perfect tenderness and crispness. My stock was rich with pork bones, duck wings, and my arsenal of Southeast Asian broth techniques. I pick out some cases of fresh Sun Ramen, the brand used by a bunch of the awesome ramen spots in LA. Studied and prepared, I was ready to go to battle.

But you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men...

I was able to make my signature perfection in the span of a day. In an hour...things go wrong.

The water refuses to boil fast enough to cook the ramen. The pork needs hours to simmer in a kitchen setting and I've not got nearly enough time. The power is futzing with my sous vide rig and I can't get it to hold a steady temperature. I'm trying to get more heat, all the ingredients prepped, and a whirlpool of stock, eggs, vegetables, meats, and noodles into a few bowls before the clock runs down.

No, I wasn't stressed at all. Why do you ask?

No, I wasn't stressed at all. Why do you ask?

And before I know it, time is up. Justin and I did our best, but even with Ryu Isobe of Tatsu Ramen in the house, I feel like the harshest judge of all is Father Time. (Oh what I wouldn't have given for a little TARDIS intervention).

Our judges were fair. Without the time and care, I couldn't get the balance right on the broth and flavor base, so the flavors get muddy. I was forced to take the pork away from the simmer and into the pan, where I could prevent food poisoning at the cost of tough, fast-cooked pork. And of course, most of the plates were unfinished.

So I won't yet be opening my own ramen shop. The mastery and practice of the folks at Shinsengumi, Men Oh Tokushima, Tatsu, and Tsujita have my utmost respect. But mark my words, this isn't the end of the story of my ramen. And just like in Rocky, I went the distance, a buddy in my corner, and went toe-to-toe with the best until we ran down the clock--that's a victory in and of itself. Besides, failure is just another opportunity for growth along the path and way of Eat Kune Do.