Like many people, my early ramen experiences involved pouring boiling water into a large styrofoam cup and waiting for the tangled brick of dried noodles to magically transform into a piping-hot, satisfyingly salty soup best enjoyed while pulling an all-nighter cramming for finals. Up until my early twenties, I’d assumed that all ramen was instant, and even now, I’ve only eaten authentic ramen a few times. So when our friends Doug and Jeanne invited us over to make homemade tonkotsu ramen, it was an excellent opportunity to learn more about this Japanese noodle dish.
This was actually our friends’ first attempt at homemade ramen, and they used these recipes for the tonkotsu (pork bone) soup base, the chashu (braised pork) topping, and the ramen noodles. (The recipes are superbly written — extensively tested and researched, with detailed history and background information — and are well worth a read.)
We started with the soup base. Tonkotsu (not to be confused with tonkatsu — breaded fried pork cutlet) is a Kyushu-style ramen with a rich, creamy white broth which gets its consistency by simmering pork bones until all its savory goodness is extracted from the meat, fat, and marrow. The recipe also calls for chicken bones and pig trotters, the latter of which is essential for the collagen that melts into the liquid to create a thick, velvety texture. After that, caramelized ginger, garlic, and onions were added and the stock was pressure-cooked for almost two hours.
Simmering pig trotters
While we were waiting for the stock to complete, we started on the ramen noodles. The process is very similar to making homemade pasta — we even used a pasta machine to roll and cut the ramen — and the ingredients are comparable as well, just flour and water. The recipe uses bread flour because of its higher protein content which contributes more elasticity to the noodles. But what really puts the ramen-ness into ramen is the addition of kansui, a mixture of potassium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate. This alkaline solution toughens the proteins in the flour to create firmer noodles, further increases their springiness, and is responsible for ramen’s signature golden yellow hue.
Sheets of ramen
Finished ramen, waiting to be cooked
Ramen is commonly served with pork belly, but we opted for pig cheek, which is more tender and succulent with beautifully marbled fat throughout. We made the chashu by braising the pork in a liquid that included soy sauce, mirin, sake, sugar, ginger, and garlic.
After that, we boiled the ramen and filled the bowls with the broth and noodles and topped it with a variety of garnishes. Here it is again in all its glory:
The results were heavenly — hearty ramen drowned in velvety, porky broth punctuated with sweet-savory melt-in-your-mouth pork cheek, hard-boiled eggs steeped in the chashu braising liquid, the tangy counterpoint of pickled bamboo, a dark, bitter drizzle of burnt garlic oil, and the zing of crunchy scallions.
This feat would not have been possible without the efforts of several hungry, adventurous people: Doug and Jeanne shopped for the ingredients, Doug did most of the cooking (simmering, chopping, braising, slicing, making inappropriate jokes about pig trotters, etc.), Warren and Vernalynne rolled and cut the pasta, Jeanne and I made the tuna and vegetable maki (not shown) in case the experiment went horribly awry, Josh finished prepping a bunch of things in the kitchen and brought the alcoholic beverages, Victoria attempted to eat whole edamame pods, and Earl the greyhound tried his best to tolerate the affections of an excited toddler.