A ramen renaissance: Japanese noodles fill a Portland niche

Ramen is back and it's big. No, I'm not talking about those little packets that you remember from your college days, the ones you bought 10 for a buck and cooked up in a coffee maker in your dorm room. The ramen that's being raved about in publications such as The New York Times and is taking cities like Los Angeles by storm is much more complex than those blocks of squiggly noodles with their mysterious flavor packets.

Ramen is its own culture in Japan, with noodle shops that have rabid fan bases and their chefs drawing crowds waiting two hours in line when a new shop opens. It even has a distinct genre of books and movies dedicated to its lore.

The noodles that give the soup its name are different from other types like udon or yakisoba, though all are made from wheat flour. Ramen is said to have originated in China, from a region studded with mineral-rich lakes. The water from these lakes was used in making the noodles, and the high concentration of alkalines such as sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate in the water gave the noodles their special color and texture.

Here in Portland, two chefs have taken two very different approaches to this everyday soup.

Gabe Rosen wasn't even going to have it on the menu when he opened his restaurant, Biwa, in Southeast Portland.

"The ramen was almost an afterthought -- I wasn't going to do it," said Rosen of the soup he refers to as Biwa's cover girl. "Lots of people come through here and never see a bowl of ramen, but a lot of people come here exclusively for it."

Recipes included with this story: Biwa-style Ramen Broth, Seafood Miso Dashi, Ramen Dough, Shoyu Ramen.

Rosen's approach grew out of a yearlong trip to Japan he took as part of his Japanese degree program at Portland State University.

"It was for fun, not with any real vocational intent, but I did want to study abroad so I did that via the Japanese program," he said. "Most of the research and reading I'd done dealt with a more rarefied type of cuisine, but the everyday food (of the country), that totally blindsided me." Having worked in restaurants in his youth and having the dream of opening his own place, he naturally thought it would make sense to open an izakaya, or small-plates restaurant, and serve everyday Japanese food.

 
In the movie "Tampopo," one of the most memorable scenes shows a young man and an old man sitting next to each other at a ramen shop. The young man is there to learn from the ramen master, who he says has been studying noodles for 40 years. As steaming bowls are set before them, the young man asks, "Master, soup first or noodle first?"

 
Don't be afraid!
Looking at a list of ingredients that includes things like kombu, dried sardines and bonito flakes (aka katsuobushi) might make you run straight back to the arms of Bobby Flay or Marcella Hazan.
I asked Susana Holloway of Portland's Culinary Workshop, who teaches classes on Asian cooking, what she'd recommend for someone who finds the thought of going to an Asian market intimidating if not downright scary.
First, she said, go to one of the larger Asian markets (see the following sources). They tend to be laid out more like Western-style grocery stores, with wide aisles and distinct departments for produce, meats, fish and dried goods. Plus, they'll often have signage in several languages, including English.
And while they are stocking more and more organic produce and gluten-free products, expect to find conventionally grown, though very inexpensive, vegetables and fruits and packaged goods with long lists of ingredients.
She also recommends first-timers going to an Asian market without a list in hand.
"What has worked for me has been to not necessarily come in with a recipe where I have to go around and find stuff," she said. "Give yourself some time to wander around the aisles and look at things. If you're the type of person who likes to go to grocery stores, it's the perfect place to do that. I've literally found myself wandering around the aisles in a grocery store for hours."
The larger markets, because their product mix attracts a diverse customer base, also tend to have better customer service departments. "Don't be afraid to ask for help," said Holloway. "After all, the shopping should be part of the overall experience."
Fubonn Supermarket
2850 S.E. 82nd Ave.
503-517-8877
H Mart
13600 S.W. Pacific Highway, Tigard
503-620-6120
Uwajimaya
10500 S.W. Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, Beaverton
503-643-4512
--Kathleen Bauer
For the first year Rosen and his staff made their own noodles on a daily basis, experimenting to find the perfect mix of all-purpose and high-gluten flour, but the volume needed to supply the restaurant got to be too much for their small kitchen. After trying and failing to find an outside supplier to make noodles, he decided to go with a fresh manufactured noodle.

When asked if it was a painful decision to go from a handmade noodle to a factory-made noodle, Rosen is sanguine. "Painful?" he recalled. "Quite the opposite of painful! It was like the clouds parted. In a lot of ways it was just a perception of compromise because, frankly, the factory-made noodles we get come out a lot better than when we tried to make it by hand."

Setting the noodle-making aside also meant he and his staff could concentrate on making the broth from long, gentle overnight simmering of chicken carcasses and pork necks, legs and feet. To that rich though somewhat bland-tasting broth is added a traditional seasoning base called tare (TAH-ray), made from dried fish, ground pork, tomato paste, mushrooms, soy sauce and other ingredients.

"This is really where we build flavor with the soup," he said of the salty, layered complexity of the tare that gives the finished broth its mouth feel and animal perfume.

Once the broth is made, the assembly is fairly simple, with the noodles cooking for a couple of minutes in boiling water. They're then shaken vigorously in a strainer to rid them of any water that might dilute the broth. The noodles are served with a ladleful of hot broth and toppings such as scallions, seaweed, thin slices of meat or a soft-boiled egg.

 
"First, observe the whole bowl," the old man says, gazing at his bowl. "Appreciate its gestalt. Savor the aromas. Jewels of fat glittering on the surface, shinachiku roots shining, seaweed slowly sinking, spring onions floating. Concentrate on the three pork slices -- they play the key role but stay modestly hidden."

 
Something entirely different is going on with Patrick Fleming's Boke Bowl, a monthly pop-up event that draws hundreds of diners to different locations around the metro area.

The name Boke (pronounced BOH-kee) is Japanese for "blur" or "mental haze," but it's also a commonly used slang meaning "knucklehead." Fleming, whose day job is as executive chef at the Oregon Country Club in West Linn, said he'd been experimenting with Asian ingredients and techniques over the past several years and the surge of interest in ramen made it the perfect fit.

Plus he'd spent part of his youth in New Orleans, and the Japanese noodle soup, odd as it sounds, appealed to those roots.

"There's a lot of one-pot meals (in New Orleans) like etouffée, gumbo and jambalaya," he said, "It's comforting and you can eat it for most meals. I think a good barometer for any food is: Can you eat it in the morning? Can you eat it for lunch? Can you eat it for dinner? Can you eat it when you're hung over? Can you eat it late at night? Can you give it to kids? I think ramen fits into that realm, and everyone likes soup and noodles."

The idea of doing it as a pop-up, which means he takes over an existing restaurant for three or four hours, using its kitchen and staff to supplement his core crew, seemed like a good way to start.

"I thought it was a good idea to get a product out, try to build a following, solicit feedback and create a buzz," he said, adding, "the networking's great, and learning how different operations run, Kitchen Confidential stuff." Not to mention the fact that it's a much less capital-intensive way to test an idea before investing in a brick-and-mortar restaurant, something Fleming hopes to do in the future.

And the excitement is palpable. When the most recent email went out to subscribers announcing an upcoming event, within a half hour between 300 and 400 people tried to make reservations online, causing the system to crash.

 
The old man takes a pair of chopsticks and strokes the surface of the soup. "First caress the surface with the chopstick tips."

"What for?" the young man asks. The old man looks at him and smiles.

"To express affection. Then poke the pork. Caress it with the chopstick tips. Gently pick it up and dip it into the soup on the right of the bowl. What's important here is to apologize to the pork by saying, 'See you soon.'"


 
The soup creating all this hubbub starts with handmade noodles, which to Fleming became a quest. Like Rosen at Biwa, he felt that, as a chef, he needed to make his own noodles.

"I was looking for the right ratio," he said. "I used egg whites to try make them firmer and that didn't seem to work because they should be kind of spongy and chewy." He said the first few batches tasted like spaghetti noodles.

Then, like Rosen, the "Aha!" moment came when he found out about the alkaline water in the region where the noodle originated, and he began experimenting with adding a dense soda ash containing sodium bicarbonate to his flour mixture.

"What the soda ash does is it acts as kind of a tenderizer," he said. "It denatures the protein and inhibits gluten production so that keeps it soft and kind of rubbery."

He mixes the dough in a large mixer, then rolls it out by hand before running it through an electric pasta machine that stretches and thins the dough into long sheets. He cuts it into shorter sheets of about a quarter-pound each, then cuts those into spaghetti by running them through the machine one last time.

"The real (experts) in China do all this by hand by stretching it," he said.

The three broths, or dashi, that he offers at Boke Bowl start as a combination of water, kombu (a type of seaweed) and shiitake mushrooms. This simmers and then sits in the refrigerator for two days to develop flavor. After straining off the seaweed and mushrooms, he then adds various ingredients to make seafood, pork and vegetarian versions he offers on his menu.

Anchovies, bonito flakes, ginger, garlic, mirin, soy, lemon grass and shrimp shells make the seafood broth, while the pork broth includes roasted pork neck bones, roasted chicken bones, ham and the hard crusty ends of the char siu, or pork butt, that he makes and then uses to garnish the finished pork soup.

And don't turn your nose up at his vegetarian broth thinking it's some wimpy version of the others.

"Recently I've been caramelizing a lot of fennel and then a lot of raw butternut squash," he said. "I also have roasted carrots, onions and mushrooms in there. Then I'll top it with a bunch of fresh fennel, mushroom, mirepoix and leeks to give it another layer of flavor.

"Our mantra is, 'One bowl at a time,'" he added. "We really look at each bowl differently and try to put a lot of care into each component that goes into it. And the noodles are a huge part of that."