This year, for a number of reasons, I feel the need to distance myself from the excesses of the festive season earlier than usual. That is not to say I am looking at dietary restrictions, tiny portions or blandness. Far from it. What I crave and what I think my body needs is something soothing, comforting and satisfying. Flavour is paramount, as is the feeling of sustenance.
I have had a love affair with Japanese food for a while now. I love the fresh and clean flavours, the beautiful colours and the effortless simplicity it conveys. Japanese ramen dishes I have become a bit of a ramen obsessive; I eat it at least once a week in one form or another.
Ramen is a staple of Japanese cuisine, as any Wagamama fan will tell you! It’s fast food which doesn’t feel like it is slowly killing you through artery blockage. In Japan, ramen is like our bacon sandwich; a quick and tasty snack, a jet-lag fix, a hangover cure or a late-night munch for when you’ve had a few too many. Admittedly the actual food stuffs have little else in common. Where sushi can be the ultimate in pretentious and expensive food, ramen is a great social leveller and is almost a religion in Japan.
Put simply, ramen is generally a rich stock or broth, flavoured with miso, pork or chicken bones, served with noodles and either vegetables, chicken, pork or both. You eat them fast, shovelling and slurping, before the noodles get too soft, or the broth tepid. Wagamama’s have made ramen a more familiar food stuff to the British public, which is a good and bounteous thing-it is also the closest that many people outside big cities will come to fairly authentic Japanese cookery, which is still overshadowed by poor quality and synthetic Chinese food in much of the UK. If you do happen to live near London, the best and most authentic ramen I have eaten outside Japan is in Koya in Soho-they do one with prawn tempura, which is so damn tasty, it deserves a post of its own.
There are three main varieties of Japanese noodle: udon is a thick, bouncy wheat-flour noodle from the south end of the country; soba is a thinner buckwheat noodle from the north and ramen, which originated in China, but is now a Japanese staple. They are getting easier to find online and in supermarkets now, but obviously the best places are oriental supermarkets or shops. The best one I have found recently is H-Mart in New Malden. Most of the staff don’t speak much English, but if you are prepared to gesticulate wildly, you get there in the end! If you find some, stock up, as they keep forever.
My favourite ramen is with chicken, but sometimes, if I am in a more pure mood, I leave out meat and add more vegetables. This recipe calls for ramen noodles, but I often use soba as I like the slightly nutty and rough texture. The result is a dish which is wholesome but not worthy. It is deeply satisfying and very comforting. I guarantee you will feel better after eating this. However bad your day has been. A great side dish is edamame, or soya beans, in their pods and steamed whole. You can then pop them into your mouth while you are cooking garnished with just plain sea salt or dried chilli flakes. Again, you can find these frozen in most oriental supermarkets.
2 Pak Choi, roughly chopped (you can use any Chinese greens here, such as choi sum or bok choi or you can use 2 big handfuls of baby spinach leaves)
2 tablespoons Miso Paste (this is the best for flavour, but you can use powdered miso, or just chicken or vegetable stock)
250g Ramen Noodles (these are great but you can use any you might have)
2 Chicken Breasts
5 Spring Onions, finely sliced
Fresh Coriander, chopped
Soy Sauce for seasoning
1 Red Chilli, finely sliced (optional)
Dissolve your miso paste in 1 litre of hot water, add half of your spring onions. When the water is simmering, add your chicken breast, whole and leave to poach gently. After about 15 minutes, depending on the size of your chicken breast, take them out and leave to rest on a board. You can cut into them to make sure there is no pink left if you are unsure. Bring the miso stock up to a bubble and add your noodles; this will take about 6 minutes, but follow the timings on your packet. Meanwhile, slice the chicken on an angle, it doesn’t have to be neat, but it will look nice if you are!
When the noodles are nearly cooked, add the stalks of the pak choi. Simmer for one more minute so the noodles are done and the pak choi stems are warmed through but still crunchy. Put the leaves into the bowls and serve up the broth and noodles on top of the pak choi leaves so they wilt, lay the chicken slices on top and scatter with the remaining spring onions, coriander and chilli, if you are using.
You can use almost anything you have knocking about in the fridge; peppers, mushrooms, courgettes all work really well. You can use turkey, pork or seafood-whatever takes your fancy. Use chopsticks and a big spoon to eat, although you must be prepared to get it dribbling down your chin-it’s all part of the the authentic ramen experience.