My parents made my lunch every day that I was in school from the time I was barely old enough to hold a brown paper bag, right up until my last days of high school. It was always exactly the same format, with slight variations: sandwich, juice box, granola bar, piece of fruit. Pretty standard fare for most of my peer group if I remember correctly, and I never complained about it. That is until the day I peered over my bologna-on-a-bun to see Alexis at the popular kids’ table in the junior high cafeteria slurping over what looked like a rather foreign and intriguing styrofoam cup of something hot and tasty.
“Oh, that’s Mr. Noodles”, my best friend Julie said, and went on to explain that all you had to do was pour boiling water into the cup and wait a few minutes before eating the noodle soup-like meal. I looked down at my cold, relatively flavourless, pedestrian food and felt left out. Not only was I totally un-cool, but suddenly my lunch was too. Could life get any worse?!
I ran home and told my mom about the cup noodles and begged her to buy some at the store, promising her that this could not only save her time, but most importantly, my lunchroom reputation. “Don’t you want me to be popular?!”, I wailed. Convinced this was my ticket to the promised land of spin-the-bottle and weekend shopping mall hang-outs, I persuaded her to invest the fifty cents on a couple trials and see what all the fuss was about. When she came home I had the kettle boiled and ready to get down to business.
Folding back the paper lid, I spotted a magical little package of flavoured powder inside, which I read was meant to be emptied into the cup before adding the water. A couple shriveled, token peas fell out amongst the dust and my mom looked pleased to see green. The boiling water was added, I closed the lid again and waited – the longest four minutes of my life thus far. But oh, what ceremony! What rapture! The timer on my ironman wristwatch beeped, I stirred the cup, and dug in.
It was salty. Very salty. That’s about all I can recall. The noodles, semi-cooked and crispy in parts were underwhelming and bland, while the broth, if I can all it that, was shockingly saline. But none of that mattered. I would have eaten cow dung if it meant sitting next to Alexis. I finally had the answer to the question of cafeteria coolness.
Needless to say, eating ramen did not initiate me into the popular crowd, nor did it inspire a great love of this ubiquitous, cheap eat canonized by hung-over college kids everywhere. Until very recently this had been my only experience with ramen. But when yet another ramen recipe request landed in my inbox, I knew it was time to revisit this famous dish.
It needs to be said that instant ramen is a far cry from its traditional roots of noodles in broth, which when prepared properly with care and intention, can be utterly delicious. I suppose it’s like most things that go from revered, regional dish to the freezer section of the gas station’s grocery aisle, or worse. Shouldn’t these things receive a different name or label in respect to the original recipe? It’s somewhat maddening, but I surrender to the fact that there is only so much I can change in this world.
The backbone of all ramen is the broth, or dashi. Dashi is a clear stock that is traditionally made using kombu, Japanese sea kelp, and katsoubushi or bonito, dried fish. Other dashi bases can include shiitake mushrooms, and because my recipes are plant based, I’ll be showing you how to make this variety and the kombu one today. Once you have this base, you can spike your dashi with shallots, garlic, ginger, miso, etc. but today we’re keeping things simple and I leave the fun and improvisation to your ramen-hungry minds.
Toppings vary widely, but vegetarian ingredients can include noodles (obviously), mushrooms, strips of nori or other tasty sea veggies, greens, spring onions, shredded cabbage, kimchi, garlic, and the ever-so-popular soft-boiled egg. If you are vegan, simply leave this ingredient out – it’s the only animal product in the recipe and still delicious without it. The one thing I love about ramen is its versatility and infinitely customizable combinations to suit every season, taste, and budget.
On Salt, Sodium and Finding a Balance
The big bad deal with packaged ramen and its accompanying powdered broth or “flavour packet” is the incredibly high sodium content, some brands containing an entire day’s worth in just one serving! On the flip side, making your own dashi allows you to control the sodium level and provide you with balanced saltiness for overall wellbeing.
Sodium is not only important to us, our survival depends on it. Its role in the human body is to work in conjunction with potassium to maintain cellular fluid levels, acid/alkaline balance, and keep the nerves and muscles functioning properly. Sodium plays a role in hydrochloric acid production in the stomach, and is used during the transport of amino acids from the gut to the blood.
Because sodium is needed to maintain blood fluid volume, excessive sodium can result in increased blood volume and elevated blood pressure, especially if the kidneys are compromised in any way and unable to clear it efficiently. Hypertension and premenstrual problems are more frequent in people who have a high salt intake, especially when there is a relatively low level of potassium in the diet to counteract it. Virtually all whole unprocessed plant foods contain more potassium than sodium. Grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens, offer ten to several hundred times more potassium, and yet the average American is said to be deficient in potassium. Although there is no standard ratio of sodium to potassium to recommend, eating a balanced, whole foods diet (surprise!) is the best way to achieve equilibrium.
So how much sodium should be eating in a day? First it needs to be established that sodium and salt are two different things. The salt we consume is in fact a combination of two ions, sodium and chloride, in percentages of roughly 40% and 60%. Most nutrition experts agree that sodium intake on a daily basis should not exceed 2 grams per day. This amount is equal to 5 grams of salt, or 1 teaspoon. Yup. That’s it. Put into those terms, it’s easy to see how one could overdo it…by lunch hour.
To avoid excess sodium intake, limit processed foods. As I mentioned above, a little recon revealed that some instant ramen brands cover the daily sodium base in just one serving. Yikes! Sodium lurks in some very unexpected places, so be savvy and read labels. To be extra cautious avoid high-salt foods such as commercially-prepared pickles, olives, and saurkraut, canned and instant soups, processed cheese, condiments like ketchup, barbeque sauce, gravy, alfredo sauce, salad dressings, mayonnaise, soy sauce, snacks foods like chips, salted peanuts and pretzels, crackers, and boxed breakfast cereal. Remember, cooking for yourself is the only way to know exactly what you are getting in your food.
There are a few things that need to be mentioned about this recipe.
First, you need to start the process the night before (or the morning of) by simply soaking the dashi ingredients in water and set in the fridge. This is how you make the broth. You can hurry the process by cooking the ingredients in hot water if you’re in a rush, but the results are better if you follow this slower method (plus, your fridge does all the work). I will also say that traditional dashi is delicate and mild-flavoured, unlike the instant dashi that is saltier and stronger due to the addition of artificial, chemical flavour enhancers. When you try the dashi for the first time, try not to compare it to the ramen broth you’ve had in the past – this is the real deal. Appreciate its clean, pure taste and it subtlety, and add tamari or miso only as needed to enhance the natural flavour.
Second, you can make and enjoy the dashi bases separately if you like, or combine the two for a more complex flavour. I really like the combination of the kombu and shiitake dashi together. They both contain good amounts of umami, so united they deliver a deep, multifaceted taste experience without the meat.
Third, get organic ingredients if you can. Sea vegetables and mushrooms are both like little sponges in their respective environments so finding the cleanest and highest quality you can is a good idea.
Finally, purchase the most high-vibe ramen noodles you can find. The other reason I was inspired to write this recipe and post was because of all the incredibly awesome ramen I’ve seen at the health food store. Made with whole grains, some of them even gluten-free, I couldn’t say no! Now, you could make your own noodles if you like (this is an art I greatly admire) but in the interest of saving a smidgen of time, buy yourself some noodles and get to the ramen even faster.
Ramen Revisited + How to make Dashi
Serves 4 (each dashi recipe below serves 2)
4 cups / 1 liter water : 60g dried shiitake mushrooms (do not use fresh)
4 cups / 1 liter water : 20g kombu
For the kombu dashi, place .7oz / 20g of kombu in 4 cups / 1 liter of water overnight in the fridge. In the morning, discard the kombu, strain the remaining liquid and warm it in a pot on the stove until just barely simmering. Serve.
For the shiitake dashi, remove any dirt or debris from the dried mushrooms and place in 4 cups / 1 liter of water. It is important to submerge the mushrooms, so place something on top of them, such as a smaller glass lid, and set them in the fridge overnight. In the morning, remove the mushrooms, squeezing out as much liquid from them as you can. Set the mushrooms aside, strain the remaining liquid and warm it in a pot on the stove until just barely simmering. Serve.
3-4 bunches baby bok choy, quickly stir-fried in a little shallot and garlic
2 carrots, julienned
2 spring onions, sliced
2 soft-boiled or medium eggs (to suit your taste) (optional)
1 pack whole grain ramen noodles (gluten-free, if desired)
dried or fresh chilies
tamari or miso, to taste (use discretion!)
1. Prepare all the ingredients: stir-fry the bok choy or other greens, slice and stir-fry the shiitake mushrooms (or slice and leave raw), julienne the carrots, slice the spring onions, slice the rehydrated shiitake mushrooms, soft boil the eggs.
2. Bring a pot of water to the boil. Add the noodles and cook according to the package instructions.
3. While the noodles are cooking, ladle the broth into the bowls. Add the hot noodles and all other ingredients. Take a moment to arrange the food in a pleasing way, sit, and enjoy.
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Hey everyone! My book comes out today!!! I am so ridiculously excited to see this day arrive and the book arrive in your homes and kitchens. The reviews have been so positive so far and for that, I thank you. Please note that although most stores in North America that are carrying the book should have it in stock today, some may take a few days to longer. If you want to purchase the book online, there are many retailers listed here.
I would like to take this time to acknowledge the couple of misprints in the book. During the editing process the following mistakes were made: on page 21, the ghee recipe is labeled vegan. On page 241-242 buckwheat and spelt switched places so that buckwheat is in the gluten-containing section of the grains chapter, while spelt is in the gluten-free section.
In other news, my Vancouver tour dates and events have been confirmed! Here is where and when you can find me in Van city (this will be my first time there, can you believe it?!). Click the links for more details and ticket information.
April 15: Burdock and Co. Collaborative Dinner + Book Signing
April 16: Whole Foods Cambie Cooking Demo + Book Signing
April 17: Interview + Afternoon Tea with CBC’s Sheryl MacKay
Barbara Jo’s Books to Cooks Dinner Event + Book Signing
Looking forward to seeing you all there!
Also, check out my most recent interview over at the gorgeous site, The Coveteur.