Photos by kc kratt
Ramen is the It Girl of today’s noodle world. Popularized by David Chang’s Momofuku almost a decade ago, ramen pandemonium has reached so far that, in 2017, a hungry traveler can score a bowl in places as far away from Japan as Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Lincoln, Nebraska.
Asia is the homeland of pasta, and there are plenty of sources that cite ramen’s birthplace as China, claiming that Chinese workers brought the noodle soup with them when they left to work in Japan. While there’s no doubt its noodles are Chinese, many would argue the rest of ramen’s accoutrements are distinctly Japanese. Hiroshi Osaki, a well-respected ramen expert, claims Japan’s first ramen-only shop didn’t open until 1910, but it wasn’t until after World War II that the dish swept Japan, bolstered by the United States flooding the country with cheap wheat.
Regardless of provenance, most Americans knew little of ramen until well after Momofuku Ando invented his instant version in 1958. Since then, it’s likely that instant ramen has fueled more college cram sessions than any other cheap packaged food, its comforting sustenance derived simply by dousing a dried brick of squiggly noodles with hot water before stirring in the salty powder encased in the accompanying foil packet.
Chef and restaurateur Chang may not deserve all the credit, but a significant portion of today’s ramen craze can be credited directly to him. Thanks to his popularity and the following rise in ubiquity of good quality ramen, Americans have come to experience and enjoy fresh ramen in unprecedented numbers. Thanks to a wheat-based pasta dough, it’s the texture of fresh hand-pulled ramen noodles that make the real deal so special.
“It’s really just the same as an Italian pasta dough, but with baking soda added to make it airier,” says Soichiro Kimura, the sous chef at Bacchus and the reason that the venerable downtown eatery is selling an abundant amount of ramen. “We make the noodles using the pasta attachment on the Kitchen Aid [mixer].”
Bacchus has always made all its pasta from scratch, just like everything else on its menu; ramen is no exception. Kimura explains the process: “The broth we make is a riff on a full broth. I roast onion, ginger, garlic, mirepoix, and cabbage first. I learned about including cabbage from an Italian chef who always used it to make minestrone. It and the onions are really the key to adding a ton of flavor to the broth. If we have lobster inhouse, then it’s a lobster broth; if we have shrimp, it’s shrimp. We obviously add the shells into the stock as well. Once we’ve heated it, we let it steep overnight before we strain it and clarify it. To serve it, we marinate beef tenderloin in a yakitori-style sauce and pan sear it to add caramelization. Each bowl also includes bok choy, carrots, and fresh herbs. We also add our Asian-style chimichurri, which is Thai basil, cilantro, garlic, chile paste, lime, fish sauce, and wine.”
The ramen is hung to dry and cooked to order. Kimura, a Japanese American, marvels at the popularity of the dish and of ramen in general, “It’s just so common,” he says, “I could have never guessed it would become what it is today, and the number of bowls we’re serving every day is just nuts.”