Ramen has made its evolution from a working-class staple to becoming one Japans national dish in a very short amount of time. The origin story of ramen is an interesting one and one I don’t think many of us are familiar with. Ramen is in actual fact not Japnese at all but rather originates from China. Directed at the working-class ramen was considered filling, cheap and made using simple and basic ingredients that could be found throughout China, it’s a dish that’s rightly worked it’s way up the ladder and is now considered a luxury dish at most of our local spots.
My first encounter with ramen was only 2 years ago when Cape Town had it’s first and very short-lived wave of ramen spots opening up. If memory serves me correctly Downtown Ramen (above Leftys) was one of the first. Serving just 2 meat options and 2 vegetarian options you didn’t have much choice, which in my opinion is how it should be. Make one dish really well and then expand. Downtown Ramen was great, a small cozy spot to enjoy your first taste of Japans national dish. After that, I became a little obsessed and made sure I visited any new establishment that had ramen on the menu. My favourite thus far has to be Lucky Bao, aside from incredible bao, they make outstanding vegan ramen.
What makes ramen so special you may be wondering, well its the incredible flavour that comes from the soup base. Japanese ramen may differ from original Chinese methods in that Japanese ramen makes use of more ingredients to form the base of the soup (pork belly, chicken,venison, anchovies, dried bonito, kelp, or vegetables) with added flavours coming from soy sauce, miso paste and salt. Its the delicate balance of flavours that makes ramen such a sought-after dish. Finding that perfect balance of umami flavours comes from hundreds of trial and error experiments before stumbling upon the best combination and ratios.
The presence of the ever elusive umami flavour was only affirmed in 2000 after scholars finally acknowledged the tongues receptors could experience this fifth flavour. The secret to getting that umami flavour in ramen is a combination of temperature, timing and kelp/nori. Making sure each ingredient plays off the other is a delicate balance, that requires some patience. For this recipe, we chose to add lemongrass. A flavour not traditionally found in earlier versions of ramen, but definitely a flavour worth exploring.
Lemongrass is a stalky plant with a lemony scent that grows in many tropical climates, most notably in Southeast-Asia, it adds a zesty lemon flavour to your cooking when used correctly. Because of the fibrous quality I’ve always chosen to bruise the lemongrass to release the flavours and nutrients and remove it once you’re done the cooking. This avoids the hassle of pulling stringy bits out your teeth, especially if you’ve decided to cook a special someone dinner.
Aside from adding incredible flavour to ramen, it also has amazing medicinal benefits; becoming increasingly popular throughout western cultures. Known for its antibacterial, anti-fungal and anti-microbial properties it also helps to cure insomnia by calming and relaxing muscles and nerves allowing for a deeper sleep. After a little research, I’ve come to the conclusion that lemongrass is one of those achiever vegetables; they aid in nearly every aspect of the bod, from your digestion to your immunity and even has a positive impact on your nervous system and cellular.
It’s an ingredient I started using in stews only a short while ago, and with the combination of “meaty” flavours derived from the mushrooms and soy sauce, it needed a little lift that only a subtle hint of citrus can provide. We ended up with the perfect combination of flavours, textures, and colours. Ramen has definitely moved up and cemented it’s in the world.
- 1 block Tofu drained and liquid pressed
- 80 ml Tamari Sauce
- 1 tsp Fresh Ginger grated
- 1/2 tsp Sambal Oelek
- 1 tsp Maple Syrup
- 6 cup Vegetable Stock
- 1/4 cup Red Curry Paste
- 1 tin Coconut Milk
- 1 Red Onion finely chopped
- 500 grams Mixed Mushrooms
- 2 sticks Lemongrass
- 1 round Rice Noodles
- 4 Spring Onions sliced on the diagonal
- 100 grams Baby Bok Choy
- 1 handful Fresh Coriander to serve
- 1 sheet Nori sliced into thin strips
Prepare your tofu by draining all the liquid and wrapping the tofu in a clean dishcloth, place a heavy object such as a cast iron pan on top to drain any excess moisture. Remove from the dishcloth and cut into 1-2cm cubes.
In a bowl, big enough to fit your tofu combine all the marinade ingredients and add your tofu. Set aside to marinate for 30 minutes while you prepare the rest of your ramen.
Heat 1 tbsp of olive oil in a large stockpot (a large pot that will hold all your liquid) and fry your onions and mushrooms for 2-3 minutes on medium-high heat, until they start to soften and brown slightly. Add your curry paste and stir to coat your onions and mushrooms. You'll notice the pan will dry up a little, don't worry you're about to add liquid so avoid adding more olive oil.
Add the vegetable stock, nori and coconut milk to the pan and bring everything to a gentle simmer. Simmer your ramen for a total of 20 minutes.
Using the side of a large knife begin to bruise your lemongrass. This is done by placing the side of a knife on the lemongrass and pressing down to release flavour - similar to how you would smash garlic. Add your lemongrass to the pan and keep simmering.
Drain your tofu from the marinade and place them in a nonstick frying pan. Fry on medium-high heat until crispy.
Once your tofu is done frying return the same pan to medium heat with 2 tablespoons of water and place your baby bok choy inner side down. Flash fry to 2-3 minutes until the edges start to brown. Remove from heat and set aside until serving.
You can either choose to cook your rice noodles separately or add them to your ramen to cook, we chose the later to allow the flavours to marry. if you are doing this make sure to add the noodles right at the end to avoid overcooking - resulting in mushy noodles.
Once your ramen is done simmering, remove your lemongrass sticks from the pan and divide the ramen between 4 bowls. Top with crispy tofu, baby bok choy, sliced spring onions and fresh coriander.