The universe in a bowl of ramen

EAT’S EASY - Ernest Reynoso Gala (The Philippine Star) - November 14, 2013 - 12:00am

A bowl of ramen is a self-contained universe with life from the sea, the mountains, and the earth. All existing in perfect harmony. Harmony is essential. What holds it all together is the broth. The broth gives life to the ramen.

—Maezumi, The Ramen Girl

People for centuries have been boiling and simmering soup. It has stood the test of time and has been a large part of cooking history. It is undeniable that a hot bowl of soup can do wonders for the body and soul.

Filipinos are also fond of noodles, from the Chinese-influenced pancit to my Lolo Pepe’s love for Ma Mon Luk chicken mami paired with siomai and siopao. Noodles have played an important part in Filipino culture, as evidenced by the younger generation’s penchant for spaghetti, which has brought in billions of pesos to many franchises. Various manufacturers have produced instant cup noodles for those who want a quick and affordable meal that can be eaten anytime and anywhere. The standard and variety of Japanese food has evolved and there is a noticeable craze around Japanese cuisine, which Filipinos have embraced. Thanks to increasing influence, frequent travels and a growing demand, ramen has become the latest trend in the culinary world.

During the 1970s, Japanese restaurants became popular and the usual order was sushi, tempura and katsudon. The most in-demand noodle soup was sukiyaki or sautéed, thinly sliced beef with vegetables such as carrots and leeks. These were combined with tofu, shiitake mushrooms, a delicious broth and glass noodles made from mung beans that were slippery in texture, locally known as sotanghon. Soon after more noodles from Japan were introduced. Udon noodles are made from wheat and are either flat or round but are generally quite thick (similar to our lomi or prewar mami noodles). Packets of whitish-beige fresh udon are available in Japanese, Korean, and big supermarkets. Wash them lightly, drain and add to boiling broth. Dried udon are boiled in a pasta pan usually 3 minutes, drained and added to boiling broth. Soba noodles are made from buckwheat, thus its brownish color, while the green variety is flavored with green tea. While soba noodles are available fresh in Japan, they are usually available only in dried form outside Japan. To prepare, just follow package directions. Soba maybe served ice-cold or added to boiling broth or stir-fried like our pancit canton and this is called yaki soba. 

The Hollywood movie The Ramen Girl first spurred my interest in this dish. The story goes that a young woman, played by actress Brittany Murphy, is stuck in Tokyo because her boyfriend decided to end their relationship. Feeling depressed, nothing can cure her heartache until she tries ramen. The event has a profound effect and completely changes her mood. Thus, she is determined to learn the steps to making this delicious dish and later put up her own ramen house so she can also help people overcome their depression. The process of cooking takes time, patience and must be precise, similar to the Japanese culture. 

Soon after the movie was released I began noticing a number of ramen houses emerging. From Ramen Cool on East Capitol Drive, Kapitolyo, to Ramen Bar in Eastwood City, to the no-nonsense Ukokkei Ramen Ron on Arnaiz Avenue, Makati City, crowds would gather at these establishments. Japanese franchises like Ramen Yushoken and Kichitora of Tokyo have also set up their branches, raising the level and showcasing traditional-style ramen.

In my quest to learn more about ramen I was fortunate to be assigned by Jun Ventura of Mabuhay magazine (the in-flight magazine of Philippine Airlines) to review a new restaurant named Hanaichi Japanese Restaurant, located on the corner of 28th street and 4th Avenue, Bonifacio Global City. I was shocked to meet the 26-year-old hip, amiable and very knowledgeable executive chef Takashi Kawasaki, who graduated from Hattori Nutrition College, Tokyo, Japan, and worked at Hanafubuki Japanese Restaurant, also in Tokyo. Chef Takashi also heads Sakura Restaurant in Subic and, busy as he is, accepted my invitation to showcase his famous tempura, various salmon and tuna maki in one of the 12 stations of my school, Galastars Culinary at its inauguration recently.

Other celebrity chefs invited were Jessie Sincioco, who presented mouthwatering appetizers (heart of palm in mini herbed crepe pouch spinach and artichoke heart dip with mini pita bread). She also opened her third restaurant, 100, a revolving restaurant located on the 33rd floor of the Mercury Drug building at the entrance of Eastwood City, Libis. Johnlu Koa of French Baker and Chatime presented various desserts like macaroons, crepes and his famous milk teas. San Miguel Purefoods, through the kindness of its generous president, Butch Alejo, showcased their famous Purefoods ham and choice cold cuts, while Café Puro and Ricoa Chocolate owners Philip and Teresa Huang supplied unlimited coffee and hot chocolate.

After this momentous event chef Takashi and became good friends. I asked him to teach Japanese cooking for my Sous Chef Course.  He was a marvel to listen to because he spoke fluent English and Tagalog. After demonstrating exact recipes, each student made their own sushi, katsudon and sukiyaki. Since it’s rare to find such a talented and selfless teacher, I asked him to teach me the art of making ramen. He politely obliged and soon took me around various Japanese groceries to educate me in the ingredients used to make ramen. He then took me to various ramen establishments to illustrate the various soups to make ramen.

Chef Takashi explained that there are four basic stocks used: shio, or salt ramen based on fish stock and seaweed; shoyu, or soy sauce-based made from chicken bones and meat; tonkotsu, or pork-based ramen made from bones and fat; and miso ramen made from dashi stock combined with either pork or chicken bones. Vegetables are sometimes added to enhance flavor. The secret to making good soup is the prolonged reduction of the stock, allowing it to boil for a minimum of 10 hours up to two days. This creates such a thick, flavorful soup that the noodles absorb the flavors easily. The right amount of heat and proper mixing technique is also needed. Slow cooking also enhances the effect on the body, as miso paste and tofu are known to smoothen skin and reduce the risk of heart disease. Various toppings like chasu, or sliced braised pork, nori or seaweed, corn and butter are added to make the dish a complete meal.

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Chef Takashi will conduct a workshop on three Kinds of Ramen and Gyoza on Nov. 23, 1:30-5 p.m. Slots are limited, so paid reservations will be given priority. Call 671-4489/ 98/ 72.

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For inquiries on Galastars Chef De Partie Level 1 (20-lesson hands-on Professional Culinary Course) and Sous Chef Level 2 (10-lesson hands-on Professional Course), call 671-4489/ 98/ 72 or visit www.sylviareynosogala.com or the Facebook page Galastars Culinary.

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