Without reading on, you casual to semi-hardcore “rameniacs” who never heard the Japanese term before are probably asking “Ooh, where is Nama Ramen? Are they new in town? I’d love to check them out!”
Well, sorry (and fortunately) not to bust your bubble, but Nama Ramen isn’t a “Ya”, known as a “shop” (small restaurant/stand), but is actually considered a category of store-bought noodles that are packaged FRESH. This, being far from them flash-fried ‘n dried mega mass produced instant “bricks” and cups… of “noodles”. You know, the type that gave Ramen such a disrespected, non-nutritious reputation prior to the Japanese finally in recent times making inroads into the American food and beverage industry with a very important part of their cuisine and culture.
I for one LOVE authentic Japanese Ramen, which is indeed a cuisine within itself in every sense of the word. In fact, it’s on my Yelp profile as Tokyo style Shoyu Ramen being my requested last meal on earth.
Particularly in Honolulu, lately there’s been new and truly authentic Ramen shops popping up all around, such as Japanese Ramen Kai on Kona Street adjacent to Ala Moana Center, Hokkaido Ramen Santouka in front of the Kaheka Street Don Quijote, and Agu Ramen on Isenberg in Mo’ili’ili. On top of that, Shirokiya’s Yataimura food court hosts a new ramen stand from Japan on a bi-monthly basis for even more import samplings. Heaven!
Well, if you don’t have the time or energy to hit the trendiest new Ramen-Ya in town, while it’s been in the markets for a while now, if you haven’t thought of trying it yet or taken it seriously, Nama Ramen can be the next best thing to the real deal!
“Can” being the operative word, as most Nama Ramen we get here in Honolulu typically only include the noodles and broth packets; or if you prefer, each sold separately. This, compared to Japan where they sell Nama Ramen that in some versions have more essentials you’d also get freshly served in your bowl at the shop conveniently included in the package, including Chashu (braised pork slices), Menma (marinated bamboo shoots) and/or Nori/Konbu (seaweed). Just add fresh, thinly-sliced Negi (Japanese Green Onion) and you’re good to go!
Nama Ramen noodles are made fresh in mass production according to the same recipes using minimal preservatives (if any) as how it’s done in small shops, including the core wheat flour, sometimes egg whites, and most importantly Kansui, which is an alkaline mineral water containing sodium carbonate and usually potassium carbonate, as well as sometimes a small amount of phosphoric acid. Kansui is absolutely THE key ingredient that separates Japanese ramen noodles from all other asian styles of noodles, giving the it that unique firm, almost rubbery yet al dente texture, yellowish color and “eggy” flavor profile. Chemistry never tasted better!
Of course the most important element to a great bowl of ramen, no matter where and how it’s served, is the broth. As chef Maezumi from the film ‘Ramen Girl’ starring the late Britanny Murphy explains to his young aprentice:
“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. Understand? So with that in mind, observe the ramen. Observe the ramen.” – Chef Maezumi
Speaking of observe, notice Nama Ramen broth comes in liquid form, not dehydrated powder, along with a nice slick of fat surrounding it. Or otherwise sometimes the oil packet is provided separately.
Still, like the dehydrated powdered “broth” in the dry bricks and cup noodle products, the liquid broth in Nama Ramen can also be packed high in sodium and MSG, which is usually the biggest drawback to most packaged asian convenience foods. Take for instance the Sun Noodle Shoyu Ramen, where each serving provides 420 calories, 4.5g of total fat, along with a Lisinopril-popping 3,400mg of sodium. Whoah!
Cooking Nama Ramen noodles is quick, taking about 2 to 3 minutes in rapidly boiling (very clean) water. Ramen-Ya shops use a special strainer that’s designed to hang over the lip of the tall boiling water pot, holding just enough noodle portion for single or extra servings; the latter called “Kaedama”.
The key when you cook ramen noodles is, after it’s cooked to perfect al dente doneness, once you remove it from the boiling water, in the strainer, you should shake out just enough excess water, yet not too much. You want an ever-slight coat of hot water coating the noodles so they don’t clump before you add them into the bowl with the prepared soup broth. You do that by giving the ramen basket or colander a couple of quick shaking jolts downward to expel the excess water.
Next time you go to a ramenya, ask the server if you can peak into the kitchen to watch the cook prepare the ramen (or watch the film Ramen Girl), and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about in these last two paragraphs.
Also different from the “cheap” stuff, nama ramen broth isn’t cooked on the stove with the noodles, but added to your serving bowl simply diluted and thoroughly combined with very hot water, then added cooked noodles are added in, finished by adding your toppings ‘n garnish and serve.
Now the “most funnest” part: the toppings and garnish!
Which we must start with the heartiest element, the Chashu, an obvious Japanese take on Chinese Charsiu. Except with Chashu that’s typically used in Japanese ramen, it’s braised in a pot in a shoyu-based liquid, compared to Chinese Charsiu being marinated and roasted.
Here next I’ll demonstrate how to make your own Chashu for Nama Ramen!
Ramen Chashu Pork Recipe
Chashu (for Chashumen)
3-5 lbs. pork butt (shoulder)
1 cup shoyu
1/2 cup mirin
1/2 cup sake
1″ of a finger fresh ginger, slivered thinly (more or less to personal preference)
1/2 cup chopped green onion (more or less to personal preference)
Here’s the players…
In cooking pot large enough to hold the piece of pork butt you have, set the fire to medium-high heat with a little oil and thoroughly brown the whole pork butt on all sides..
Doing this will give the Chashu a slightly crisp edge to each slice, which compliments the silky ramen noodles beautifully.
After the pork is browned, remove it and set aside. Drain any excess oil out of the pot then add the shoyu, mirin, sake, ginger and green onion in the same pot over medium-low heat and stir to combine.
You can play with this recipe, but make sure you at least have the Shoyu and Sake in there. I’ve done it without Mirin, substituting a small amount of sugar, which also tasted oishii!
After the shoyu, sake, mirin (or sugar) liquids and ginger are incorporated, add the pork back in, turn it around in the liquid and let it simmer on medium-low heat (with just a mild movement of the liquid to a slight bubble, but no more) for 1-1/2 hours, turning the pork over occasionally (this will help it evenly soak up the flavor of the braising liquid around the edges of the pork). Keep pot covered to prevent evaporation. The braising liquid level should remain at least 1/3 to no more than 2/3 up the sides of the pork butt while in the pot.
You want the pork to be tender enough that you can slice through it with a knife easily, but not where it falls apart. About 1.5 hours simmering in the pot will get you there. Make sure to turn it over occasionally, so the meat infuses all that liquid goodness.
After it’s done, pull the (now) chashu pork out and let it cool. You can add a little of that shoyu-sake broth to your ramen bowl if you want. I always do! But not too much, as it’s kinda’ sweet from the Mirin.
Here’s how it looks when it’s done…
After the Chashu pork is cool, slice into thin serving-size pieces…
Serve in your Nama Ramen and enjoy!
OK, wait, there’s something missing in that Myojo Shio Nama Ramen, being Menma (marinated Bamboo Shoots). In my opinion, Menma is a MUST-HAVE ramen topping. A MUST!
And here you go…
Another important yet overlooked element of ramen (including by yours truly) is the final green onion garnish, where in Japan at some ramen shops, they use the larger Japanese Negi, and not the green part, but the lower white stalk, so that when it’s sliced thinly, it looks more like shallots. It has a really pleasing visual effect when it’s floating along the surface of the broth.
As for Nama Ramen brands, if you live in Hawaii, you’ve most likely seen the Sun Noodle brand, made in Honolulu, while grocery stores that specialize in Japanese products on Oahu such as Nijiya Market, Don Quijote and Marukai also carry other imported brands such as Yamachan and Myojo.
The Kurume brand shown above includes two different style of broth in one package, including Tonkotsu, and Tonkotsu Shoyu. Otherwise, most brands include two servings of the same in each package of the four basic styles of Japanese Ramen: Shoyu, Miso, Tonkotsu and Miso. And of course a few other variations.
As for shelf life, according to the folks at Sun Noodle, they give their product a 21 day expiration date from the day of delivery to each store (distributed statewide). After that, they recommend you freeze it for up to 3 months. Which sounds about right, as I’ve seen nama ramen get moldy after over month left in the refrigerator, while when I’ve kept them in the freezer to long (over 6 months), it comes out where the noodles taste pasty. On the other hand, I’ve taken nama ramen out of the freezer that’s been kept there for about 2 months, and comes out pretty much as good as the fresh product both in flavor and noodle texture.
If you live on Oahu, I highly recommend you visit Marukai or Nijiya Market (the latter no membership required), where they carry a wide variety of Nama Ramen, sure to get the “rameniac” inside you excited. With all the right toppings and garnish to put the finishing touch, you can replicate the wonderful taste of an authentic Japanese ramenya right in your own kitchen!
P.S. I recently paid a visit to the still new Japanese Ramen Kai on Kona Street, adjacent to Ala Moana Center (across the main bus terminal on the mauka side), and tried their Shoyu Ramen.
Folks, we have a new contender for best Shoyu Ramen in Honolulu, right there at Japanese Ramen Kai… SUGOI!!!