BY: LILY YANG AND NICOLE ARNOLD
On a sweltering dog-day in June, partners-in-crime, Nicole and Lily, embarked upon yet another foodie adventure. Lily, a self-proclaimed ramen connoisseur, discovered that Nicole had never even tried ramen. Thus began their hunt for ramen! No, not the packaged ramen at your local store that serves as a lifeline for indebted college students, but a large and steamy bowl of broth-laden chewy noodles exploding with culinary flavor. Unfortunately, with no ramen restaurants located in their college town, the duo took their noodle-soup hunt on the road in the most unlikely of places, Lincoln, Nebraska where they were meeting up mid-summer for a conference.
Originating in China, over time, the noodle broth type of ramen found its way to Japan where it developed into its own phenomenon (Solt, 2014; Kushner, 2014; Lucky Peach, nd) The four basic tenements of Japanese-esque ramen includes: the broth, the tare (flavoring/seasoning), the noodles, and the toppings. Depending on who you ask, the perfect bowl of ramen can vary drastically from a brothy base to simply naked noodles dipped into a broth (“tsuke-men”). In addition to being served hot, ramen may also be served cold! There are an innumerable number of ramen bases, tares, and toppings, but their utilization varies by region and location (Lucky Peach). Broths can range from a basic chicken-bone broth, to a complex tonkatsu (pork bone) broth, to a hearty vegetarian bowl. Broths, often intricate in flavor, can take hours or even days to fully develop in complexity. Just as varied are the wide range of toppings that can go on a delicious bowl of ramen. These toppings can range from a soy-sauce infused soft-boiled egg, to pickled bamboo shoots, to a shaving of fresh green onions, to fresh-pressed garlic (or maybe fried garlic and shallots would better suit your tastes), to thinly sliced pieces of char-sui pork belly (rolled and sliced in such a way that every bite has a meaty and fatty morsel included), or perhaps some soy-infused sauteed mushrooms! You might be drooling at this point….
Without fail, the most important part of ramen are the noodles (ramen or “mien” in Chinese (麵) itself). Ramen, when translated from its originating language of Chinese, quite literally means “pulled noodle” (拉麵). The perfect yellow-colored noodle is both “firm and elastic with a smooth surface” (Ross et al., 1997). So what makes these noodles so special, so chewy, so tender, and so mouth-wateringly delicious? In addition to your normal mixture of flour, water, and salt, ramen noodles also contain an extra component. The protein quality of one’s flour (or wheat-link) and resulting gluten drastically influences the final product (Laiskonis, n.d.; Ross et al., 1997). The most important component to obtaining the perfect noodle? Alkalinity, which produces a yellow-alkaline (yes, the noodles are indeed yellow) noodle!
Alkalinity contributes to the color, the texture, and even the flavor of ramen noodles. While we typically think about acidic processing of foods (think vinegar, lemon juice, etc.), foods and flavors developed through alkaline processes (think baking soda) have a whole different dimension all their own. By adding bicarbonate (potassium or sodium) to the noodles, the pH rises above neutral 7 to become 9 or 10. When that happens, the otherwise colorless flavonoid compounds quickly turn a beautiful yellow hue (Lucky Peach). The increased alkalinity also “encourages greater absorption of water in the flour, greater starch degradation, and increased strength and extensibility” through gluten interactions, thus developing the flavorful broth-absorbing chewiness found in every bite (Lucky Peach). On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee, continues the discussion in David Chang’s Lucky Peach magazine article, “On Alkalinity”.
Within the noodle, the alkaline interactions also greatly affect gluten interactions. One yields a slightly slick feeling within the mouth and also develops a bit of an egg-flavor (even in the absence of egg, which is absolutely amazing). Most importantly, these yellow alkaline noodles are able to withstand the hot nature of many ramen broths without quickly dissolving into a mess of mush (McGee, nd).
Now back to those cash-strapped college students we mentioned above. Thanks to modern day food processing, they too can enjoy a bowl of “instant”-esque yellow-alkaline noodle ramen (with correspondingly delicious broth) without breaking the bank. Nowadays you can find easy-to-prepare (<4 minutes once the water is boiling) pre-alkaline noodles that allow you to craft your own ramen at home. Simply add your own toppings and voila! (One brand that you could check out is Sun Noodles! Find them at a distributor near you!)
For more ramen reading, check out David Chang’s Lucky Peach magazine article by Michael Laiskonis that further explain how alkaline processing works in food, especially ramen noodles, in “Opusculum: Alkaline Ramen Noodles”.
Check out other delicious ramen low-downs here:
McGee, Harold. Nd. On Alkalinity. Lucky Peach Magazine. http://luckypeach.com/on-alkalinity/
Laiskonis, Michael. Opusculum: Alkaline Ramen Noodles. Lucky Peach Magazine. http://luckypeach.com/opusculum-alkaline-ramen-noodles/
Leibowitz, Karen. A Timeline of Ramen Development. Lucky Peach Magazine. http://luckypeach.com/a-timeline-of-ramen-development/
Slurp! a Social and Culinary History of Ramen: Japan’s Favorite Noodle Soup by Barak Kushner
Chemical structure of flavonoid compounds in wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) flour that contribute to the yellow colour of Asian alkaline noodles by R.E. Asenstorfer, Y. Wang, and D.J. Mares
The Untold History of Ramen: How Political Crisis in Japan Spawned a Global Food Craze (California Studies in Food and Culture) by George Solt
Ross, A. S., Quail, K. J., and Crosbie, G. B. 1997. Physicochemical properties of Australian flours influencing the texture of yellow alkaline noodles. Cereal Chem. 74:814–820