Edible Q&A: Amy Kimoto Kahn On What Makes the Perfect Bowl of Ramen
Edible: The ramen craze is not new and yet it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Why do you think ramen remains so popular?
Amy Kimoto Kahn: I think because once people try really good ramen, they become intrigued by how varied it can be in both quality and variety and it keeps them interested. The more they learn, the more they understand how multi-faceted it can be when you dive into each of the individual components -- the tare, the fat, the broth, the noodles can all be made and combined differently, so you always feel like it's something new. Even in places where the ramen boom may seem like it's come and gone, it continues because ramen becomes part of one's food cultural adventure. Ramen enthusiasts are interested in seeking out the next great ramenya but they also always have their favorite places to go to so that they never lose interest.
Over the past 100 years, ramen has been Japan’s ultimate fast food. Ramen can be as easy as making a big pot of instant noodles with adds-ins of your choice or as complex as making everything from scratch. What do you consider a doable ramen recipe that lies somewhere in between…a gateway recipe to introduce ramen into your cooking repertoire?
Whenever people ask me what recipe to start with, I always say my Miso Base (Page 3 of Simply Ramen) because all of the ingredients are accessible and once you make it, you can make a one-person portion or a family meal. It's my version of a very flavorful misodare (strong miso flavor component) that you can combine with either stock or bone broth to make a delicious soup in varying quantities based on your need. As for noodles, I'd probably save those for a rainy day and just buy fresh noodles or store bought dried ones to save time. Toppings also don't have to be super complex on the first try. My Ohayhogozaimasu (Good Morning) Ramen uses the Miso Base and has pretty simple toppings: enoki mushrooms, sliced avocado, diced tomato, bacon, and fried sage.
Ramen varieties are endless, influenced by regions in Japan, locally available ingredients, and a variety of stocks to start with. What do you consider to be the most important characteristics that make up a quality bowl?
My ideal bowl has: 1) The perfect density of soup brimming with depth and layered flavor, 2) Salt content that's not overpowering, 3) Handmade noodles that are firm yet spring, and hold up to the soup, and 4) Fresh toppings that have been given as much attention as everything else. A good bowl will give both your mind and body overall satisfaction and let you feel it for hours after as you lick your lips and still taste the soup lingering.
What are some of your favorite ramen noodle shops around the country and what do you order?
I have not been fortunate enough to travel the country to seek out the best places, but being grounded in the Bay Area, I definitely have my favorites here. At the top of my list would be Mensho SF. It's fairly new to the scene but is already being recognized. I've had all of the varieties but the Vegan Tantanmen (a Japanese adaptation of a Szechuan-style spicy noodle dish known as Dan Dan noodles) is my favorite -- perfectly spiced, creamy soup made with soy milk and seven types of nuts. I am friends with the owner, Master Shono-san, and have had his ramen at Mensho Tokyo which was beyond delicious. For me this is as good as it gets. I also really like Ramen Dojo in San Mateo. They specialize in spicier ramen so I order the Mild Spicy Tonkotsu (they call it Garlic Pork Flavor) with roasted pork, egg, and corn for extra toppings. If I'm in a garlicky mood, I'll throw in some fried whole garlic too. Both will have lines, that's just how it is.
What’s your go-to ramen recipe in the spring and summer using what’s in season?
My Teriyaki Beef-Wrapped Asparagus Ramen (Page 62 of Simply Ramen) is an original recipe using my Miso Base. It's topped with tender asparagus that's been wrapped with thinly sliced beef sirloin and sauteed in an easy teriyaki sauce. I add more veggies like baby bok choy and deliciously sweet Momotaro tomatoes, then garnish with fried string potatoes, roasted sesame seeds, a golden gooey marinated half-cooked egg, and roasted nori squares.
What about cold ramen? What’s your favorite ramen recipe in the summer?
I love cold ramen and my recipe for Cold Noodle Broth (Page 114 of Simply Ramen) is definitely one of the easiest in the book. It's 6 ingredients and once it's made ahead of time, you can turn it into delicious Hiyashi Chuka Ramen, a ramen-type salad that is brimming with seasonal summer veggies like bean sprouts, Japanese cucumber, and carrots. I add Black Forest Ham, homemade Chashu (braised pork), and julienne egg to give it a protein kick. I think it's one of the most beautiful dishes because its colors speak to what's in season and it looks like a rainbow of goodness.
A few months ago, a Tokyo restaurant became the first ramen shop to receive a Michelin star, and ramen shops continue to pop up in big cities all over the world. What do you make of the upscale ramen trend?
Yes, I am very familiar with Tsuta. My friend Brian MacDuckston from ramenadventures.com was my ramen guide in Tokyo and this was the first ramenya he took me to (before they were given the Michelin star). I think it's wonderful that he was given this recognition because it shows that ramen is a cuisine that should be taken seriously and it continues to put Tokyo on the map as one of the best places to eat in the world. It is no mystery that Japanese chefs who devote their entire lives to one cuisine can gain this notoriety. It is the Japanese work ethic and dedication to the perfection of their craft that makes it so deserving for chefs like Master Onishi-san. I say congratulations!