I have had my eye out on interesting food books for kids and came across this Magic Ramen book from a post by Amy Palanjian from Yummy Toddler Food and it immediately caught my eye because, well, ramen! The girls (4 and 10) both immediately loved the story, honestly so did I — the inspiring true story of Momofuku Ando, who invented instant ramen after witnessing the devastation of hunger and food shortages of World War Two. “Peace will come to the world when everyone has enough to eat,” he said.
It’s a wonderful story for a couple of reasons — it is firstly a story of hard work, dedication and resilience. Even though Ando fails over and over and over again, he keeps experimenting and trying new things like a true inventor, so even if the dough is too soft, or too crumbly or too soggy, he never lets this stop him. And it is an inspiring story because he is trying to make something for the greater good — his goal, after seeing long lines of poor people shivering in the cold waiting for a bowl of expensive chicken noodle soup, is to make a nutritious, delicious bowl of noodles simply and in minutes so that anyone and everyone can enjoy a warming bowl of noodle soup whenever they want (in fact, later, he goes further and invents Cup Noodles, so that you can literally make noodles on the run anywhere).
The illustrations are cute and fun and the story flows well enough to keep a 4 year old and a 10 year old equally engaged (and older kids might like the additional biography at the back of the book about Ando’s further inventions — he even invented noodles to eat in space!). But what is really telling is that the other night after requesting this as her bedtime read, my 4 year said, Mamma, this magic soup sounds yummy, can we try that?
I admit that until now (now it’s on request once a week at least!) ramen hasn’t been something I’ve made very often at home, it’s not featuring in my upcoming cookbook on Japanese home cooking, Gohan, and it’s not something I grew up eating even visiting Japan every year of my life until I was in my mid-20s. Even though my Japanese mother loves noodles, like many Tokyoites, her preferred noodles are soba and udon.
Compared to centuries-old soba, somen and udon noodles, ramen is a relatively new arrival on Japan’s culinary scene. Thought to have been brought over by Chinese immigrants after the Meiji restoration in 1868, Tokyo’s first Ramen shop opened in 1910. Ramen, for most Japanese, is a very quick, cheap, practically “fast food” lunch option when you’re not at home.
I can remember as a teenager growing in Beijing, Cup Noodles (the same ones invented by Momofuku Ando) were a reliable, filling, cheap lunch or dinner when we were on China study trips and traveling on a long, slow train (in 1992, it took us 24 hours to train from Beijing to Xian). Just add hot water and wait a couple of minutes — perfect! At some point some classmates showed me how to eat instant noodles as snacks, dry — have you tried this? Just open the packet, sprinkle over the magic dust and chomp on it or crush them up in the bag and eat them like crisps! Later, during my early 20s, I remember appreciating the little standing-only ramen joints in Tokyo where you punch in what you want in a machine before hand, pay with coins, it spits out a ticket and you take it up to the counter – a very spartan, no nonsense, tiny eatery that fits a handful of people standing. The size is not really a problem since you are in and out so quickly. The noodles come out in a flash, they are warm and filling and everything you need in a quick meal.
It’s a little funny to me that ramen noodles have taken on such cult status outside of Japan and have become a well appreciated, almost gourmet thing, because they will forever remain in my mind as these quick, cheap eats!
So this quick noodle recipe is along those lines too — quick. This isn’t a long, slow pork bone broth, this is quick and simple, using things I usually have in my fridge, while the base is a quick chicken-flavoured stock, where I use a rotisserie chicken picked up at the supermarket or leftover roast chicken rather than my usual 2 hour chicken stock.
The chicken soup stock:
I often have leftover roast or poached chicken in the fridge, this is perfect for this — or you can start with fresh chicken and poach it to make the “stock”, along with some slices of carrot and leek (or spring onions or regular onion). Let it simmer for 30 minutes (or less, if you are impatient), strain it, and now turn this into a more delicious noodle soup stock by adding dashi (powder or liquid dashi for example), soy sauce and a splash of sake or mirin if you have it (or a touch of sugar or honey if you don’t have it). This is a simple shoyu ramen. You could also, if you like, make it miso ramen by adding — yep — some miso (Just One Cookbook has a recipe here).
This soup is really where this is at, so taste as you’re making it and keep adjusting a bit of this or that. You are aiming for a soup that tastes delicious and savoury, one that you want to drink on its own — if you need to add a bit more soy sauce, salt or pepper or anything else to suit your tastes, go ahead and do that. If I’m not making this for my kids, some fresh ginger grated in this is wonderful.
Top the ramen with anything you and your family like! Or don’t top — sometimes the ramen for my kids looks more like a bowl of noodles in broth, and separately a plate of other things to pick from themselves. Generally speaking the garnishes aren’t warm but don’t worry, they will warm when put into the soup, which will be piping hot, really too hot to eat right away, so those first 2 minutes will help the garnishes warm through while you blow on the noodles. Here are some ideas that we often use:
- Carrot slices, usually I just add the ones I used in the stock
- Wilted spinach or bok choy, quickly dipped into the pot of water boiling for the egg or noodles
- A soft-boiled egg (boiled 7 minutes if the egg is at room temperature, 8 minutes if cold)
- Radish, thinly sliced
- Edamame (boiled soy beans) or broad beans (we just pop them in raw)
- A little square of nori (dried seaweed), tucked in to the soup by one corner
- Spring onions, finely chopped
- Shichimi togarashi, Japanese chilli mix if you like a bit of heat
- Chicken, cut into slices that are easy to eat with chopsticks
- Tinned or fresh corn
- Fresh mung bean sprouts
- Cooked mushrooms (shiitake mushrooms can be added to the stock below)
- Fresh ginger (I grate it and add to the stock)
- Leftover roast pork (pork belly is great!) or turkey
- A splash of toasted sesame oil
You can also just place the toppings on the table for people to add as they wish. (Real life: my 4 year old ate the nori first, then took everything off except the carrots and the puppy stole her jammy egg)
Quick chicken ramen soup
- 1 packet instant ramen noodles (see notes below for using fresh or dried ramen that aren’t instant — you could also do this same soup with udon or soba noodles)
- 4 cups of chicken stock (see below to make your own)
- 2 tsp dashi powder
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
- Tablespoon of sake or mirin if you have it
- 3-4 thin slices of roast or grilled chicken breast
- 5-6 spinach leaves or handful of edamame beans, blanched
- 1 radish, thinly sliced
- 2 green onions/scallions, finely chopped
- 1 soft boiled egg
- A square of nori, sprinkle of sesame seeds or shichimi togarashi (spice mix)
Heat the chicken stock and add dashi powder, soy sauce, sake or mirin if you happen to have it for some extra umami and let simmer for a few minutes, then taste. Adjust with some salt or more soy sauce if necessary (depending on whether the chicken stock is already salted or not).
Place the instant ramen noodles in a bowl. Pour the chicken soup stock over the noodles to cover the noodles completely, then cover with a lid or a plate to let it steam for 3 minutes. Fluff the noodles with a fork, then place the garnishes over the top and ladle over a bit more soup stock to warm them slightly.
If using fresh ramen instead of instant ramen, this is still pretty quick only you’ll have to cook the ramen noodles separately in a pot of boiling water (don’t salt it!) for several minutes. Once cooked, drain and rinse in cold water quickly (it helps separate the noodles and give them a bit of “spring”), then place in bowls and ladle over the stock.
To make a quick chicken stock:
- 1/2 roast chicken (use a rotisserie chicken or if you have leftover roast, this is perfect for making stock!)
- 1/2 leek, cut into two sections (or use 2 spring onions or 1/2 an onion)
- 1 small carrot, roughly chopped
- salt, as needed
Place everything in a pan and cover with 1 litre cold water. Bring to a gentle simmer and let cook for 30 minutes. Skim the top of the stock then strain. Use any of the meat left on the chicken in the soup too if you wish, I also used to the leek and the carrots in the soup, but you can leave them out or discard if you like. I usually salt the stock lightly as there will be soy sauce added later and then adjust for salt after that has been added.
If you want to make a really divine chicken stock (not that this isn’t good, this is great for when I have less time available) with fresh chicken, take a look at this recipe, which calls for a longer, slower cooking of 2 hours of gentle simmering on the stove.