Monday March 11, 2013
Sushi chef turns ramen master
By MAJORIE CHIEW
A sushi chef takes a crash course in making ramen, takes over a failing business, and makes it a success story.
WHETHER sitting or standing, the Japanese are fond of ramen, a soupy noodle dish. They slurp it up and if you hear Oishii! (which in Japanese means delicious), you know they’ve enjoyed their meal.
The wheat noodles are served with a meat- or fish-based broth and flavoured with soya sauce or miso. Typical toppings are sliced chashu (simmered pork belly), nori (dried seaweed), kamaboko (a type of cured surimi, a Japanese processed seafood product), negi (green onion rings), sliced hard-boiled egg and naruto (fish cake with a pink spiral).
Ramen, a popular dish in Japan, is believed to have been imported from China to Japan during the Meiji period. In Japan, ramen often varies according to localities.
Instant ramen, on the other hand, is believed to have been invented in 1958 by Momofuku Ando, the Taiwanese-Japanese founder and chairman of Nissin Foods. It is popular both in and outside of Japan.
I recently got the chance to see a Japanese master ramen maker in action when Shigeo Ooshima demonstrated the craft at Kyo-ei Ramen in Pavilion Kuala Lumpur. It was truly fascinating to watch him make the fresh noodles using the traditional method that employs a bamboo pole.
He was a showstopper as shoppers with children in tow stopped outside the restaurant to watch him “perform” in a showcase kitchen through a glass window.
Ooshima, 58, was helped by Hiroyuki Yahagi, head chef at Kyo-ei Ramen, and chef Yoshinobu Aoki.
But I was very surprised to learn that Ooshima does not like eating ramen, preferring rice instead.
“However, occasionally, I do enjoy a tasty bowl of ramen,” he quips. “But I enjoy making the noodles for my customers.”
From sushi to ramen
In 1978, Ooshima began Kyo-ei Ramen, in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan, as a family ramen business. Kyo-ei means “growing up together”, he explains.
Kyo-ei Ramen in Pavilion KL, which opened on Nov 29 last year, is the first outlet outside of Japan. It is a joint venture between Ooshima and a Malaysian investor.
There are more than 10 ramen outlets in Japan set up by Ooshima’s students (“disciples”) with different names.
Formerly a sushi chef, Ooshima learnt to make ramen from a famous ramen chef.
“I learnt to make ramen in three days during my lunch time,” he says.
He then took over an “almost bankrupt” business and set it up as a small shop selling ramen at night. With three tables, he could serve up to only 12 customers.
His restaurant has now expanded and can serve up to 55 customers.
Ooshima’s two daughters, aged 17 and 22, help out at the restaurant. His 19-year-old son is studying sports science in university and may also help run his father’s ramen business in the future.
Ooshima is not a selfish chef who fiercely guards the secrets of making the perfect ramen.
“I will share my ramen-making skills with anyone who genuinely wants to learn,” he says. “Good taste should be shared!”
In fact, Yahagi used to be his customer before becoming his “ramen disciple”. As a ramen chef, Ooshima says that sometimes one cannot simply think of making profits.
“If that’s the case, one may not succeed.”
He is more committed to making his customers happy with good ramen!
Tochigi is one of the prefectures in Japan famous for its handmade ramen in which the dough for the noodles is worked with a large bamboo pole.
“There are 300 ramen restaurants in this prefecture but only 20 handmake their ramen,” says Yahagi.
It is said that using bamboo to make the fresh ramen ensures “a firmer and more tasty ramen”.
Explains Ooshima: “The bamboo squeezes out the air, resulting in firmer ramen. If the dough is not ‘beaten’ with bamboo, the noodles will be too soft and not chewy. (Using alkaline water to make noodles results in a yellowish hue and firm texture.) Also, the bamboo can stretch the dough into a bigger piece.”
The bamboo used in the ramen-making process is cut while still green and kept for a minimum of three months to allow some water inside to evaporate.
For the best results, the bamboo should be kept for a year (to season it to a yellowish hue) to allow the water inside “to dry out” before using.
Usually, the bamboo for making ramen can only be used for a year, after which it has to be replaced. Cracked bamboo cannot be used anymore.
“The bamboo for making good ramen must be cultivated to ‘a good size’ (not too fat or skinny) and heavy. It must be at least three years old before it is cut,” says Ooshima.
His ramen is made with flour from Japan, salt, water and alkaline mineral water (kansui).
Handmade ramen takes 30 to 40 minutes to make – from mixing and kneading to cutting the noodles. One batch can serve up 120 bowls of ramen, says Yahagi.
Machine-made ramen is produced much faster, requiring only half the time.
Ooshima and Yahagi demonstrated the kneading of the dough by hand, working alongside each other in the showcase kitchen. Flour is sprinkled on the dough when kneading to make it less sticky, much like when making the dough for Chinese pan mee (flat wheat noodles).
The green bamboo pole is placed over the flattened dough, with the front end of the pole fitting snugly into a slot over the work surface.
The ramen chef places one leg over the lower end of the bamboo pole and hops along on the other foot, thus moving the pole along the dough to flatten and stretch it into a long rectangular piece. He does this first one way, and then reverses the action to the other side. Flour is sprinkled over the dough many times to prevent it from sticking.
To further thin out uneven parts of the dough, the chef uses two sizes of rolling pin – first, a long one and then, a shorter one.
The sheet of dough is then folded over itself several times and cut uniformly.
When the task is completed, the chef makes several tosses in the air for the “big” reveal – strings of handmade ramen are unfurled before our very eyes!
The chef presses both palms on the ramen strands again to firm the noodles up, then tosses the noodles high in the air to loosen and separate them.
Enjoying a bowl
Both noodles and broth are equally important for a tasty bowl of ramen.
Generally, ramen soup is made from stock based on chicken or pork in combination with ingredients such as kombu (kelp), katsuobushi (skipjack tuna flakes), niboshi (dried baby sardines), beef bones, shiitake, and onions, and flavoured with salt, miso or soya sauce.
At Kyo-ei in KL, the stock is simmered for 12 hours to develop its full flavour. There are usually two 130-litre pots of base stock.
One pot of soup can serve 120 bowls of ramen.
Says Yahagi: “We made the stock from a combination of 80% chicken bones and 20% pork bones and other seasoning ingredients from Japan.”
Ramen at Kyo-ei comes with a choice of four soup bases – shoyu (soya sauce-based stock), shio (salt), miso and spicy.
One of the shop’s best-selling dishes is Kyo-chan ramen.
Yahagi says: “Malaysians take their time to eat ramen. The noodles may turned a bit soggy as they absorb the broth. The proper way is eat ramen is as soon as it arrives at the table.”
Know your ramen
SHIO (salt) ramen comes in a pale, clear, yellowish broth made with plenty of salt and any combination of chicken, vegetables, fish, and seaweed. Sometimes, pork bones are also used. The soup is light and clear.
Tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen has a cloudy white-coloured broth. Sometimes, pork broth is blended with a small amount of chicken and vegetable stock and/or soya sauce. As this ramen is a specialty of Kyushu (in particular, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka), it is sometimes called Hakata ramen.
Shoyu (soya sauce) ramen has a clear brown broth, based on a chicken and vegetable (or sometimes fish or beef) stock with plenty of soya sauce added. However, it is still a fairly light broth.
Miso ramen (a Hokkaido speciality) features a broth that combines generous amounts of miso and is blended with oily chicken or fish broth and sometimes with tonkotsu or lard for a slightly sweet and hearty soup. – Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramen