International Recipes and Cooking Around the World

Tonkotsu Ramen

Bowl of tonkotsu ramen

(Japanese noodles and pork in rich broth)

Image Creative Commons by insatiablemunch

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Tonkotsu ramen is a fabulous, soupy creation that marries chewy ramen noodles with tender-braised pork, creamy broth and an assortment of favorful garnishes.

The secret of great tonkotsu ramen lies in the broth. Unlike most Western-style broths — which are slow-simmered to keep them clear — the broth for tonkotsu is cooked at a rolling boil. All that action emulsifies the pork fat into the broth and makes it rich and creamy. The inclusion of pork fatback in this recipe is specifically to give a boost to that process.

Proper tonkotsu ramen is an overnight project, but as with so many iconic recipes, it's worth the effort. Start out on Saturday night and finish it up the next day for an amazing Sunday meal.

4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

For the pork

  • Boneless pork shoulder or pork belly (chashu) -- 3 pounds
  • Kosher salt -- 1/4 cup

For the broth

  • Water -- 8 cups
  • Kombu (dried seaweed) -- 1 6-inch square piece
  • Bonito flakes -- 1 (1/2-ounce) packet
  • Pork or chicken bones -- 2 pounds
  • Pork fatback -- 8 ounces
  • Fresh pork hocks (optional) -- 2
  • Onion -- 1
  • Shoyu (soy sauce) -- 1/2 cup
  • Mirin -- 1/2 cup
  • Sake -- 1/2 cup
  • Salt -- 2 teaspoons

For the finished ramen

  • Fresh ramen noodles -- 1 1/2 pounds
  • Soft-boiled eggs (ajitsuke tamago), peeled and cut into halves -- 6
  • Scallions, sliced into thin rounds -- 1 bunch
  • Toasted sesame oil -- to drizzle

Method

  1. Preparing the pork: The day before you want to eat your ramen, tie the pork up with kitchen string to help it maintain its shape. If using pork belly, roll it up jellyroll-style, then tie. Rub the pork all over with the kosher salt, and then set it on a rack in a pan, cover and refrigerate overnight. This will lightly cure the pork, deepening its flavor.
  2. Making the dashi stock: After you have prepared the pork, add the water to a large pot along with the kombu and bonito flakes. Cover the pot, and let the kombo and bonito soak soak and infuse the water overnight at room temperature. The next morning, remove the kombu from the water and discard. Use a sieve to strain the bonito flakes from the water and discard those too. This is your dashi stock base for the broth.
  3. Making the broth:  Add the pork or chicken bones to another large pot and cover with cold water. Place over high heat and bring to a boil. Let the bones boil for about a minute, then drain off and discard the water and rinse the bones with fresh, cold water. This step removes impurities and blood from the bones and makes for a better tasting broth.
  4. Add the blanched and rinsed bones, along with the fatback and optional pork hocks to the pot with the dashi stock. Set the pot over medium-high flame.
  5. While the pot with the bones heats up, heat a dry skillet over medium-high flame. Peel and cut the onion in half crosswise. Set each onion half, cut-side down, on the hot skillet. Cook until the cut side of each onion is charred, 3 to 4 minutes. Place the charred onions into the pot with the pork. The charred onions will add both flavor and a beautiful amber color to the broth.
  6. When the pot comes to a boil, reduce heat to medium and cover the pot with a lid. Cook at a slow, rolling boil for anywhere from 4 to 6 hours. Add water as needed to keep the liquid at the same level in the pot.
  7. Rinse the pork you prepared the day before in fresh water to remove any excess salt and add it to the pot. Continue to cook at a slow rolling boil until the pork is quite tender , another 3 to 4 hours.
  8. Carefully remove the pork from the broth to a plate. Set the pork aside to cool. Strain the broth through a colander and return it to the pot. Stir in the shoyu, mirin and sake and season to taste with salt. Return the broth to a low simmer.
  9. Preparing the noodles: Cook the ramen noodles in another pot according to package directions. Rinse the noodles in lukewarm water and drain them well. Portion the noodles out into deep, individual serving bowls.
  10. Putting it all together: When cool enough to handle, slice the pork thinly into rounds. Portion the pork, egg halves and scallions neatly over each bowl of noodles. Carefully ladle the hot broth into the bowls to just cover the noodles. Drizzle each portion with sesame oil and serve immediately.

Tonkotsu Ramen Variations

  • For the dashi stock: You can use instant hondashi granules instead of the kombu and bonito flakes. It's much faster, but the flavor won't be quite as good. Follow the instructions on the container. 
  • Noodles: The noodles used for tonkotsu ramen are typically straight and white, as opposed to the wavy yellow variety. Use what you are able to find, but do avoid the freeze-dried, instant version if you can. Angel hair pasta can be substituted in a pinch, and adding a teaspoon or two of baking soda to the cooking water helps give that pasta the firm chew that is so characteristic of ramen noodles.
  • Other typical garnishes for tonkotsu ramen: While tonkotsu broth is the main event, it's important not to overlook great garnishes. A proper bowl of tonkotsu ramen will have sliced pork, soft-boiled eggs (ajitsuke tamago), chopped scallions and a drizzle of sesame oil. But don't limit yourself to just the basics! Here are some other common garnishes for your ramen:
    • Mayu (black garlic oil): This rich, deeply colored garlic oil has become quite popular as a garnish for tonkotsu ramen. Mix  1/4 cup of any neutral vegetable oil and 1/4 cup of minced garlic in a small saucepan. Simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally until the garlic starts to get deep brown and then finally black, anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and cool for a bit. Then stir in 1/4 cup of toasted sesame oil and puree in a blender until smooth. Serve the mayu on the side for diners to drizzle over their ramen. Store extra in the refrigerator.
    • Enoki mushrooms: Place a small bundle of these delicate, white mushrooms on top of each bowl of ramen. Other types of mushrooms (shiitakes, cremini) work well too.
    • Menma (fermented bamboo shoots): These crunchy pickles with a sweet-sour punch enliven many a ramen bowl. You can find them in Japanese or Korean stores. 
    • Sweet corn: It may seem an odd accompaniment, but kernels of corn are a common garnish for many types of ramen.
    • Mung bean sprouts: Rinse well and arrange with other garnishes.
    • Nori: These sheets of seaweed, best known as a wrapper for sushi, should be lightly toasted by waving over a stovetop flame and placed atop of bowls of tonkatsu ramen.

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