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Ramen’s year under the spotlight

During the pandemic, ramen has proved to be consistently popular, with people craving a warm and comforting one-bowl meal

Butternut squash and tofu ramen, hot katsu pork ramen at The Fatty Bao. Photo by Vinayak Grover
Butternut squash and tofu ramen, hot katsu pork ramen at The Fatty Bao. Photo by Vinayak Grover

On Instagram, until this week, a whopping number of 10 million posts had been dedicated to the hashtag of ramen alone. Featuring countless variants such as miso ramen with pan-fried spam and pork bone ramen, these had been put up by food enthusiasts from all over the world—from New York and San Francisco to Tokyo and Goa. During the pandemic, ramen has proved to be consistently popular, winning over short-term food fads such as dalgona coffee. Clearly people have been craving a warm and comforting one-bowl meal, featuring complex layers of textures and flavours.

The fact that it has emerged as an urban food phenomenon is obvious by the surge in deliveries and takeaways of ramen at Asian restaurants. Part of the reason is also that a typical broth needs to bubble away for a long time, often spanning 48 hours, thus making it easier for people to order in, rather than attempting it at home. Guppy in Delhi is one such example. “We started deliveries in June, which was the peak of summer. One would have thought that people would want to order cooling salads, but ramen was a hit from day one,” says Vikram Khatri, executive chef of the restaurant. Guppy is also offering DIY ramen kits as part of its delivery menu.

A similar story can be seen playing out in Panjim, where Chef Pablo Miranda runs Patraos Deli, known for its cured meats, weekly specials and other culinary curations. During a visit to Japan two years ago, he had ended up tasting over 200 varieties of ramen dishes. Inspired by this experience, just before the pandemic-induced lockdown, he had plans of opening a ramen house, which unfortunately had to be put on hold. “Last May-June was the start of the monsoons. It was gloomy being locked up inside. And suddenly one day, an image of a ramen bowl popped up on my Instagram history. I realised it would be great to make this at home in this kind of weather,” he says.

Miranda tried to put together a bowl of tonkotsu ramen, or a velvety pork bone broth recipe. It took him nearly a week to get the noodles right. When he perfected the bowl and put up an image, Miranda was flooded with messages on Instagram about whether he was taking orders or not. “I wondered why not. And since then things have really kicked off. People can’t travel right now, so they would like a taste of international flavours,” he says. The ramen on Miranda’s menu is made with hand-rolled alkaline noodles, a 24-hour tonkotsu broth, chashu pork belly, mayu or black garlic oil, chilli oil, shredded leeks, shiitake mushroom, an Ajitsuke Tamango or marinated egg, nori and spring onions.

Yet another chef who has taken to experimenting with ramen during the pandemic is Kavan Kuttappa, who works with The Permit Room and Toit Brewpub in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Pune. With some time on hand last year, he decided to recreate his experience of tasting 30 bowls during a 21-day-trip to Japan in 2018. Kuttappa started by making small portions for his friends, but seeing the demand, moved on to bigger batches. The ramen that he makes is of a different style each time and is numbered in Japanese. The names are based on the type of dish he makes. So far, he has gotten till six. He usually announces the variant on social media most Wednesdays for delivery that same weekend, and every batch is sold out within minutes—a response that has Kuttappa baffled. "A Japanese ramen chain, which is a giant player in Tokyo, is coming to the country. Clearly, it has gotten wind of this trend and wants to tap into it,” says Kuttappa.

Lobster ramen at Guppy, Delhi
Lobster ramen at Guppy, Delhi

However, while the pandemic might have brought ramen into the sudden spotlight, it has been making its presence felt on restaurant menus for the past six to eight years. Khatri, for instance, introduced it at Guppy six years ago, with 15 variants featuring noodles of all kinds—thick, thin, egg, eggless, and more. “At one point, we were the only restaurant doing vegan ramen,” he says. Fatty Bao too started offering ramen seven years back in Bengaluru, and has seen it being embraced as a comfort meal by the diners. It has taken some time for people to get used to the runny yolk, par-cooked veggies and the soupy broth. “When I launched it, I remember people saying, ‘yeh tho maggi noodle hai, paani wala broth hai. I learnt to acquire a thick skin to such comments,” says Manu Chandra chef-partner, Olive group of restaurants. “People just couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that a simple broth cooked for hours and hours, without many added extracts, could be delicious. Taste has, over time, become so synonymous with spice, that people take time to accept something in its bare simplicity.”

He made a decision right at the beginning to provide an array of broth and noodles to cover a middle ground—offering an elevated experience to those who crave ramen, while also easing the rest into the dish. “Ramen, truffle and blue cheese have had a similar trajectory in India. There has been a shift now, with more people enjoying the real deal. They don’t mind the runny egg, the slippery alkaline noodles. This gives the chef to launch more products in that headspace,” he adds. It helps that restaurants such as Guppy and Fatty Bao are located in urban centres, which are home to well-travelled young professionals, who have been exposed to the dish over time. “The uptake is good and continues to be so. It offers a lot of comfort, while also working really well if you are peckish,” he says.

Love for ramen has also changed lives. It is one of the reasons that Benpramar pivoted from a corporate job towards becoming a chef. During his travels abroad, he would make it a point to try out the various ramen dishes. And when he would come back to Mumbai, Benpramar would sit at his desk and dream of ramen. “I used to live in Pali Naka, with a meat shop located below my house. So, I would get the bones easily. And during my travels, I would pick up a lot of ingredients like kombu and bonito flakes,” he explains.

Benpramar started out with quick broths simmered for two to three hours and then kept slowly extending the cooking time. He enjoyed cooking ramen so much that he started weekend pop-ups for 10-11 guests, for which he would slow cook the broth for nearly 48 hours. Benpramar had plans to open a ramen bar in Bandra but that didn’t materialise. Meanwhile, he quit his corporate job to study the culinary arts in Buenos Aires. When he came back to India three years back to open a restaurant in Goa, he made sure to include ramen on the menu. “Since the lockdown, I have been staying in Bengaluru, where I run a delivery kitchen from my sister’s kitchen. And we get at least 30 to 40 orders on a weekly basis for ramen. While I may experiment with the spice levels, aromatics and toppings, I mainly stick to making a pork bone broth, either tonkotsu or shoyu, which are truly a labour of love,” he explains.

Pablo Miranda tried to put together a bowl of tonkotsu ramen, or a velvety pork bone broth recipe
Pablo Miranda tried to put together a bowl of tonkotsu ramen, or a velvety pork bone broth recipe

What also works is the versatility of the dish and its ability to adapt to local ingredients and flavours. In fact, contrary to popular perception, ramen is not an entirely Japanese dish, but has its roots as a Chinese noodle dish, which spread to Japan, “and integrated with the local food culture,” mentions the website of the unique Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum in Yokohama, Japan. “From France and Germany to America and even Australia, Japanese born-and-bred ramen is presently taking the world by storm. The style now sweeping the world is one that's true to Japanese form, but eventually, as has been seen in Japan, it will be drawn to intermix with the local climates, environments, and food cultures of each country, giving way to new regional ramen styles from around the globe,” it adds.

In India too, it has sparked off innovation. At Fatty Bao, for instance, one can see a confluence of influences in dishes such as the Via Malaysia veg ramen, Fatty Pho ramen featuring an aromatic chicken broth, the Soto Ayam Lamongan ramen or an Indonesian aromatic chicken broth with coconut milk and the Chinese Mixian ramen. According to Prashanth Puttaswamy, executive chef of The Fatty Bao, ramen is all about soupy noodles, versions of which one can find across southeast Asia. So, the team worked on ramen dishes based on those variants. For one dish, instead of the rice vermicelli noodles, he created black alkaline ones with activated charcoal powder. The idea has been to experiment with flavours while keeping some of the benchmarks of a ramen intact: slippery alkaline noodles, complex broth and an array of toppings such as the menma or seasoned bamboo shoots, green onions, nori sheets, and more.

At The Bombay Canteen, Chef Hussain Shahzad has brought together these staples with flavours from Sikkim in a dish called Thukpa Ramen, made with pork. It is part of a rotating section called, “Just Because we Love it So Much”, featuring ideas and concepts that the team likes. The thukpa is, perhaps, the closest to ramen in India, with its rich heritage of broth, dumplings and noodles. The team does a tonkotsu-style thukpa ramen, with trotters, bacon, aromatics and charred barley coming together in an intense, milky broth with a layered, velvety finish to it. The fat is not skimmed away but blended into the liquid, with the gelatin extracted from the bones. “The team gets onto the broth as soon as it comes to the kitchen in the morning as it has to simmer away on a slow flame,” he elaborates. This is served with noodles, hand-rolled in-house, slow-cooked pork belly and accompaniments such as chilli crisps, furikake, and more. “When we started deliveries a couple of months ago, this was the one thing that everyone asked us to put on the menu,” adds Shahzad. It’s no wonder then that ramen has emerged as a warm embrace in these difficult times for people.

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