Tonkotsu Ramen

Tonkotsu Ramen
This post may have been a year in the making, but I’ve been working on this tonkotsu ramen for
the better part of the last decade. In case you haven’t been indoctrinated into the wonderful world
of ramen, Tonkotsu broth is the Holly Grail of noodle soup broths. It’s thick, creamy and nearly
white in color, from pork marrow bones that have been simmered to smithereens.
Given the availability of reasonably good frozen ramens, and the plethora of shops specializing
in the one bowl meal, most sane people in Japan don’t undertake the challenge of making ramen
at home from scratch. I don’t know if I’m just crazy or if it’s my fearless American spirit, but at
some point in college, it occurred to me that I could make the one bowl wonder that got me
through many an all-nighter… from scratch.
My first attempts were pale watery excuses for ramen. Actually, they were more like noodles in
pork soup. Over the years, my attempts yielded broths that were too porky, too brown, or too
canned-meat tasting. Eventually, I got the soup to a place where you could pass it off as ramen to
the less experienced palette (which was when I started writing this post), but it never quite nailed
the nuanced balance of meat, aromatics, and body.
So how did I figure it out? During my recent trip to Japan, I had many bowls of ramen, each with
its own distinct character and personality. Some used chicken stock, others included pork. I even
had one ramen that was made of tuna stock. I think I was in the middle of a bowl of chicken
consommé ramen with bacon, mozzarella and fried burdock on top when it occurred to me that
perhaps limiting myself to a 100% pork broth wasn’t the right approach for the type of stock I
was trying to create.
I had another epiphany at Ramen Stadium, in Fukuoka, where I hopped from restaurant to
restaurant, gorging on Tonkotsu Ramen. Many of the broths had a dark oil that I’d always
assumed was sesame oil. Upon closer inspection, some of the soups revealed caramelized bits of
onion that were nearly burnt. The research of Louis Camille Maillard came to mind and I
realized that a lot of the nuances in the broth were not coming from the meat, but from the
caramelized aromatics in the broth.
Back at home, with bags of chicken and pork bones in hand, I set to work recreating the flavours
and memories while they were still fresh in my mind. And the results? Well, let’s just say I won’t
be standing in line for hours outside Ippudo this winter. To say it’s better than Ippudo’s would be
a strech, but does it make your lips sticky with collagen? Yes! Does it have little creamy nibbles
of pork fat floating in the broth? Certainly! Does it put a big grin on your face when the steaming
bowl is set in front of you? Hell yea!
Mission accomplished.
The toppings are up to you, but I usually go with the standards like chashu, menma , woodear
and scallions. If you want some chashu similar to Santouka Ramen’s Toroniku, here’s a recipe
for my version. To give a Kagoshima flair, I finish each bowl, with a drizzle of mayu (black
garlic oil). It’s technically burt garlic and it’s not something you’d want to eat alone, but mixed
into tonkotsu ramen, it’s divine!
This recipe makes enough Tonkotsu base for 6-8 bowls of ramen (depending on how much water
you add), and the Tonkotsu Ramen recipe below makes 2 bowls.
Next, I need to find some kansui so I can tackle the noodle making as I’m not super happy with
the noodles I get in Chinatown.
Tonkotsu Base
makes 10-12 cups of stock
2 pig trotters, cut in half lengthwise
1.5 pounds pork leg bone, cut into several pieces
1.5 pounds chicken bones
oil for deep frying
2″ knob of ginger sliced thin
1 small head garlic trimmed but whole
1 teaspoon cracked white pepper
1 large onion sliced thinly
Fill a pressure cooker 2/3rds of the way with water and bring to a boil. Add the pig trotters to the
boiling water and cook until you stop seeing red blood come out of the bones (about 10-15
minutes). The idea is to draw out as much of the gunk as possible into this first batch of water.
Transfer the trotters to a bowl of cold water then repeat with the leg bones and chicken bones
(you can use the same water).
Dump the now very dirty water down the drain and wash the pot. Scrub any dark brown scrum
off all the bones and rinse them thoroughly. Return the cleaned bones to the pot and cover with
water (the water should come up an inch above the top of the bones). Bring the pot to a boil and
skim off any chunks or foam that floats to the surface. Keep doing this until you don’t seen any
more foam or scum floating up. This will take about 30 minutes.
While the bones are going, Heat 1/2″ of oil in a pot over medium heat and add the head of garlic
and ginger. Fry this until they are browned and shriveled up. Use a slotted or wire mesh to
transfer the ginger and garlic to a bowl. Add the onions to the oil and fry these until caramelized
and shriveled. Add the fried onions to the ginger and garlic and set aside.
Once the stock is scum-free, add the caramelized ginger, garlic, and onions to the stock. Affix
the pressure cooker lid and cook on high pressure for 1 hour and 45 minutes. If you don’t have a
pressure cooker, cover with a lid and cook for 5 hours (you may need to check and add water
periodically, the bones should be mostly covered in water).
Once the pressure is released use tongs to remove and discard all the bones. Remove any chunks
of pork and set aside for another use. Strain the stock into a bowl and skim off any excess fat.
Mayu (black garlic oil)
1/4 cup sesame oil
5 cloves of garlic grated
To make the black garlic oil, add the sesame oil into a small saucepan along with the grated
garlic. Put the pan over medium low heat and let the garlic cook stirring occasionally until it is
very dark brown. When the garlic is very dark, turn the heat down to low and let it cook until it is
As soon as it hits black, turn off the heat and transfer the hot oil and garlic to a heatproof bowl.
Let this mixture cool down completely. Add the cooled oil to a blender or food processor and
blitz until there are no visible garlic particles left and the oil is uniformly black.
It will taste burnt and slightly bitter, but this is okay as you only add a little bit to each bowl. Put
it the oil in a container and refrigerate until you are ready to use it.
Tonkotsu Ramen
makes 2 bowls
for soup
3 cups tonkotsu base (from recipe above)
1 tablespoon tahini
1 tablespoon strained braising liquid from chashu
2 cloves garlic, finely grated (not pressed)
1-2 teaspoons kosher salt (to taste)
1 teaspoon mirin
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon sesame seeds coarsely ground
2 tablespoons finely minced fatback (salted pork fat)
to serve
1/2 batch homemade ramen noodles
2 teaspoons mayu (from recipe above)
sliced chashu
2 scallions finely chopped
other optional toppings include menma, woodear, egg, bean sprouts, corn, etc..
Heat the tonkotsu base in a sauce pan. In a bowl whisk together the tahini, chashu liquid, grated
garlic, salt, mirin and white pepper. Add this to the hot broth and whisk to combine. Taste and
adjust salt as needed. Bring to a simmer, then add the sesame seeds and pork fat and whisk to
Split the cooked noodles between two bowls. Pour the tonkotsu soup over the noodles. Top with
chashu, scallions and whatever else you want to add. Finish the ramen with a drizzle of mayu on
each bowl.
Update: There have been a couple people who have had problems with the original recipe and in
speaking with them, I think there are a few points I should clarify:
1. To get the creamy white soup it’s important that you use pork leg bones and the
trotters. The white color comes from the marrow and collagen in these parts.
Using other types of pork bones such as ribs or neck bones will not give your
soup the richness or color.
2. Don’t omit the fatback (salted pork fat). Most of the fat from the stock gets
skimmed out, and the fat added at the last minute is what gives the soup it’s rich
“sticky” quality. By whisking small bits of minced fatback in at the end, you
create an emulsion of soup and fat, so it makes the soup nice and creamy without
being greasy. If you’re having a hard time finding it, try asking for it at a butcher.
3. The onions should be a deep brown, but they should not be burnt, if they are
browning unevenly, turn the heat down, so they brown more slowly.
4. Tahini is not the same as toasted sesame paste. It should be light beige in color
and have a thick pourable consistency. If your grocery store doesn’t carry it, try
finding a Middle Eastern or Indian grocery store. I use a brand called “Al Wadi”
that comes in a plastic container with a green label and lid and has a relatively
mellow flavor. If you can’t get tahini you can also grind your own sesame seeds
until you have something resembling runny peanut butter.
5. Salt has different levels of salinity depending on the type and brand. Even
amongst kosher salt, Morton’s for example is much more salty than Diamond
Crystal (which I use). Most recipes deliberately go low on the amount of salt you
should use so you don’t accidentally over salt your dish. If you feel like it needs
more salt, by all means, add more salt.
Japanese Chashu
Chashu is a dish made of fattier cuts of pork that are braised over low heat for a very long time.
The low, slow cooking, renders out the fat while turning the tough collagen in the meat into
gelatin which keeps the meat moist while making it meltingly tender.
If you’re thinking the name sounds an awful lot like the Chinese barbecued pork dish Char Siu,
you’d be right, because at some point in the past, they were one in the same. Chashu is often
served atop another dish that also originated in China: ramen. Like its noodley brethren, it’s
evolved over the past century to the point where it bears little resemblance to the original dish it
was based on.
In the hyper competitive world of ramen in Japan, each shop jealously guards its secret Chashu
formula. Revealing these secrets is the kind of offense that will have a dozen masked men in
black ninja suits at your door to make you “disappear” in the middle of the night.
Such is my addiction to this luscious dish, that I’ve set aside all concerns about personal safety to
recreate Santouka Ramen’s famed “toroniku” Chashu, which can best be described as savoury
butter with bits of tender pork suspended inside. It literally melts into a pool of flavour on your
tongue and easily makes the list of things I’d want to have in my last meal.
The trick is to use pork cheek instead of the usual pork shoulder or belly that most people use for
Chashu. If you’ve never tried it before, pork cheek is porcine perfection, taking the best qualities
of a tasty cut like shoulder and marbling in a lattice of fat between the pink strands meat. When
braised, the pieces of meat are almost imperceptibly suspended in a mesh of fat, that instantly
liquefies when it enters your warm mouth.
For the braising liquid, I used a combination of soy sauce and miso. It’s not a particularly
orthodox approach to Chashu making, but I’m pretty sure it’s what Santouka does. To bring my
version full circle back to its Chinese roots, I’ve also added garlic, ginger, and white pepper
which give the meat some character without overwhelming its porky goodness.
I serve this over my home-made tonkotsu ramen, but it’s also great on top of rice, or in fried rice;
I’ve even been know to add it to pastas or a Banh Mi or two.
Japanese Chashu
2 well marbled pork cheeks (or pork belly)
3/4 C water
1 Tbs sugar
1 Tbs miso
2 Tbs soy sauce
2 Tbs mirin
2 Tbs sake
1″ piece of ginger sliced
2 cloves garlic smashed
12 white pepper corns
Put all the ingredients in a pot large enough to accommodate the pork in one layer but small
enough so the liquid more or less covers the pork. Partially cover with a lid and simmer over
medium low heat for one hour, or until a fork easily passes through the meat. Allow the pork to
cool in the braising liquid then remove the meat from the liquid. Wrap in plastic and chill in the
refrigerator (this makes it easier to slice).
Slice the Chashu hinly against the grain and serve on top of ramen (the heat from the soup should
warm it up). This is also great sliced a little thicker and warmed up on top of a bowl of rice with
a little of the braising liquid drizzled on top.
Homemade Ramen Noodles
November 30, 2010 · 86 Comments and 19 Reactions
If you’ve been following along for any length of time, you probably know I’ve been working on
concocting the perfect bowl of ramen for quite some time. With the soup improving with each
batch I made, I was starting to feel like the store-bought noodles were the weak link holding the
entire bowl of ramen back. It was time to tackle the noodles, but given the decade of trial-anderror it took to get the soup right, I figured I was in for another dozen years of experimentation
before I’d turn out a decent batch of noodles.
Part of the problem is that there isn’t much information out there in English on making ramen
noodes. Even in Japan, noodle making is a closely guarded secret and you don’t see ramen shops
parading around their recipes on the web. From the information I was able to glean, I knew that
the noodles are made with wheat flour, and get their yellow color and distinctly firm texture from
the addition of kansui. I also knew that they’re traditionally hand pulled, which means the dough
has a higher water content than noodles you’d roll and cut.
Since noodles get their texture from the proteins in the wheat forming elastic chains of gluten, I
decided to use bread flour, which typically contains 12-14% protein (higher than all-purpose
flour). I also knew that learning how to hand pull noodles as fine as ramen was a skill that would
take far longer to master than I, or many of my readers would have patience for, so I decided to
make a dryer dough that could be rolled and cut using a pasta maker.
Here’s an account of my learnings batch by batch:
Batch #1: I made this with 2 cups bread flour, 2/3 C water and 1/2 teaspoon of liquid kansui.
Everything went into a mixer with a dough hook until the dough came together. Then I formed it
into two squares, wrapped and refrigerated one, and rolled out the other. I rolled it out to setting
#5 of on the pasta maker and cut it using the spaghetti attachement, then boiled the noodles for 1
1/2 minutes. This batch had a couple of problems. The dough was a bit tacky, so even after being
dusted with flour, the noodles stuck together in pairs of two and had to be hand separated. I’d
also rolled it out too thin and by the time the noodles were in the ramen, they were soggy. The
dough also lacked the lustrous yellow color I was looking for.
Batch #2: After resting in the fridge overnight, I took the other half of the first batch and rolled it
out, this time only to setting #3. It was still sticking together, but the noodles had a nice firm
texture when cooked.
Batch #3: For this batch, I used 2 cups of bread flour, reduced the water to 1/2 cup and increased
the kansui to 1 teaspoon. As soon as I added the water/kansui mixture I knew this batch was
going to be better, as the flour immediately turned a bright golden yellow. I let the mixer run for
10 minutes this time and the mixer bowl was full of golden yellow nuggets. I was worried I
hadn’t added enough water, but with a little hand kneading it came togehter into a ball, and let
this rest overnight in the fridge. The next day, I cut the dough in half, rolled it out to setting #3
and cut it with the spaghetti attachment as before. This time the noodles didn’t stick together, and
I reduced the boiling time to just over a minute. The noodles were extremely firm (almost too
firm), but by the time I had the soup and all the toppings on the ramen, they were the perfect
texture and stayed that way until the last drop of soup was gone. Success!
If you’re wondering what kansui is, it’s the ingredient that makes all the magic happen. The story
goes that the unique noodles produced around lake Kan in Inner-Mongolia were attributed to the
water from the lake. Modern science has since revealed that the lake is highly alkaline, which is
what gives the noodles their unique texture and color. You can now buy factory produced
“kansui” (lake kan water) either in powdered or liquid form. I used a brand called Koon Chun
which labels their product as Potassium Carbonate & Sodium Bi-Carbonate.
If you’re looking for a more scientific explanation behind how kansui works, here’s what Dr.
Kantha Shelke, Scientist at Corvus Blue LLC, a Chicago-based food and nutrition research firm
has to say:
Science Behind the Noodle
Kansui is a mixture of sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate which form an alkaline
solution (pH ~9) when mixed with water. Wheat flour contains a number of compounds called
flavones and trans-ferulic acid which are bound to starch and therefore colorless or white. The
addition of an alkaline solution to wheat flour changes the pH of the mixture which in turn
detaches these flavones (specifically apigenin glycosides) and trans-ferulic acid from starch and
allows their natural yellow color to manifest.
Another reason for the addition of kansui is to toughen the protein in wheat flour so that the
resulting noodles are firmer, more elastic and springy texture and less sticky when cooked. The
addition of Kansui allows the use of lower protein (and therefore less expensive) wheat flour to
make noodles with the quality one would expect of noodles made with superior quality flour
with higher protein levels.
I know this isn’t a typical post since you don’t end up with a finished dish, but I really wanted to
write a comprehensive post on making ramen noodles from scratch. Here are some recipes for
ramen and ramyeon that you can use these noodles for:
Tonkotsu Ramen
Kimchi Ramyeon (Korean style ramen)
Miso Ramen
Homemade Ramen Noodles Recipe
makes enough noodles for 4 bowls
300 grams bread flour (about 2 cups)
1/2 cup warm water
1 teaspoon Koon Chun Potassium Carbonate & Sodium Bi-Carbonate (kansui)
Put the flour in the bowl of a mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix the water and kansui together,
then add the mixture to the flour. The flour should immediately start turning yellow. If it doesn’t,
it’s possible your kansui is less concentrated than the one I used, in which case, you will need to
experiment to figure out the right amount to add.
Give the mixture a quick stir with a fork or chopsticks to combine everything then attach the
bowl to your mixer and run on medium high speed for 10 minutes. It’s a dry dough so it will
look like a bunch of gravel at this point. Use your hands to divide it in two and press together
into two balls.
Flatten each ball out on a flat surface, and run it through the largest setting of your pasta roller a
few times, folding it in half each time. The dough will be ragged the first few runs though but
will smooth out. When it starts rolling out smoother, fold it up into a square and wrap with
plastic wrap and store it in the fridge overnight.
When you’re ready to cook it, prepare a large pot of boiling salted water. Each ball will make
enough for 2 bowls of ramen, so figure out how much you need. Flour the dough generously and
roll it out to the 3 setting on your pasta roller. Cut the dough in half so you have two sheets of
dough a little over 1 foot long and flour generously again.
Use the spagetti attachment to cut the pasta into long thin noodles, dusting them with flour as
they are cut to keep them from sticking together.
Boil the noodles until they are slightly firmer than the final consistency you want, since they will
continue cooking after you remove them from the water. I usually let them boil for about one