• Thailand Travels: A Noodle Dish from Chiang Khan You Need to Know About

    [Photographs: Jamie Feldmar]

    I’ve spent a good portion of the past week camped out in Chiang Khan, a sweet, sleepy little town in northern Isaan’s Loei province, which borders Laos from across the Mekong River. Chiang Khan is a popular weekend getaway for Thai city-dwellers, famed for its traditional timber houses and the cute trinket-and-food-lined promenade that sets up along the river each night. There’s an abundance of coffeeshops here and plenty of street snacks impaled on sticks (meatballs, dried squid, barbecue chicken) to keep visitors happy.

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    But the real culinary powerhouse of Nong Khai is a diminutive woman named Chi, the namesake proprietor of Chi Kum Man Tong, a small restaurant on a side street that serves several varieties of northern Thailand’s beloved som tum (papaya salad) and a handful of noodle dishes. While noodles aren’t exactly hard to come by in Thailand, Chi makes a dish that’s virtually impossible to find out of Chiang Khan: dong daeng.

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    Essentially Thai spaetzle, dong daeng are thick, short fermented rice flour noodles extruded from a small metal press and boiled to-order. The noodles themselves are a variation of kahnom jeen, a type of fresh, skinny fermented rice noodle you’ll see all over Thailand.

    Chi, a Chaing Khan native, claims to have invented dong daeng—named after the “dancing” motion the noodles make as they cook—some ten years ago, adapting a family recipe that called for bite-sized noodle balls nicknamed “gai muah,” or “chicken heads.” When Chi’s shop started drawing crowds, it took her too long to make the gai muah to order, so she developed the tubular dong daeng instead, which are more efficient to make.

    After the noodles are boiled, they’re tossed, along with a handful of fresh mountain greens, into Isaan’s ubiquitous mortar and pestle and mixed with garlic, chilis, limes, fish sauce and crushed peanuts. The finished product, served room temperature, is a wonderland of flavor and texture: the thick, chewy noodles are offset with crisp-tender greens, and the slight sourness of the noodles dovetails neatly with the tangy juice from the tomatoes and limes.

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    To round out a bigger meal at Chi’s, she borrowed some charcoal grilled meats from the barbecue man who sets up shop across the street in the afternoon: gai yang, chicken pounded flat and painted with a sticky-sweet fish sauce-and-garlic sauce; and miang plaa, a whole Mekong fish stuffed with fresh herbs and coated in coarse salt before cooking.

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    Chi prepared a beautiful selection of accouterments for the fish, including a tray of fresh lettuce and a platter of fresh kahnom jeen and sliced shallots, lemongrass, ginger, and garlic. The idea is to systematically eat the entire fish bite-by-bite, in individual lettuce wraps topped with a piece of each sliced accessory. It’s a lot of raw, strong flavors in a small package, but they work together beautifully, proof that even the simplest ingredients can come together as more than the sum of their parts.

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  • Laos Travels: A Guide To Laotian Noodle Soups

    [Photographs: Jamie Feldmar]

    Laotian food isn’t particularly well-known in the States. Many of the flavors are similar to those used in Northern Thai cuisine, but Lao fare tends to be more bitter, more earthy, and less spicy than the food of its neighbors. Still, there’s a lot to love, from the chopped meat salads known as laaps to the hearty meat-and-eggplant stew orlam.

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    Oodles of noodles on display at a market in Vientiene. Dried rice vermicelli at left, and three sizes of of rice-and-tapioca flour khao piak sen noodles, dusted with fresh flour, to the right.

    But the food you’ll encounter most often on the streets—in cities and one-street villages alike—are noodle soups, which are eaten mainly for breakfast and lunch. Noodle soups are their own galaxy here. The variety of noodles alone makes it possible to eat a different kind of noodle soup every day for a week without repeats, and the Lao love of condiments means that every table comes equipped with at least half a dozen different sauces/chilis/vinegars/pickled things to further customize your bowl. Here’s a look at some of the soups to seek out in Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Vientiane.

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  • 20,000 Miles Till Lunch: Finding Noodle Heaven in Shanxi Province

    [Photographs: Fiona Reilly]

    Editor’s Note: Welcome to the second installment of 20,000 Miles Till Lunch, in which Australian-born, Shanghai-based writer Fiona Reilly shares the sights and flavors she encountered during her family’s six-month road trip around China. Last time, we left Fiona; her husband, Matt; and their two daughters, Bella and Lily, in Inner Mongolia. Today, they pick up in northern China’s Shanxi Province.

    We enter Shanxi Province directly beneath the Great Wall. Not the imposing, gray-stone, crenellated portion marching across China north of Beijing and Tianjin, the Great Wall of history books and documentaries. This is the crumbling, rammed-earth section, eroded into a line of anthills along the northern border of Shanxi and punctuated every now and again by lumpy mounds that used to be garrison towers.

    Once we realize what it is, we stop and walk among the ruins. Lily looks disappointed. “There’s no luge,” she says.

    The Great Wall at Mutianyu, near Beijing, has a luge, a slim, silver, slippery dip that twists and curves and takes you all the way to the bottom at great speed, like a waterslide. Climb up, slide down, and repeat: one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments, transformed into an amusement park ride. Lily knows from personal experience that the luge runs much faster in winter, when the metal is cold and smooth, than in summer—we visit it often. But here in Shanxi, there are no ticket booths or souvenir sellers or chairlifts and luge rides. There’s just us, a few ancient grave mounds, some wild thyme and chives growing in the red earth, and the dilapidated wall.

    That night, we camp in a peach grove alongside the Wall. Nobody stops us. Locals stroll past for their afternoon tai qi. Some pause in the orchard to pick velvety green peaches for their soft, cream-colored pits, a delicacy we will later see on a restaurant menu, stir-fried with four-treasure vegetables.

    In the month since we set out from our home in Shanghai, every provincial border we’ve crossed has ushered in a new regional culinary tradition, with its own characteristics and tastes—there was Shandong, all light flavors and seafood; Tianjin, with its pickled and salted vegetables; Inner Mongolia and its abundance of mutton. And, while the plateau province of Shanxi is often heralded as the cradle of Chinese history, I’m most excited to explore its cuisine, known as jin cai—famous for its liberal use of locally produced aged vinegar, round breads and pastries called bing, and an extraordinary variety of noodles.

    The Wall isn’t far behind us as our RV rolls into Shanxi’s northern city of Datong. When we arrive, the big country town (population: 3 million) is in the throes of transformation: Construction workers are knocking down acres of tiled 1970s apartment blocks, ’80s shops, and ’90s offices, all destined to be replaced by gleaming housing developments, impressive bridges, and broad boulevards. The ambitious mayor believes Datong’s glory days as the former capital of the empire can be resurrected, so the city’s old quarter, its walls, gates, and gardens, are being entirely rebuilt. It’s a grand scheme, or will be once it’s finished, but for now, Datong is an enormous demolition site with piles of rubble, clouds of dust, vast expanses of featureless mud, and building after building marked “condemned” in red spray paint.

    It’s hard to imagine we’ll find any restaurants open amid the reconstruction. While our girls have gained an appreciation for Chinese food on this journey, they convince me and Matt to have lunch at Datong’s only “Western” restaurant, a fast food joint with a baroque-Victorian theme. The colorful laminated menu boasts milkshakes, pizzas, and cheesecake—a jarring contrast to the overstuffed ornate velvet sofas, the flocked wallpaper, the chandeliers, and the potted palms in each corner. Our Hawaiian pizza arrives in a deep dish, with eight red glacé cherries and chunks of canned pineapple embedded into its doughy, cheese-less surface, like a dreadful cherry-pineapple clafoutis. It comes with a side salad of fruit drizzled with mayonnaise. It’s a foregone conclusion that we won’t be back for dinner.

    And so, come evening, we head to the Phoenix Court, a 500-year-old dining institution housed within a Ming Dynasty mansion. The interior is lavish, replete with gilt phoenixes flying across the ceiling and heavy linen tablecloths draped over mahogany tables. Diners are discreetly concealed behind delicate carved wooden screens.

    While we enjoyed the simple, rustic lamb and soothing soups of Inner Mongolia, our first taste of Shanxi’s cuisine offers a welcome contrast in technique-intensive dishes and a breadth of new ingredients. The meal begins with a cold dish of finely grated strands of raw bottle gourd (also known as calabash), slim and long as noodles, coiled elegantly, turban-like, in a bowl of vinegar dressed with chilies and braised scallions. The vinegar clings to the smooth, slippery strands, as soft as real noodles. We follow with guo you rou, pork slices that are first fried and then braised, and the peeled kernels of baby green peaches, tender and pale like soaked almonds.

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    But we’re here for one thing above all else: The region’s shaomai are renowned for their delicacy, and the restaurant has been honing and perfecting theirs since 1518. Our order doesn’t disappoint. The rich, smooth pork filling is wrapped in skins thin as tissue paper, the edges gathered and ruffled like peach blossoms. We dip the dumplings in the region’s namesake condiment, a dark, aged grain vinegar that delivers tang with layers of sweetness and malt.

    For dessert, we share a steamed millet pudding surrounded with soft jujubes, drowned in a luscious syrup of sea buckthorn berries. The soft, pale yellow millet has a faint nutty flavor, enriched by the honey sweetness of the date-like jujubes and the pop of the deep orange sea buckthorn berries. Known in Chinese as shajishu, the berries are about the size of plump peppercorns and grow wild all over Shanxi. They’re sweet and a little tart, with the rich taste of ripened apricot. For a Chinese dessert, it’s unusual in its sweetness and decadence.

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    Buoyed by the experience, we slow our drive southward through Shanxi, stopping briefly on our way out of Datong to buy some Shanxi vinegar of our own. The black-hued vinegar is the province’s best-known food export, and it makes its way into almost every one of Shanxi’s regional dishes. But in the tiny supermarket, I’m immediately overwhelmed. I quickly discover that “Shanxi vinegar” is little more than an umbrella term for a vast suite of grain vinegars—the shelves are crowded with bottles of dumpling vinegar, noodle vinegar, vinegar for seafood, aged vinegar, and even small bottles of “health tonic” vinegar. (“But if your health is good, you can also use it for dumplings!” the lady in the shop tells me.) It’s a far cry from the limited selection of bottles I remember buying at specialty stores back home in Australia; in retrospect, little more than crude attempts at the refined and complex real deal. Eventually, I settle on two small bottles of high-quality dumpling vinegar (about a dollar each) and a boxed set of assorted vinegars, taking tiny sips of each bottle, like Alice in Wonderland, to ascertain their properties and tastes.

    We meander south to the provincial capital, Taiyuan, through fields of sunflowers and corn and villages with rows of neat redbrick houses with amber or jade glazed roofs. Taiyuan buzzes with the energy of a big frontier town, with wheeled conveyances of every kind—bicycles, motorbikes, tray-back tricycles, and three-wheeled passenger carts, like human sardine cans on wheels. Cars, trucks, buses, and semitrailers all compete with us for road as pedestrians weave themselves into the remaining spaces.

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    We’re richly rewarded at Taiyuan’s night market, an open labyrinth of smoke-filled streets and lanes, alive with color and wonderful aromas. We feast on shí tou bǐng (stone cakes)—cornmeal cakes filled with sweet red bean paste and baked on a griddle, with heated pebbles or iron ball bearings indenting their surface. The crisp exterior and toasty corn contrast with the starch-sweet deep purple filling. On a side street, we eat grilled skewers of fatty lamb and ròu bǐng, flaky sesame-crusted pastry rounds stuffed with ground pork and lamb fat seasoned with pepper.

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    The girls may be resistant to some Chinese specialties, but our whole family is unanimous in its love for Chinese noodles. In Shanxi, noodles are idolized and celebrated—we encounter dozens of varieties. There are tiny triangular “cat ear” noodles, each one pressed flat by a thumb, its edges curling inward. I watch a row of chefs make willow leaf noodles with gently tapered ends, cutting the noodles to shape with long brass scissors. When I later taste them, served in pork sauce with yellow beans and green bean pickles, they are smooth, with a perfect chewy bite. I eat them alongside tiny macaroni-like noodles with a rich tomato and garlic sauce, reminiscent of Italian passata, and for a moment I forget I’m in Taiyuan and not Rome. My favorite are the knife-cut noodles, shaved from a block of dough right into the boiling pot and served with a hearty vegetable ragout. We try as many kinds of noodles as the days allow.

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    But there is one very particular type of noodle on our list, and we head to the historic walled Ming Dynasty town of Pingyao to find it. At the end of a long colonnaded drive lies the imposing 600-year-old dark stone city wall; it’s a scorching August day, and the wall radiates additional heat of its own. At each point of the compass, ancient barbican gates protect the city from intruders, including our hulk of a camper van, so we enter the walled city on foot. Dark stone mansions with gracefully upturned eaves line the streets, their roofs ridged with rows of curved black tiles. Glazed terra-cotta dragons in imperial yellow, jade green, and cerulean blue march across the ridges of each roof. Red lanterns hang from the gables, like apples on strings.

    With no place to camp inside the walls, we stay in a Ming-era mansion turned hostel, a stone structure with a black terra-cotta roof. The four of us step over the heavy wooden threshold that protects the house from evil spirits and ghosts and into a light-filled central courtyard, surrounded by an elegant arrangement of three double-storied wings.

    “Good choice, Mum!” says Bella. I’ve been phoning hostels from the road, trying to find one with a family room large enough for four. Our room faces the courtyard, and the entire far side is occupied by a long kang bed, an earth platform heated from below by a small stove in the wintertime.

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    In Pingyao, the refined jin cai of Taiyuan and Datong has been replaced by simpler country fare, but that’s what we’re here for. Specifically, for oat noodles. Oats are a staple crop in Shanxi, and they end up in a variety of different noodle dishes. We’re intent on trying steamed shanxi youmian, flattened noodles that are rolled into short tubes and stood on their ends for an unusual, honeycomb-style presentation.

    Out in the cobbled streets, there’s a tiny open-air noodle restaurant serving cold beers and hot oat noodles. A steamer basket full of honeycomb shanxi youmian noodles arrives, alongside a small bowl of rich, thick tomato-and-garlic sauce. The vendor, a middle-aged man with steam-tinted spectacles, explains, “You peel off the noodles one at a time with your chopsticks and dip them in the sauce.” They look coarse and heavy, like whole-wheat pasta, but have a surprisingly light texture, each noodle thin as handmade paper. The oats give the noodles a mild nutty taste, and the sauce provides a vibrant counterpoint. Every sauce-draped noodle is a perfect single bite.

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    Seeing how much Matt and the girls have enjoyed the first steamer, he offers another, but this time dry-fries the noodles with plenty of garlic, onion, chili, and a little cumin—a local dish known as ganbian kao lao lao. He brings Bella and Lily frosted bottles of golden-orange sea buckthorn juice, cracking the tops with a bottle opener hitched on the string of his apron.

    “Wow,” I say, slugging an icy beer as the girls down their juice and hit up the vendor for one last round of honeycomb noodles.

    “Noodle heaven?” Matt asks.

    “Noodle heaven,” I reply.

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  • Don’t Put Your Hand in the Noodle Machine: Notes From Ramen School in Osaka

    [Illustrations: Zac Overman]

    Toranoana Ramen School
    Osaka, December 2013

    Some people use a sledgehammer at work. The rest of us, particularly the guys, figure that if it ever came down to it, we’d be pretty good at swinging one.

    That’s what I was thinking when Miyajima-sensei handed me a bag of bloody pork leg bones and a sledgehammer and told me to go to town. We were busting up bones before throwing them in the pressure cooker to make stock for tonkotsu ramen.

    This was my moment.

    Sam Evans and I were the only two students spending the day at Rikisai Miyajima’s cooking school in Osaka. Miyajima placed a sheet of plastic on the concrete floor. I put a single bone on the plastic and raised the sledgehammer over my head. I brought it down, and the bone went flying. Miyajima replaced the bone, and this time I nailed it, dead-on. Just not very hard. Finally, after a few more blows, the bone gave way, exposing its rich marrow. Just two dozen bones to go.

    Luckily, Sam, a brawny yet baby-faced 24-year-old from Manchester, England, was on hand. After initially wrinkling his nose at the pork carnage, he took up the sledgehammer and dispatched the remaining bones without breaking a sweat. Sam was, at the time, living the dream of the young gaijin (Westerner) in Japan, writing for an expat magazine. I lost count of how many times that day he described something as “fookin’ great.”

    Sam was in Osaka to write a magazine article. I was there on a research mission. I’d written a book about Japanese food (Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo), but I felt like there was so much more to say, particularly about ramen, which I’d been eating more often than is clinically advisable since I first encountered the good stuff at a little noodle shop in Hawaii when I was 11.

    So I decided to write a book about ramen. Which meant, of course, going to ramen school in Japan.

    From the outside, the cooking school looked like a ramen shop. Inside, it also looked like a ramen shop: a counter with a few stools. Miyajima ran his own ramen-ya for years before health concerns led him to retire, sort of, and work as hard as ever training the next generation of chefs.

    Along with pork bones, Miyajima likes to use chicken feet in his stock to add gelatin, and therefore body. “The nails make the soup cloudy,” he explained, as he pulled out a big bag of chicken claws and started clipping off the nails with a standard drugstore clipper. “Here, you take over.”

    “Oh, Jesus Christ,” said Sam, clearly disgusted, as he stepped back. So, I pedicured a pile of chicken feet, just like they teach you in beauty school.

    We dumped the pork bones and chicken feet into Miyajima’s pressure cooker, which holds over 100 gallons and can make a batch of tonkotsu broth in 90 minutes, instead of the hours or days that it takes in an unpressurized pot. Once it’s finished, the residual pressure in the pot is used to force the broth through a filter and into a hose. When chefs see Miyajima’s pressure cooker, they want it. When they hear it costs $20,000, they reconsider.

    With the stock cooking away inside its pressurized cocoon, Miyajima showed us how to make a simplified clear broth with ground chicken and pork. It’s easy to do at home, and the process is a little gross, which means kids will love it. Making the broth requires kneading water into a bowl full of ground meat until it gets sludgy. The broth is then simmered briefly with aromatic ingredients. The protein in the meat clarifies the broth, which comes out beautiful and golden; the meat, having done its job, is discarded.

    Into the Noodle Factory

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    Now, with two broths simmering, we headed upstairs to the noodle factory, where Miyajima introduced us to the electric noodle machine. Most ramen shops that make their own noodles have a similar machine: a hopper with a beater for mixing the dough, which then passes through a pair of rollers and onto a take-up reel, just like in an old-fashioned tape deck, but with more carbs. Then you unspool the roll of dough through a noodle cutter. Miyajima showed us a series of noodle cutters in different thicknesses: a narrow one for making Fukuoka-style noodles, an ultra-thick one for making dipping noodles, and sizes in between for Tokyo- and Hokkaido-style noodles.

    The machine is not fully automated: You often have to reach in with your hands to guide the dough around its obstacle course, and that’s what made me nervous. The ramen shop down the street from me in Seattle has one of these machines, nearly identical to Miyajima’s. One day, a noodle maker got her arm caught in the machine, pierced by one of the protrusions on the kneading axle. To make matters worse, the machine was set up in the front window of the restaurant to lure in customers with the promise of house-made noodles. So, for over an hour, people gathered around snapping photos of this crucified employee while paramedics tried to free her. Eventually they disassembled the machine and took her to the trauma hospital, with her arm still skewered by the metal spike.

    The noodle maker recovered and went back to work. But her near-dismemberment underscores the fact that noodles are by far the trickiest part of making ramen. I told Miyajima that I was planning to visit a noodle factory in Sapporo. “Ah, Nishiyama Seimen,” he said. “Nishiyama-san will tell you that the best noodles come from a factory, but a lot of shops make their own. House-made noodles are a selling point.”

    “Do you think Nishiyama-san is right about factory noodles?” I asked.

    “Yes,” said Miyajima, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

    When people go to ramen school, though, they want to learn to make noodles. So he measured all-purpose flour into the hopper of the noodle machine and added salt and kansui, an alkalinizing agent similar to baking soda.

    To me, kansui is what makes ramen ramen. How do ramen noodles stay bouncy in boiling hot broth? Kansui. Noodles made with too much kansui (a common problem) have a soapy taste, a rubber-band texture, and a Yellow Dye No. 5 hue. Noodles made with too little kansui (less common, but equally annoying) roll over and die between your teeth instead of biting back.

    Miyajima added water to the flour mixture in the hopper and started the mixing rotor. As the machine beat the water into the flour, pockets of yellow began to appear. Kansui at work! Long before the mixture resembled dough, however, Miyajima pronounced it finished. Ramen noodle dough is very dry. It’s like pie dough: If you add water until it comes together in a ball, it’s too wet. It will stick to the machine, stick to itself, and fall apart in the soup. Properly mixed ramen dough looks like coarse, pale yellow sand.

    Miyajima lifted the hopper and dumped the shards of dough onto the chute that led to the steel rollers. The dough enters the rollers as a moist powder and comes out a beautiful sheet. You run it through a few times to knead it, then set the rollers to the desired thickness, grab the dough’s tail as the rollers release it, and feed it onto the take-up spool. The result is a roll of dough like a bolt of cloth, so dry that the layers remain separate.

    Next, we fed the spool of dough into the cutter. The cutter slices the dough lengthwise into noodles of the desired width, but it also slides a knife across the noodles periodically, cutting them to proper noodle length. As the noodles emerge onto a conveyor belt, the maker has to reach in, grab each skein of noodles, fold it with a smart flip of the wrist, and place it in a plastic box. Some noodles fell on the floor. Nobody lost a finger.

    Noodles are best after aging for a day or two. This ensures that they’re evenly hydrated, and gives the kansui more time to work. But we wanted to eat our own noodles, so we sent them downstairs in a dumbwaiter. This was the first time I’d ever used a dumbwaiter. When I was a kid, I read a book in which a child got stuck in a dumbwaiter, and I added dumbwaiters to my list of preposterous fears (quicksand, rattlesnakes). Well, dumbwaiters are awesome. I want to install one in my single-story apartment.

    Time for Lunch

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    Back downstairs, we retrieved our noodles from the dumbwaiter and began prepping our lunch. Miyajima heated two bowls by filling them with boiling water and then dumping it out. Then he added pork fat, shio tare, and hot clear broth to each. Tare (pronounced to rhyme with the first half of “Hare Krishna”) is a flavoring base, and the shio tare in this case was simply a concentrated mixture of salt and water. Why not simply add salt when making the broth? Flexibility. This way, you can make multiple types of ramen from the same broth by adding a different tare, such as shoyu (soy sauce) or miso.

    We boiled the noodles for about one minute. I was tasked with standing by the pot with a large bamboo skimmer, watching Miyajima’s cute eggplant-shaped kitchen timer count down. My task: when the timer beeped, scoop up the noodles and drop them into a colander without leaving any behind or dumping the whole mass onto the floor. Unlike with the sledgehammering, I nailed this assignment. Miyajima portioned out the noodles, giving each bundle a little flip with his chopsticks so the strands would align in the bowl. (This is done purely for aesthetics, which is a good thing, because I’ve tried to execute this flip a dozen times now and still haven’t figured it out.)

    And that was our lunch: fat, salt, broth, noodles. Ramen in its Platonic form. Sam and I slurped our noodles and drank the broth until it was gone. The soup was salty and meaty, but still clean-tasting and light. Despite the addition of a literal spoonful of grease, it didn’t taste greasy. Honestly, it reminded me of chicken-flavor Top Ramen, similarly unadorned but made with high-quality ingredients and care. (Later that day, we drained the pressure cooker and made two versions of tonkotsu ramen.)

    Ramen school changed me, but perhaps not for the better. I sometimes make ramen at home (with store-bought noodles), but when I eat it at restaurants, I’m pickier. Is the broth salty enough even after the noodles have been dropped in? If the noodles are house-made, are they any better than Sun Noodle’s excellent frozen product? What would Miyajima-sensei think?

    I also learned that the world of ramen is a lot more complex and expansive than I ever knew. I’ve had many more ramen-fueled adventures in Japan since my day at Miyajima’s academy…but I still haven’t written that ramen book.

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