Trekking through the cold and windy showers of an April morning, one hungry and hopeful foodophile dreamed of the tranquil and tepid setting of Japan, as I descended upon Dublin’s South King Street to learn all about Japanese ramen.
Situated below ground level, right beside the side entrance to Dublin’s St. Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre, lies the UK-founded Japanese ramen restaurant, Wagamama. This particular branch has been around for quite a number of years, followed in time by various other Irish locations - Blanchardstown, Dundrum, Cork and Belfast.
Madrid-born Juan Manteca is one of the top (ra)men in the know in Ireland, currently serving as head chef of the Dublin City Centre restaurant, but having spent time in Cork and Belfast. He is also a Group Trainer for the chain and was introduced as a guide for the morning, delivering a master class which has seen Olympians and superstar Irish athletes learn the same skills and knowledge about to be imparted upon our lucky, little group of food writers.
Ramen is a Japanese noodle dish, served in the traditional, now iconic, ‘donburi’ bowl. It consists of a healthy portion of ‘Chukamen’ noodles served with a meat or vegetable broth and various toppings of choice, and the key attribute of this historic dish of Japan, though it's origins lie in China, is the ‘slurp’.
Ramen is designed and expected to be slurped, and with 95 billion portions eaten around the world annually – that’s a whole lot of slurping, though thankfully it’s not all at the same time.
Juan dove a little deeper, explaining the various types of ramen, which are based upon the broth used; there’s varieties of salt, soy, miso and Tonkotsu, a cloudy, white broth flavoured with pork bones. Juan explained that, like any soup or stew, the stock is the most pivotal part of the ramen recipe, and is cooked for at least seven hours, if not overnight, to achieve the best flavour. He offered an expert tip that pork trotters and leg bones give the best pork stock flavour, while a whole chicken is best for a traditional chicken stock.
Different meats appear in different ramen, though pork and chicken are the most popular as they are the most widely eaten meats in Japan. Though the Irish have an ear to the ground for a bargain and are certainly ones for getting the best value out of a cheap meal, ramen is not meant to be overloaded. When choosing toppings, it’s best to choose for flavour and what works well together, rather than all-you-can-eat.
Every ‘Ramen-ya’, that’s a Japanese Ramen restaurant to you and I, has it's own variation on the theme, it’s own recipe for ramen - often kept super secret and handed down through generations. Though some other-worldly tasting recipes are unfortunately shrouded in mystery, the beauty of ramen is the adaptability. Whatever broth, type of noodle and combination of toppings you choose can be as modern and unique or as traditional as you wish, making it the perfect dish to experiment with at home.
Then came the fun part, each attendee was presented with their very own name tag and Wagamama uniform in order to get behind the kitchen counter and see how the restaurant really operates. Each of us had the opportunity to ask questions, taste any ingredients and learn the fast and technical steps of ramen making, before embarking upon our own service and creating a signature ramen each.
Being at the other side of the pass was a completely new experience to me and served to highlight just how much skill, thought and timing goes in to every dish, and the oft overlooked ramen could very well be the toughest of all to get correct.
Inspired by the fusion on that very morning of Irish and Japanese cultures, I choose to take traditional Irish chicken and ham to the East. My ramen consisted of a pork and chicken broth, lovingly prepared by Juan through the night before our master class, which I adapted by stirring in a teaspoon of spiced, earthy miso paste.
A bed of noodles and blanched beansprouts sat within the broth, topped with pre-baked ham (medium slices and full of salty goodness) and thick slices of freshly grilled chicken, marinated in white pepper, sesame oil and ground cumin to create a fiery orange colour.
Still fusing the East and West, some delicious Irish Dillisk seaweed, shredded cucumber and bright baby watercress were my only toppings, the dish finished with a brightly coloured fishcake and a salt, pepper and sesame seed sprinkle.
Wholesome and healthy, ramen is a balanced meal as it includes protein, carbohydrates and vegetables, as well as a host of vitamins and minerals. The recipe uses little oil or fat, and for the extremely health conscious, the fat content of your stock can be adjusted by spooning out during or after cooking.
Feel ravenous for ramen? Wagamama are having a #RamenRevolution from Tuesday June 4th for an entire month, with special ramen recipes on offer, as well as competitions both in-store and online for the month. Tips and advice on ramen will be available too, as the restaurant try to encourage customers to try new versions and fusions of modern ramen.
Ramen recipes from Wagamama, ready to recreate at home, on RTÉ Food: